Service Learning is a service to all

John Dewey was a proponent of progressive education observed that students tend to learn and retain information more effectively when they learn through a cycle of action and reflection. His views differed significantly from the prevailing educational approach, which required students to absorb information and reproduce it for a test. He understood that learning and doing are immediately connected – allowing students to personally experience what they are learning greatly improves the quality of their learning experience. Education should be catered toward the student.

Pragmatism was first popularized by William James, pragmatists believe that teaching must be combined with action. In other words, book smarts isn’t enough. Education should drive the student to do something and become someone with the information that they receive. A pragmatic education will give the student an opportunity to apply their knowledge to real-world situations. While pragmatism also values understanding theory, traditional classroom concepts, it maintains that the theory must hold value. For pragmatists, there is no point in simply learning a set of rules.

When you combine the progressive and pragmatic learning styles you have service learning. A method of learning that combines classroom instruction with meaningful community service.

Examples of Service Learning:

Volunteerism – acts performed out of free will without expectation of recompense and is generally altruistic in nature.
Community Service – quite similar to volunteerism, the main difference being that it is said to “involve more structure and student commitment than do volunteer programs.”
Internship – provide students with more experience in various fields. Students gain a more measurable benefit from this aspect of service learning compared to volunteerism and community service.
Field Experience – Generally more materially beneficial to the student. Provide students with co‐curricular service opportunities that are related, but not fully integrated, with their formal academic studies.

Key Components of Service Learning

Identify a community need
The service learning is happening in a community. The needs of the community must be identified before performing the service learning, this allows for deeper thought into the broader impacts of the service and what the actions of the student’s means for those they are trying to help.

Curriculum implementation
Service learning must be integrated with the curriculum where there is a clear learning outcome and the learning experience from service learning will contribute to their curriculum. This is highly beneficial to students because they learn that knowledge is transferable form one situation to another. Such as designing a webpage for a non-profit (coding in HTML & CSS), going door to door for a political campaign (communication skills), or volunteering at an animal shelter (animal care skills).

Students must be prepared for the task of service. They must understand the importance of service learning, their responsibility towards a community, and the expectations towards the learning process. Having adequate understanding of these things will not only make the students better professionals, but better citizens. All professionals must be able to understand what their responsibility is toward the community that they are serving.

Systematic Reflection
Reflection between the curriculum and the student’s service experience. Reflection can happen before, during, or after the service learning process. The step allows for students to think critically about their experiences.

By learning and doing the service students will see responsibility to the community. They also identify their duty as a citizen to contribute to society and make it a better place for everyone. Their involvement enables students to understand their impact on society in a more meaningful way than just discussing it.


Service Learning in Higher Education and STEM

The core purpose of service learning is to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of the service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring. All four types of service learning can and should find their place in higher education, even high school education. In undergraduate education students are focused on getting internships and field experience for the purpose of becoming more marketable and getting a job after the completion of their baccalaureate degree.

The humanitarian opportunities within the sciences are often overlooked and undervalued in higher education. Engineers Without Borders is one program, Engineering Service Corps is another; sometimes the work requires travel outside of the country, other times it doesn’t. Engineers have useful skills that can be transferred across a wide variety of disciplines – so even if opportunity (or desire) to travel out of the country isn’t present, there are plenty of other ways an engineer’s skill set can be applied. I believe that service learning should be integrated into more throughout the structure of higher education in order to drive the point home, scientists and engineers do not work on problems in isolation that strictly affect an anonymous group of people. They have skill sets that can help people in their own communities if they are educated in how to apply them appropriately.
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