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Service learning spreads to every undergrad college

Susan Serra, service-learning coordinator: “If you help out at Emmaus House two days a week, that’s volunteering. If you study homelessness in your course, that’s learning. Faculty-directed reflection on your experience in the community through your course work is service learning.” Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

2:52 p.m., May 26, 2006--Dick J. Wilkins Jr., a UD mechanical engineering professor, asks his honors students to apply engineering method to volunteering.

Engineering method? It is the engineer's distinct way of looking at a task--the way to achieve the best change in a situation using the available resources.

Each year, Wilkins asks each student to apply engineering methods to some task that helps others--picking trash out of the White Clay Creek or fashioning a presentation for a nonprofit organization.

Some engineer a complete redesign of a task. Others just sign up more volunteers to do the same task--what engineers call “the multiplier effect.”

Although he's been asking students to volunteer in his honors classes for years, Wilkins jokes that he didn't have a word to describe what he was doing until UD's Office of Service Learning opened last October.

Service-learning courses, sprouting on campuses across the country, combine academic study with service. Students study an issue, volunteer in a related area, and a faculty member leads them through a review of what they've learned on site and on campus. This year, every undergraduate college sponsored at least one such course.

Susan Serra, service-learning coordinator, explained it this way: “If you help out at Emmaus House two days a week, that's volunteering. If you study homelessness in your course, that's learning. Faculty-directed reflection on your experience in the community through your course work is service learning.”

UD’s Office of Service Learning, coordinated by Susan Serra, is located at 12 West Delaware Ave. It provides resources for established service-learning classes and for faculty who have new ideas for a course. Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Eugene Matusov, an associate professor of education, started a program to mentor students at Wilmington's Latin American Community Center that he said wound up eliminating tension between Puerto Rican and Mexican children there, thanks to a gifted UD student.

Matusov's course matched education students with children at the center. The idea, he said, was to move from a semantic notion of what it is like to be a teacher to a much more realistic hands-on situation, but still under the guidance of a professor.

Amy Spencer, a senior education major, found the boys at the center were well-integrated, but there was obvious hostility between Mexican and Puerto Rican girls. She spent more than the required hours designing a program to help allay the tension. The older girls began relying on their former enemies, and the younger girls took their cue from the older ones.

“She did absolutely terrific work,” Matusov said. “I didn't expect her to do her work so well. She made such a difference in such a short time.”

Spencer said she never expected to encounter the roadblock she found at the center. “I knew that I had article readings lined up to help me along the way, and I knew that if I needed something, I could go to Mrs. Serra or Dr. Matusov, my faculty adviser. I expected a smooth-sailing relationship with the organization and the children in attendance there, but nothing's ever smooth sailing.”

When she found friction, Spencer organized the 11- and 12-year old girls into a group that mimicked a sorority.

“The older girls often fought each other, and I felt that meaningful activities would help them work through some of their problems,” Spencer said. “The girls also showed a lot of interest in college life, and the sorority idea gave them a tie to college life. We set up committees and positions like events committee, service committee, secretary--then we came up with ideas for activities that would be fun for us, but still help the center. Our most successful idea was a penny carnival that raised money for a little boy who was hit by a car outside the center.“

Matusov said the volunteer work gives students one thing most new graduates don't have--experience. “They're coming out with much more realistic skills rather than this kind of romantic approach that very often crashes within a few weeks,” he said.

Bernard L. Herman, Edward and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Art History, said, “It's too easy to create a disconnect between the world of the university and the world the university inhabits.”

Physical therapy gard student Sarah Caldwell leads an armchair yoga class for residents of the Marydale Retirement Village in Newark. Photo by Kevin Quinlan
To combat that, last fall Herman and LuAnn De Cunzo, associate professor of anthropology, led students in collecting oral histories from African-American families who live near the Newark campus. The group is compiling a book of family recipes, stories and poems.

“The effect of Bernie's class surprised me,” Gwen Stewart, senior art conservation major, said. “It was originally an assignment, yes, but it has become so much more than that. I really loved talking to the gentleman I interviewed. I really connected with him. The thing about a memory book is how much meals and food are connected with memories. It was more than just food. It was an integral part of their lives.”

Stewart said she plans to make a similar book based on her own family near Houston.

Paula M. Geigle, a member of the supplemental faculty in physical therapy, imagined a program that gave students in the doctor of physical therapy program a chance to practice what they've learned and help others.

With help from the Office of Service Learning, Geigle placed students at Center of Hope, Jeanne Jugan and Marydale Retirement Village in Newark. Students teach seated yoga and seat aerobics to older people, perform gait screenings, and talk to parents about childhood obesity. They collected toys for the children at Center of Hope.

UD's physical therapy department has long been involved in community service, and Geigle said students are required to perform 32 hours of service, but the segue from simple community outreach to service learning meant added reflection on that service.

Geigle said students are gaining an integrated clinical experience and practicing specific physical therapy techniques and their patients are receiving free physical therapy.

“It's a win-win for both groups,” she said. “Sue [Serra] has been just wonderful and very supportive as afar as giving me guidance on how other professional programs have intertwined service learning, and we're hoping to do a bit more with the Office of Service Learning. Sue has helped me align the service-learning concept with the philosophy statement of the physical therapy department.”

The finance department is stepping into service learning with an experimental internship class that looks promising after one semester.

Students in an individual and family studies service-learning class at UD recruited 75 volunteers for a local Down syndrome Buddy Walk, participated in the event and conducted a separate fund-raiser at Cold Stone Creamery on Main Street in Newark to raise money for Down syndrome research.
Paul A. Laux, department chairperson, said two students are producing public relations material for the Register of Chancery's office, focusing on communicating the intricacies of guardianship and trusts to the public.

“They're sort of working on the retail end, if you will, of the court's business,” Laux said. “The nice thing about it is they're going to end up with a product at the end of one semester that will make a difference.”

Undergraduates in two courses in two different concentrations within the Department of Individual and Family Studies--“Domestic Violence Services,” taught by Ruth Fleury-Steiner, associate professor, and “Professional Issues in Early Childhood Development,” taught by Cynthia Paris, assistant professor--engaged in service-learning advocacy work that has benefited infants, children, adolescents, families and their communities.

“Their work went well beyond normal course work,” Fleury-Steiner said. “The students worked for causes in the community that mattered deeply to them. For example, they collected 55 cell phones and 35 chargers for the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence and contacted state and federal legislators about several pieces of legislation related to domestic violence."

Other service learning projects fanned students out into the community, too. Sherry L. Kitto, professor of plant and soil science, led students who designed signs for the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington. Rebecca Worley, assistant professor of English, led her business communications students in preparing conference reports and surveys for nonprofit organizations. Other courses were orchestrated in education, English, psychology, geography and hotel, restaurant and institutional management.

Kitto called the service-learning project transformational for her students. “They want to be able to go out there and talk to people who are out there in jobs and discuss what it's like to be in a job,” she said. “I want them to appreciate that you don't have to do 40 hours of volunteering a week but there are different ways that you can help your community.”

Article by Kathy Canavan

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