Political science major Corey Stoglin scoured newspapers last fall to get up to speed on local issues for his Local Politics class. He attended City Council meetings, and even knocked on doors to support his preferred candidate in a council race. In the classroom, meanwhile, he learned about strong mayors versus weak mayors, municipal budgets, and Robert’s Rules of Order.
Stoglin’s combination of classroom work and community involvement is not unique on the UI campus. Several professors, inspired by the University’s Year of Public Engagement, are encouraging students to take traditional philanthropic and volunteer endeavors to a new level. In fall 2005, more than a dozen UI courses required students to get hands-on experience to help them learn concepts and theories taught in class—an approach to teaching called service learning. Such courses are available in areas as diverse as rhetoric, Spanish, education, and dentistry.
“I’ve always been interested in politics; this experience just reinforced that,” says Stoglin, a senior from Davenport interested in seeking public office. “By actually working on a campaign, you see the big picture of a city or community, and you see ways in which you can influence it.”
Instructors stress that service learning requires more from students than simply volunteering their time, however. Tarrell Awe Agahe Portman, associate professor of counseling and human development in the College of Education, has added a service-learning component to three courses.
“My students are not just supervising recess or reading books to kids, and the schools are not just helping the students meet a University requirement,” she says. “The students’ projects relate to class but are created at the discretion of the school, so it’s mutually beneficial for the student and the school.”
For instance, students in one counselor-education course helped an Iowa school district measure the need for an antibullying program. Others helped a district analyze information from 493 students about the effectiveness of its comprehensive school-counseling program.
“I’ve had students working in schools before—as observers. Now, it’s as participants,” Portman says.
Students say they appreciate the hands-on experiences. In the Tippie College of Business, Matt Kolpin and Matt Welch are putting textbook marketing concepts to the test for an honors project. John Solow, associate professor of economics, paired them with the owners of a new Iowa City restaurant who needed help reaching their target market.
“This is the first time we have taken the knowledge we learned in our marketing classes and applied it to a real-world experience,” says Kolpin, a senior from Mundelein, Ill.
Rex Honey, professor of geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, reports similar reactions from students in his Geography of Justice course, which examines the impact of the environment on social change and policy creation. In previous years, Honey took students on field trips to observe operations at various community organizations, such as the Iowa City Free Medical Clinic, to help illustrate concepts he was teaching. Now, his students work with the organizations. One student conducted a needs assessment for a local food bank, while others publicized a suicide-prevention curriculum in Iowa school districts.
The skills learned will reinforce course content and be invaluable in the job market, Honey says.
“For example, a needs assessment is something every nonprofit is required to do by its funding agencies, so if someone is going to get a job with a nongovernmental organization or even in the for-profit business sector, they will need to know how to do one.”
To teach faculty members how to successfully incorporate service learning into their curricula, the UI Center for Teaching hosted a weeklong seminar for 15 professors in the spring of 2005. With funding from the Office of the Provost, the center will offer a second program this spring.
Jean Florman, the center’s associate director, says it’s important that everyone participating understand that the level of a student’s involvement should exceed that of a traditional volunteer.
“We encourage the faculty and the students not to call themselves volunteers, because although there may be altruistic motives behind whatever work the student is doing, the community service is actually designed to be an integral part of the learning process,” she says. “Like a textbook, the service is one way for students to learn the material for the course.”
Honey’s community partners have been pleased, he notes. At least two decided to create student internships based on their involvement with the class.
“By and large, the reaction from community members who have participated in a project has been very, very good,” says Mary Mathew Wilson, coordinator of the University’s Civic Engagement Program, which connects students and faculty members with organizations that need volunteers or help with a project that could become part of a service-learning course.
University administrators also are encouraged and plan to continue to support the initiative.
“Service learning can sometimes mean more work for both the faculty and the students, but both find the work rewarding,” says UI associate provost Tom Rocklin. “Hard work that is meaningful and rewarding is exactly what the best education is all about.”
Stoglin agrees: “Service learning is an important part of a university education. I will always be a part of a community. I won’t be a commuter who is uninvolved in the city where I live or work.”
by Sara Langenberg