Integrate > Teaching for Sustainability > Connect to the World We Live In > Service Learning

Service Learning:
Connect Classroom Learning with Societal Issues

This page builds on ideas and outcomes from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012.

Service learning engages students in genuine problem-solving and brings their learning directly into their community. When emphasizing connections with societal challenges, service learning is a natural fit for students to forge working relationships with community partners and to embark on the complex, yet enriching, process of tackling real-world problems.

Pedagogic guidance for bringing service learning into your classroom

There are many benefits of service learning, including enhancing student learning and personal development while also providing benefits to other constituents. These advantages, among others, are discussed in the Service Learning module from Pedagogy in Action. This module contains pedagogic grounding in using the service learning method, ideas for classroom implementation, and examples of over 30 service learning projects from a variety of disciplines.

The On the Cutting Edge project explored the use of service learning in a geoscience context. As a result of a 2010 workshop, the module Service Learning in the Geosciences was produced. This module contains resources about project design, student motivation, assessment, and more than 35 geoscience examples of service learning projects.

What concepts or outcomes can be addressed using service learning?

Service learning is an effective means to teach about sustainability and to link classroom learning to community challenges.

Using service learning, students can:

  • see the relevance and tangible application of how concepts learned in class relate to society
  • develop an understanding of the research process from "big ideas" to experimental design to analysis
  • experience the complexity and unpredictability of engaging with real world problems
  • learn to synthesize, integrate, and infer relationships
  • develop independence and learn professionalism
  • understand the nature of non-unique solutions
  • be resourceful to solve challenges independently and creatively
  • develop "soft skills" in working with community partners
  • see themselves as relevant and empowered
  • improve motivation and take their work more seriously when they have a real client.
Read more about the benefits of service learning from Pedagogy in Action.

Effective strategies for teaching with service learning

Designing, executing and assessing a service learning project can be a complex process that is not without risks. However, you can take advantage of the wealth of experience, resources, and materials developed by other faculty.

  • Scale the project so that it is appropriate for the skill level of the students and the time frame allotted.
  • Have classroom content that dovetails with service learning activities.
  • Have students write about their activities in a journal, blog or web page as one mechanism for assessment.
  • Make use of expertise and resources from the community/stakeholders.
  • Have the class collectively participate in a research project from conception to completion.
  • Use scaled activities. These can be effective and increase student motivation. For example, there might be an expected level of effort for a course, but additional effort may lead to co-authorship of a paper.
  • Outsource research experiences in order to help manage faculty loads and broaden student experiences.
  • Use service learning successes to improve town-gown relations.

Opportunities to strengthen the use of service learning

A successful service learning project requires cooperation at many levels: from students, community partners, institutional administration, and departments. Thus, there are many pathways to creating a robust environment for service learning.

  • Develop partnerships with research institutions who have capacity to take on small student projects.
  • Seek out opportunities to integrate disciplines or create partnerships around a central theme (a water cycle mural project combining art and science, for example).
  • Convey to students why a research experience is important for them (e.g. a product to share with potential employers or graduate advisors).
  • Strengthen or create new outlets for presentation, sharing and publication of student research or products of service learning.
  • Make use of online services such as the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, which offers a search platform leading to thousands of service learning resources for all educational levels, including curricula, publications, assessment resources, and funding ideas.
  • Explore resources offered by Campus Compact, a national coalition that promotes public and community service and includes partnerships among more than 1,100 college and universities. The Campus Compact aims to help campuses forge effective community partnerships, and provides resources and training for faculty seeking to integrate civic and community-based learning into the curriculum.
  • Develop strategies and resources for teaching research skills.
  • Have students do the leg work to develop their own projects.
  • Develop mechanisms for connecting the faculty/class resources with community needs (matchmaking).
  • Pursue support from administration to address challenges and limited resources available to support student research.
  • Have coursework support research and work towards an integrated curriculum.
  • Communicate the value of student research projects to administration and peer colleagues (e.g. for promotion/tenure).
  • Develop a white paper on the importance of research and service learning in undergraduate education.
  • Create a virtual faculty mentoring program through an online forum or email list to share the experience.

Materials and Resources for Service Learning

See how other faculty are using service learning projects with these examples from a range of disciplines and learning environments.

Collections of service learning projects

Service learning example projects, from Pedagogy in Action, contains projects from the sciences, economics and education.
Service learning projects, from On the Cutting Edge, has examples from the geosciences.

Relevant materials from InTeGrate workshop participants

Essay: Service Learning in Interdisciplinary Courses - Maureen Padden, McMaster University
Activity: Service-Learning to Explore Sustainability - Tracy Lai, Seattle Central Community College

Courses that use service learning:

Other Service Learning Resources