What is Service Learning?

Defining Service Learning Brent Skidmore's Crafting Community with Teens Class created this design in collaboration with Asheville Middle School students. The design will be used on a tote bag for Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, ASAP.

Service learning has undergraduates actively engage in well-organized direct service, projects and research in ways that respond to community-identified needs and enhance the wellbeing of people and places while allowing students to reflect and learn about the connections between their courses and their work.

Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students work primarily with non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, and other community-based groups on community problems or issues. That work can take several forms:

Service learning means that students provide a service that community members identify as a priority need or issue with work that is strongly tied to the academic content of their courses and discipline. An example is removing litter from a river, studying why the river gets polluted, developing a plan for keeping the river clean (based on coursework or research), and then studying the impact of the plan, if it is implemented. (Of course, taking all of these steps might involve multiple semesters of work.)

Service means that students work in the community on issues that community members identify as priorities, without strong connections to academic material. An example is removing litter from a river.

Learning means that students go into the community to observe and sometimes take action, but with an emphasis on their gaining experience and knowledge, as opposed to providing a service the community needs. An example is students observing a community group as it tries to determine the sources of river pollution and potential solutions. Oftentimes, but not always, internships fall into this category.

Long-term service learning partnerships

Students are often considered only for short-term work, but research shows that some of the most valuable service learning for the community and students occurs in long-term partnerships. Students’ work in such partnerships can range from enhancing environmental sustainability to studying effectiveness of programs to help people who are homeless. On such projects, which are often facilitated by faculty members in a course, students’ work can include:

  • Library research (e.g., searching in academic journals for state-of-the-art knowledge about the causes of or solutions to an issue or problem; providing a report)
  • Field research (e.g., collecting data on an issue or problem; investigating whether something an agency is doing is working well; providing a report or results)
  • Historical investigations (e.g., researching/documenting the history of an issue, place, community, organization, person, or group of people)
  • Promotion (e.g., writing about a group's efforts; marketing; helping agencies or groups figure out how to publicize themselves)
  • Business activities (e.g., helping with some aspect of management, accounting and so forth)
  • Artistic work (possibilities abound, including doing commissioned pieces of art for an office or a community; creating and/or doing dramatic works based on the experiences of people)
  • Internet/Multimedia/Design (e.g., helping design or redesign a webpage, creating a logo)
  • Grant writing or research on a topic for a grant
  • Other consultation (helping citizens or groups figure out priorities, problems or issues)
  • Software: Helping groups come up with new programs, working on a database.

Why service learning?

There are multiple reasons -- but to boil it down, it provides a win-win opportunity for you and the community. When you work with the community, you're doing something that can enhance the lives and well-being of Western North Carolina residents. You're also likely to learn more about the potential and limits of the academic theories you're encountering. Finally, you're doing something that builds connections and enhances your resume, making graduate school acceptance and employment more likely.