Academic Learning at SMSU

Academic-based community service cuts across all disciplines

by Chrissy Bendel

Service-learning (academic based community service) includes an integration of theory, practice, reflection and an emphasis on civic engagement. There is some exciting, creative teaching going on right here at SMSU. Read on!

Professor Suzanne Black's Technical Communication students are working with a variety of community and campus organizations, offering their skills, under Black's supervision, in exchange for real experience working with clients. Partnerships are in progress for next semester's class that will allow students to complete projects for local non-profits who have need for grant writers, ad campaigns, business manuals, web designs, etc. Black feels that students gain interest and see meaning in doing "real-world" projects rather than a classroom exercise.

Through funds acquired from the MnSCU Center for Teaching and Learning Office, Geoff Cunfer (associate professor, rural and regional studies) is assisting Christine Olson (assistant professor, psychology) and BC Franzen (assistant professor, justice administration) with the development of GIS modules that will be integrated into their course instruction. Olson will work with Cunfer and staff at the GIS Center to develop a GIS module for her Community Psychology, a course that involves students in academic based community service experiences. Integration of the GIS module should enhance the technological skills of both students and faculty, allowing them to better engage in community based assets/needs assessment. This module, Olson hopes, will strengthen students' skills in accessing community needs.

During a 15-year break from teaching in higher education, Ellen Radel (assistant professor, wellness & human performance) worked in social services with low-income individuals who were in need of skills and hands-on experience. When Radel returned to teaching at SMSU seven years ago, she decided that "learning by doing" would be a major aspect of her style of teaching. Students in courses such as Concepts of School Health or Wellness, Safety, and Nutrition are trained by local school nurses to perform preschool vision and hearing screening. After training, students then go to schools and personally screen children. Students run a Rodeo event for 8-20 year-old public school special needs students, a Special Olympics day for lower-functioning mentally challenged adults and an informative Health Fair for the campus and community. Organizing such large events gives students the understanding not only of the processes and approvals they must get from administration, but also of the good they are capable of doing, even as students. Students learn from direct contact with mentally challenged individuals, the general public and children. Radel has found that involving students in real-world service activities fosters "an engagement you cannot avoid" with their coursework and with the individuals they serve. Radel holds "debriefing" class sessions where students actively process what they have learned from their experiences and connect the experiences to what they are learning in the classroom.

These and other professors at SMSU are making a conscious effort to incorporate aspects of service-learning (community-based learning, academic-based community service- however you'd like to say it!) into their courses. While it is not necessary that every class utilizes this form of experiential education, it is important to understand that service-learning cuts across all disciplines.