March 31, 2009

Conference Promotes Service-Learning at C.U.

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“Picking up trash on a riverbank is service. Studying water samples under a microscope is learning. When science students collect and analyze water samples, document their results, and then present their findings to a local pollution control agency — that is service-learning,” according to the national youth leadership conference, and a sentiment that is embodied within Cornell Active Civically Engaged Scholars’ second annual service-learning conference held Saturday in Willard Straight Hall, which was attended by around 50 to 70 people.
Cornell ACES was formed last year in an effort to bring students interested in service-learning together in order to discuss the problems and successes of their prospective organizations. The conference was expanded this year to include not just Cornell. It was broadened to include panelists from Bridges to Community, Cover Africa, Binghamton University Group, SUNY Courtland Office of Service Learning Center, REACH, and Cornell faculty, among others.
“One of the reasons we all came together in the beginning was that a lot was going on but nobody was sharing what was going on between groups,” said Lauren Wein ’09, co-organizer of the conference. “We try to increase communication between groups to discuss funding, planning dealing with the administration, and syllabus planning. At the same time our main goal is to increase the amount of service-learning courses that are offered [at Cornell].”
The Cornell Public Service Center, which co-sponsored the conference, currently lists at least 60 service-learning classes at Cornell. These classes focus on meaningful service that engages students and promotes a deeper link to their curriculum through well-developed programs and reflection. service-learning classes place the lesson in the context of the real world outside of the classroom.
One of the benefits of this type of service is that it builds good relationships between the people involved and the community in which they are working. Either way the standard for a service-learning course is very fluid, “There is no standard for what a service-learning course is. There is a big problem with information and how [ACES] gets that information out there to other students,” Wein said.
Dispersing information is not the only problem service organizations are facing, Wein said of her service trip to Nicaragua that “Finding administration support is difficult, it takes a lot of time out of their day, there is the risk management side of it, figuring out the best way to keep everyone safe. Funding is difficult to come by, some service-learning programs are very institutionalized and have funding coming to them every year and others just don’t. It really depends on the program and now especially, because of the financial crisis, it is going to be harder to find that funding.”
In regards to the fundraising it took to go to Nicaragua, co-director of Bridges to Community Jeremy Phillips ’09 said, “Cornell Commitment gives money on a per student basis; if students are in Cornell Commitment, they can get individual funding, engineers can get individual funding, we got money from the SAFC, but an embarrassingly small amount. The Perkins Grant is pending. We also write grants through national organizations.”
Some contend that finding the money is not a matter of creating new sources, it is a matter of taking advantage of all of the available resources. Efrem Bycer ’09 said, “You don’t need a lot of financial resources; [service-learning] just shifts the aspect of learning on this campus and taking advantage of the resources that do exist.”
Another difficulty arises in finding the faculty support necessary to plan a service-learning trip.
“There is a fierce battle raging between service learning advocates and those that oppose it. A lot of institutions, Cornell included, as well as a lot of the Ivy League schools, don’t consider service-learning to be learning at all. The only service learning programs that exist are because faculty spearhead them,” Phillips.
Phillips added, “I get the sense that [service learning] is not considered scholarly enough; it is community service which is great, but I think the administration has the idea that it does not belong in the classroom.”
Regarding the problem with the distinction between volunteerism and service learning, said, “people who are not familiar with the field might associate service learning with volunteerism or community service, but [service learning] is very different because it must have a reflective component,” said Prof. Richard Kiely, city and regional planning, and creator of the Center for Teaching Excellence.
Kiely said, “The field has developed more consistent language and there have been numerous studies that compare traditional coursework with service learning coursework that document that the learning that comes from service learning is fairly advanced because people learn the theories and how to apply them in practice.”
Ultimately, the fate of service learning comes down to the ability to organize and to find resources that are willing to sponsor and support the program. Co-director of Bridges to Community Sally Dunst ’09 said, “Having well planned, effective syllabi will prove that we offer scholarly classes. There is hope with Obama’s Serve America Act, it was very positive, just the attitude towards [service] in America is positive.”