Students Get Hands Dirty in Service Learning Projects

GETTING THEIR HANDS DIRTY -- Students enrolled in the Social Responsibility class spend Monday and Wednesday mornings working in the Community Garden at USAO. The garden is a project of the Service Learning/Civic Engagement program at the college. Dr. Craig Elder, assistant professor of management, teaches the Social Responsibility class and has been instrumental in the development of the garden.

Students Get Hands Dirty in Service Learning Projects


Forget the assumption that people go to college to keep from getting their hands dirty. Helping the community – and getting dirty if necessary – is the aim of the Service Learning/Civic Engagement program at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

The mission of the Service Learning/Civic Engagement (SLCE) program at the college is "to inspire the next generation of Oklahomans to become social entrepreneurs, leaders who apply creative problem solving skills to address the needs of underserved populations in our communities.

"By enhancing interdisciplinary classroom instruction with innovative service-oriented projects and collaborative undergraduate research, the SLCE program facilitates durable learning and encourages a life-long commitment to civic engagement."

"The idea of Service Learning is that the most durable learning that we have comes from hands-on experience. What we try to do is put people into the community and have them do good work -- things that serve the greater public good -- and at the same time relate what they are doing to the learning objectives to whatever class they are taking," said Robert Edmondson, service learning coordinator at USAO.

"Not only is the student learning, but he or she is developing an ethic of civic responsibility by working in the community. It is our goal to develop an attitude of civic engagement that the student will carry with them outside of the college and for the rest of his or her life."

Nationally, service learning programs are active in secondary schools, universities, Native American tribes and community-based and faith-based organizations. The practice of service learning dates back much earlier than the term itself, beginning with educational movements and social change in the late 1880s.

The intellectual foundations of service learning in the United States trace back to the early 1900s with the work of John Dewey, William James and others who promoted models of “learning by doing,” and linked service to personal and social development.

The service learning program at USAO is part of the Mission Enhancement Plan adopted by the university in 2005.

Students at USAO can participate in service learning as part of classroom study or as an independent project. "We can integrate service learning into a class as a requirement or as an extra credit opportunity," Edmondson said.

"Another way to introduce it into a student's life is through an independent project where the student goes out and finds a project they want to work on that meets the requirement of service -- providing a service for the greater good. At the same time, associating what they are learning in the community with one of their classes.

"The independent project leaves the responsibility up to the student. We can give the student a list of community partners and the kind of help these organizations might be looking for and let the student decide what they would like to do. Independent projects might relate to their major -- things his or her faculty member might want them to develop." The service learning program at USAO has 25 community partners with volunteer needs.

Much of the structure of the service learning program at USAO has benefitted from the AmeriCorps VISTA program. "The AmeriCorps VISTA program is like the Peace Corps -- but the work of VISTA is in America. VISTA has a special mission to develop capacity, not just hands-on work, but to set up a system that will send other people out to do the work and develop a program long after the VISTA member is gone.

"As a new VISTA program, we applied for AmeriCorps VISTA through Campus Compact. The state organization asked for 15 slots for the state to develop a database for service opportunities, community partners and to promote student volunteers on campuses.

"Through VISTA, we set up a database, began to collect community partners and found out their needs. We did some pilot projects. In fact, the Community Garden was one of the projects developed thanks to AmeriCorps VISTA," Edmondson said.

Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and universities -- representing some 6 million students -- dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement and service learning in higher education.

"We believe that in an age of rapid social change and uneven economic growth, when those in southwestern Oklahoma in particular see increasing disparities in quality of life and opportunities, it is our responsibility to recall the founding principles of public higher education as a collective resource, an engine to promote the greater social good.

"We meet this obligation by developing collaborative relationships with individuals, agencies and institutions, matching the learning objectives of our courses with community needs and pairing USAO students with community partners for mutual gain," Edmondson said.

For more information about service learning, log onto the USAO Service Learning website at or contact Edmondson at 405-574-1321. Edmondson can also be reached by e-mail at