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Game plan needed to combine service learning, PTR, says speaker

by Gregory Hladky - June 23, 2008

Faculty members eager to combine classroom study with student experience in community service programs can translate their passion into promotions and tenure, according to experts in the field.

But Marybeth Lima, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at Louisiana State University, warns that tenure-track faculty need to have a detailed game plan for doing so.

Lima offered her advice during a conference on service learning at the Greater Hartford Campus June 12-13.

A recognized expert in service learning, Lima has gained national attention for having her students learn by doing through the design and construction of public school playgrounds in Baton Rouge.

She said her students learn very quickly that planning and building a playground to meet the different needs of preschoolers, elementary age kids, and children with disabilities is a remarkable engineering challenge.

Despite increasing acceptance of the service-learning concept around the nation, Lima said it isn’t easy for faculty at research-oriented universities such as LSU and UConn to fit their experience with student-community programs into tenure-track formulas.

She said the harsh reality is that, for faculty on the tenure track, time and effort spent on service-learning programs must be split into traditionally recognized categories such as research, publications, and getting grants.

Advocates of service learning must also try to win over those in the academic community who regard it as “touchy-feely stuff, ” she added.

Raising money can be another challenge, Lima noted.

“I need $30,000 to $50,000 [in grant money or donations] for every playground I build,” she said.

Lima said what keeps her going is her belief that equal access to safe, fun playgrounds is critical to the physical and emotional development of young children.

“Make sure you do things you’re passionate about,” she said.

She suggested that faculty interested in developing service-learning courses should seek advice from other educators around the nation working toward similar goals.

Lima and other speakers said an effort to combine traditional classroom studies with student community service can provide major benefits for everyone involved, including students, teachers, the communities, and the universities.

According to the keynote speaker, Nevin C. Brown, dismissive, old-line academic attitudes toward service learning programs are beginning to change.

“There’s been a real battle for a number of years on many campuses,” said Brown, who is president of the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership.

The IPSL is a worldwide association of universities, colleges, and nongovernmental organizations created to advocate service-learning programs.

Brown said there has been “a whole movement in recent years to redefine what scholarship really is” and to examine the “overall role of the university in the larger community.”

Ruth Glasser, a lecturer in urban and community studies at UConn’s Waterbury campus, said spending 12 hours a semester helping at local agencies has given her students a far better understanding of urban poverty.

“It does push you beyond your comfort zone in ways that are very, very good,” Glasser said.

Service learning existed at UConn in various forms long before the term itself was adopted by the educational establishment.

These included community-based internships, class projects, and research efforts that involved local partners. One such program was Urban Semester, directed by Louise Simmons, an associate professor of social work.

In 2004, a group of UConn faculty, administrators, staff, and students created a plan for a center for community and civic engagement.

After a committee was formally convened at the University to provide additional support for service-learning programs, an Office of Service Learning was launched at the Greater Hartford Campus in October 2007.

Wendy Pfrenger, an adjunct professor of English at UConn’s Greater Hartford Campus, told the conference that the “messiness of service learning” can inspire both students and their teachers.

This year, Pfrenger and her writing class became involved in an oral history project in Hartford and West Hartford. The students created multimedia presentations that brought them into close contact with members of the community.

She said the “clumsy nature of the project” contributed to its success by forcing those involved to examine their own attitudes and the difficulty of writing for a nonacademic audience.

Gregg Gorneault, a former student of Glasser’s who is now a program specialist with UConn’s urban and community studies program, said his experience at a community agency helping redevelop old industrial sites in Waterbury’s inner-city neighborhoods was a revelation.

“It was like discovering a whole new world,” he said. “Students gain so much out of service learning that they can’t get out of textbooks in class.”

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