What Is Service Learning and How Does Century College Utilize This Learning Tool?

April 11, 2012

Service learning is a type of experiential learning that engages students in service within the community as an integrated aspect of a course.  Service learning is designed to get students into the community for active learning related to what they are studying in the classroom.  Effective service learning courses involve students in course-relevant activities in partnership with a community organization, and structure opportunities for students to reflect on their service experience to gain a better understanding of course content and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

Century College biology project

There are three main elements of every service learning experience.  Service learning:

  • is reciprocal, meaning the student and the community organization both benefit from the assignment.
  • provides real-life application of materials so that students retain more course curriculum and come away with an appreciation for the role we all play in civic engagement.
  • always involves opportunities for reflection.  Reflection assignments are important, allowing students to think critically about the experience both during and after their service.

At Century College, if an instructor chooses to utilize service learning in a course, it is a required assignment of the course, often replacing a textbook with real-life experience.  Students who complete a service learning assignment should engage in meaningful, hands-on, real-world activities.

Century College elementary partnership

As just one example, the service learning assignment for an Introduction to Human Services course provides an opportunity for students to serve local nonprofits.  Students are learning about the history of human service; education and training; worker roles; agencies, programs and community resources; career and job opportunities; skills, knowledge and values of the human service worker.  Through the service learning assignment, they have a minimum of 25 hours of individual hands-on experience assisting agencies with projects such as tutoring youth, completing relevant administrative office work, helping with programming at transitional housing organizations, or leading recreational activities for seniors.  Students reflect in class discussion groups and through a final writing assignment.

The following are excerpts taken from hundreds of positive Century College student reflections about the service learning experience:

  • “We learn these theories in school but until we really apply them or see them in action, they’re not real.”
  • “I think it was a great experience and service learning makes me feel like I made the right choice to go to school to become a teacher.”
  • “I wish more of my classes had service learning in them.”
  • “Because of my service learning assignment, I am more open and appreciative of volunteer work. I’ve found that it’s a lot more enjoyable to give something than to receive something.”
  • “I spoke to one of the nurses about applying to work there. She said since I have some experience with this location, my chances are high for possibly getting a job there. It was a wonderful feeling to know that I may already have some connections.”

The Service Learning Department at Century College closely collaborates with faculty members, community partners, and students by researching appropriate service learning sites, placing service learning students, and providing a clearinghouse for strong support, information, and problem solving.

Century College communication group

Each instructor and course at Century College has a designated service learning coordinator.  A presentation to the class is made early in the semester, information is distributed, and questions are answered.  Each semester, “Strategies for a Successful Service Learning Experience” materials are made available on Century’s Student Success Day.

At the same time that students are gaining academic, professional, and personal skills, local community partners receive valuable service and assistance.  We are encouraged by the frequent positive comments from our community partners.  The following are three great examples of how agencies and the overall community benefits from service learning:

Staff at one of the local nature centers has commented, “Over 100 hours were contributed by students over two seasons in planting and maintaining woodland wildflowers, ferns and grasses for a Federal Sustainable Trails Grant.  At the rate of $16 per hour as specified in the grant, the value of the student labor for just this project was $2,336.  However its long-term value is much greater in terms of re-establishing native vegetation along new trail corridors to restore habitat, stem erosion and protect water quality.”   


As one of our closest school partners has commented, “Elementary primary age students have shown incredible growth in the areas of reading and math given the extra one-to-one and small group help. In some classrooms, almost 100 percent of the students met their [Measures of Academic Progress] targets! That is simply amazing, and was not the case prior to the volunteer program consisting of the service learning students.  Attendance for some of the at-risk students went up as we provided these extra mentors.”

One social service nonprofit wrote, “As a result, [our] limited staff was able to raise more funds to be given to area health and human service agencies. These agencies have been dealing with major cuts in funding. Having more student volunteers was especially helpful last year, enabling us to raise over $4,000 in one evening to fight local hunger.”

Below are some statistics about Service Learning at Century College:

  • Approximately 2,000 Century students participate in service learning each year.
  • Over 15,000 Century students have participated in service learning since it began at Century College in 2000.
  • Century College students have contributed over 200,000 hours of service to the community in the last decade.
  • About 40 percent of the programs at Century require a service learning assignment.  Some Century programs require service learning to graduate.
  • Service learning hours are recorded on the students’ official transcript if they satisfy the service learning requirement and complete at least one reflection assignment for the course.
  • Students completing more than 40 hours of service learning while attending Century are recognized on the commencement program.

Considering the current economic and employment situation, service learning involvement is as important as ever in terms of contributing to our communities, as well as promoting student growth and increasing a student’s professional skills.

To learn more about how service learning can be incorporated into your work, please contact the Service Learning Department at Century College.

Kara Nakagaki, Service Learning Coordinator

Judy Lykins, Director of Service Learning

Email address – ServiceLearning@Century.edu

The Well-Educated Volunteer

April 4, 2012

It’s April and the volunteer program leader’s mind turns to volunteer recognition.  “How can WE give back to THEM?” some of us sob, ringing our hands with tear-stained cheeks and flipping through the latest catalogue of tchotchkes.  My answer – “educate them!”  Instead of relying on the old standby of a trinket or bauble, provide volunteers with something that lasts – and that’s education.

We conduct a survey of volunteers who attended our annual recognition luncheon (I know luncheons are no longer in vogue, but there’s been a 35-year tradition here, attendance continues to be fab, so we still do this.)  I’ll never forget one survey comment – “You can skip the leaf of lettuce and rubber chicken.  Just give me an hour of education and a cup of coffee and I’m happy!”  While this surprised me on many levels (our volunteers have to get 12 hours of education annually to remain certified) it totally made sense –older adults, including those pesky “Boomers,” indicate life long learning as a priority.  A 2000 AARP study of over 1000 older adults (that’s 50+) showed that 9 of 10 recipients said “they want to learn.”  http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/lifelong.pdf.  So why not educate them?

I admit I have it easy.  There are so many aspects of horticulture that the educational topics seem limitless and we struggle to just limit ourselves to 10 sessions annually.  However, I doubt we’re alone in this.  Most non-profits, congregations and other entities that utilize volunteers have a story, as do their clients, so why not educate others about those stories?  Food shelves can educate about the issues that lead their clientele to use their services; health care organizations can educate about the latest health trends or even diseases affecting their area; schools can educate about the latest trends affecting their students, or the latest trends in education.  If you stop to think about it, you could have endless ideas too.  And then take it a step further – why not offer a certificate?  Attend 5 sessions and get a certificate stating you’ve received so many hours of education and now have a “specialty.”  And then just think what those specialty volunteers could do!

Education can also be a motivator.  Tom McKee of Volunteer Power suggests sending volunteers to conferences as a way to motivate (http://www.volunteerpower.com/articles/motivate.asp.)  He even suggests that organizations budget to send their volunteers to over-night conferences.  I’d be motivated too for a paid over-night trip out of town, even if it was just toSt. Cloud. Kidding aside, I think Tom’s message is clear — invest in your volunteers and they’ll invest in you.  Studies also tell us that sharing how a volunteer’s work impacts your organization or organization’s clients, not only can motivate people to do more, but sharing a volunteer’s impact can also lead to longer retention.

So now’s your time to be creative!  What can you educate your volunteers about?  Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

  • Make it meaningful:  people give to your organization for a reason – and hopefully that’s because they’re engaged in your mission.  How can you educate your volunteers more about your mission and the people you serve?
  • Make it timely:  what’s new and different in your organization’s world?  The world is in a constant state of change – what’s new and different that you could share with your volunteers?
  • Make it easy:  we all have lots of interesting things to share, but no one is going to come and listen, not matter how interesting, if we offer education at times that aren’t’ convenient to our volunteers.  Provide sessions in the evening or on the weekend.  Also – remember that “less is more.”  More people will come to a shorter session than a half or full-day session.
  • Make it fun:  while talking heads can be fact-filled with interesting data and concepts, adult learner’s attention spans change about every 11 minutes or so.  Thus, things need to be lively.  Engage people in games, quizzes or conversation.  Make the room come alive!
  • Make it delicious:  finally, if you’re going to educate people near an hour normally reserved for a meal, be sure to have something for folks to nibble on.  It doesn’t have to be much – but at the least offer water and coffee.  Even popcorn is cheap, delicious and a little can feed a lot of folks!

So put away that catalogue of tchotchkes and put on your thinking cap.  Recognize your volunteers with an educational forum to show your appreciation for their hard work.

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator; University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener Program in Hennepin County