Profs working to make service learning widespread at UTPB

Clark Moreland speaks about the importance of grading and formative feedback during an interview Thursday, March 30, 2022, at the Heimmermann Center inside the Mesa Building. (Odessa American File Photo)

Through the years, research has shown that service learning encourages students to stay engaged and stay in college.

University of Texas Permian Basin faculty started embedding service learning into their curriculum years ago, even though it wasn’t called that at the time.

“One of the reasons that we as faculty really began to latch on to this was we started looking at research. American Association of Colleges and Universities, AASCU, began back about a decade ago to publish research that talked about the importance of high-impact practices. It’s a wide-ranging term, which includes educational practices such as study abroad, collaborative learning, first-year seminars, writing intensive courses. One of those high-impact practices is service learning, sometimes called community-based learning, sometimes even called experiential learning,” said Clark Moreland, lecturer of English and director of the Heimmermann Center for Engaged Teaching at UTPB.

“We were looking at research which says that students who engage in community service as a part of the course curriculum were not only showing greater levels of satisfaction … but they were doing better in their classes. They were meeting learning outcomes, because that’s really what service learning is,” Moreland said.

Students have been doing community service since time immemorial, but integrating it with curriculum increases learning outcomes which helps students do better in their courses and graduate faster.

Some early adopters were Moreland, Assistant Professor of Art Chris Stanley, Associate Professor of Literacy Tara Wilson, Professor in the Department of Literature and Language Todd Richardson, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature and Language Myra Salcedo and Rebecca Babcock, William and Ordelle Watts Professor in the Department of Literature and Language.

Wilson said it really took off in 2019.

“When we started looking at that student success data, a bunch of us were working with career services and some other staff on our campus. When we started looking at that research, we said, well, gosh, that’s important to us. Student success (is) our number one pillar at this university. That’s when we really got going with it and it’s been great, especially during and after the pandemic. We’ve seen a lot of faculty show interest in it, particularly junior faculty, folks that are maybe new to academia. But even our tenured faculty who have already established their syllabus in their classes, they’re getting into it as well. There’s a lot of energy right now about service learning around here,” Moreland said.

One of the Heimmermann Center’s core objectives is to increase and support faculty who are engaged in these high-impact practices.

“Service learning was early on the center’s radar and then our Provost Dan Heimmermann, at the time, called Tara to be the provost fellow for service learning. Now she chairs a committee of faculty members who provide advice and counsel to all of our faculty about how to do service learning, to develop procedures for supporting faculty,” Moreland said.

Wilson said they have tried to start adding an S by courses that have a service learning component. This is so students will know there is a service learning component to the course and it’s a good way for UTPB to document how many courses have service learning in them and how many students are being impacted.

“I’ve heard from probably 20 to 25 faculty who have it embedded in their courses already. We make a point of talking about it at our new faculty orientations. We do a variety of kind of panel sessions on service learning so faculty can see the various ways that you can integrate this idea into your classes. There’s not one right way to implement a service learning project. We like to show them a variety of options and then let them develop, with our assistance and support, the one that works best for them and their students,” Moreland said.

Dr. Tara Wilson (Courtesy Photo)

Wilson said there is a webpage faculty can visit. Moreland said it gives sample syllabus.

“It really comes down to how you design the assignments. So you have it in your syllabus. You let students know early on that you teach service learning to them. Many of them, of course, are familiar with community service from high school, but they’ve never actually seen it integrated into an assignment into the curriculum,” Moreland said.

Wilson said there’s more to it than just volunteering.

“There’s actually a phrase; we call it pre-teaching service learning. You prepare them for the experience, and then they experience it. Then they have the most important part, which is the reflection on their experience. That’s where the real learning takes place,” Moreland said.

For him, service learning is like having an extra set of eyes.

“When students are learning something in class, whether it’s reading a book or looking at course content, and then they go and serve in that area. When they come back, they look at that course content differently. They have a new perspective,” Moreland said.

For example, he brings students to community gardens in the area. It’s one thing to read about Louisa May Alcott talking about gardening in the 19th century in America. It’s another thing for students to get their hands in the West Texas dirt. They realize farming is hard labor and they get a different point of view.

Wilson and Moreland are going to attend and present at the National Service Learning Conference April 3-6 in St. Paul, Minn. This is the first time they will attend.

Wilson added that they are hoping to find out about new ideas that they can bring back to UTPB.

“Right now, we have some faculty who have really latched on to this and there’s some energy there, but we want to find out how we can make a really big impact,” Moreland said.

“The great thing about service learning support is, for faculty, a lot of high-impact practices cost. They’re expensive. You want to give a long-lasting memory to a student. Study abroad is fantastic … but it costs a lot of money to ship someone overseas. Service learning by comparison, there’s still some support and work that has to go into it. But it doesn’t cost that much to send someone across town, so it’s a way for us to do it efficiently and also to give students a memory and an experience that they’re going to treasure for the rest of their lives,” Moreland added.

In one of her courses, Wilson had students that went to La Promesa Apartments to work with students. They worked with the Rev. Dr. Dawn Weaks of Connection Christian Church on this.

“This was a different avenue, a different area for them to go in and work with different kids and like Clark said about the reflection. That is why they learned what they learned,” Wilson said.

Another example is students in Assistant Professor of Literacy Shelly Landreth’s class, they worked with the Ector County Library to provide a reading program.

“That’s a really great thing about service learning is it benefits that community partner as well. The library got to have their reading program; didn’t cost the library any money and the college students came and took care of it for them,” Wilson said.

Moreland said it was a win-win.

“It’s a win for students in a lot of different ways. They are learning. They’re meeting course objectives in their classes. They’re also getting to serve, and like Dr. (Martin Luther) King said, There’s no greater joy in life than serving others. But they also have opportunities to develop networking connections,” Moreland said.

He takes his students to public schools and to read in libraries where they can talk with teachers and administrators. Internships may also come out of this. The “coolest thing” that happens, though, is even though it’s a school project and something they have to do for class, they find the value in it and ask if they can come back.

“It’s a great way to bring the classroom into the real world” because sometimes students wonder why they are learning something, or they don’t see how it connects with real-world experiences. But these experiences do.

“There’s a lot of different ways to implement it. That’s one of the great things about it is there’s no one right way. But at the end of the day when students are coming back with a new set of eyes and they want to continue to serve our community, we know we’ve made a difference,” Moreland said.