Combining Coursework with Outreach Leads to Valuable Lessons

When a group of Austin Community College students led a science lesson at Austin’s Baty Elementary recently, they saw first-hand what teachers know: When trying to capture the attention of first- and second-graders, going for gross often works.

The ACC students were demonstrating the role of decomposers in the food chain. They had the children collect specimens – including from between their toes – that were then cultured to show bacteria at work.

Although the ACC students were doing the teaching, the education went both ways.

“It was a good learning experience for me,” says Jason Henderson, a pre-nursing student who participated in the project as part of Professor Kristine Hollingsworth’s Microbiology for the Health Sciences (BIOL 2420) course. “It’s a good way to go in and assess what you have learned and how you can relate it to other people.”

ACC student Karel McGuirt leads a science lesson.

Henderson and his microbiology classmates were participating in service learning, an instructional strategy gaining momentum on college campuses nationwide. Service learning projects allow students to earn credit or stipends in exchange for volunteer activities related to their coursework. Unlike internships, service learning occurs only in non-profit settings and combines lending a hand with addressing a larger concern. At Baty, the bacteria lesson was intended to make science accessible to the school children.

“Our students showed that science can be fascinating and fun rather than scary,” Hollingsworth says, adding that such projects also allow ACC students serve as role models and give greater visibility to the college.

Service learning isn’t a new concept at ACC; several professors have incorporated volunteering into their curriculum. During the past year, however, the college has joined the growing number of institutions that are formalizing service learning to support student retention and graduation rates.

“Our state has a real and current need for kids to stay engaged, ready to graduate, and ready to contribute,” says Patricia Potyka, executive director of Texas Campus Compact. “University leadership is charged with finding the mix of tools to make an impact, and young people need to be prepared to succeed.”

Texas Campus Compact is part of a national coalition of more than 1,100 colleges and universities focused on service learning and civic engagement. ACC is one of 72 Texas Campus Compact members, and one of only nine recipients of the organization’s Students in Service grant, which provides tuition funds for students who volunteer in local schools.

Potyka points to studies indicating that students who are civically engaged, particularly first-generation college students and minority students, are more likely to graduate. For that reason, service learning is part of ACC’s Achieving the Dream proposal, which in turn is a component of the college’s Student Success Initiative.

“One of the best ways to reinforce and strengthen learning is by applying that learning to solve real, relevant problems,” says Mike Midgley, ACC vice president of instruction. “Service learning allows students to apply academic learning to real-life problems, while making our communities better. That is a great combination that fits well with our Student Success Initiative.”

ACC launched its Service Learning/Civic Engagement office last summer under the direction of Dr. Lillian Huerta. Huerta previously coordinated service learning for Palo Alto College in San Antonio, where in just a few years the program grew to encompass more than 200 faculty members and more than 5,000 students.

Dr. Lillian Huerta directs ACC's Office of Service Learning/Civic Engagement

Huerta says that in addition to increasing student success, a structured service learning program promotes enhanced instruction, meaningful partnerships with non-profit agencies, and a civic responsibility that continues after students leave ACC.

“The whole goal of service learning is for college students to continue their service to the community,” she says. Huerta adds that any course or degree program can integrate service learning. She cites examples of history students who compiled oral histories for hospice patients and automotive technology students who repaired cars for low-income families.

ACC student Karel McGuirt, who participated in the Baty science class, says the project imparted lessons beyond the role of bacteria.

“It reaches out to the underprivileged kids,” says McGuirt, a mother of three who plans to earn a master’s degree in nursing. She hopes her involvement inspires Baty students to continue their education, while showing them you can go to school at any age.

Service learning projects also benefit ACC students in any course of study.

“It gives them an opportunity to see what the real world is like out there and that they can make an impact,” McGuirt says.

Students and faculty can learn more about ACC’s service learning opportunities and find instructional tips on incorporating service learning in curriculum by visiting the Service Learning website, or by contacting Huerta at 512.223.3774 or lhuerta@austincc.edu.

“There are many things that every discipline can do,” Huerta says. “It just takes faculty really wanting to have their students making a difference in their community.”

Mark Cano is one of a group of ACC students volunteering at Austin's Pease Elementary.

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