Service-learning helps students achieve academically because it gives them incentives (i.e., a purpose) for learning and also gives them opportunities to collaborate with others, including with subject matter experts in their discipline. Service-learning challenges students to become experts through the service that they provide and as they report back on what they did and why.
Service-learning is often more challenging than regular coursework because students' service occurs in real-world settings whose requirements can be very complex. As Dr. Farid Farahmand, Assistant Professor of Engineering, explains, it is challenging to design a remote sensor that works in a laboratory. It is even more challenging to design a remote sensor that works in a creek, because so many more problems must be solved to ensure reliable monitoring. For example, students must make sure the device is vandal-proof, is able to wiithstand extreme weather conditions, and can communicate when trees and other objects interfere with data transmission.
Service-learning also reinforces academic achievement by asking students to work with course content in an integrated fashion; engineering students involved in a Senior Design Project (ES 491, ES 492) course engage in cross-collaboration with students in other classes, with graduate students, and with clients as they complete capstone projects required for graduation. This cross-collaboration enhances students' learning and also sharpens their communication and project management skills.
An example of Senior Design Project cross-collaboration is as follows:
- A group of undergraduate and graduate students team up to form a core design team. The design team is responsible for proposing a project to a client and for following through on designing and creating the project.
- If the core design team needs assistance (e.g., a part like a circuit), they consult with students in Microprocessors & System Design and Analog & Digital Communications (ES 310 or ES 440) classes; core design students share specifications of the needed part with ES 310 or ES 440 students and provide mentoring as needed while ES 310 or ES 440 students create the part.
- When the project has been completed, a new crop of students form a new core design team; they create new projects based on technologies developed by students in previous years.
Dr. Farahmand says Senior Design projects are so academically challenging that students "really shouldn't be taking anything else" while working on their projects. In fact, students often need more than eight months to complete their projects and may continue working through the summer. (See Remote Sensor Monitoring of Copeland Creek Water Quality for more information on engineering students' Senior Design projects.)
Students are rewarded for their hard work by having a better understanding of how technology can help humans and can help the environment. They also develop valuable skills that make them attractive to employers. According to Dr. Farahmand, one Novato employer hired a former Senior Design student and soon after contacted the engineering department asking for more students like the one they had just hired.
STEM faculty members collaborate with community partners and with SSU's Center for Community Engagement (CCE) to ensure service projects meet academic requirements and also community partners' needs.
In most cases learning objectives map readily to students' service. For example, course syllabi typically list the following types of objectives:
- learn to use laboratory equipment
- become more aware of concepts that guide decision-making within a particular discipline
- think critically
- analyze data
- write field reports
- collaborate to solve problems
These types of skills are commonly required by service projects.
Figure 1 shows how a learning objective in Entomology (Biology 323) was linked to a service objective to reinforce students' academic achievement.
Figure 1. Course learning objectives map to service objectives.