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Service learning provides students hands-on experience, builds bridges to community

UW-Madison is hoping to expand service learning courses in order to help build relationships between students and the Madison community and to strengthen student learning.

Image By: Jade Sheng

These days, employers are looking for real-world experience in its hirees — and that’s exactly what UW-Madison aims to provide its students.

With a new faculty director for the Morgridge Center — expected to be announced during the spring semester according to Mo Bischof, associate vice provost for student learning assessment — will come new ideas and plans on how to expand UW-Madison’s pre-existing opportunities for students to engage with the community in meaningful ways and develop their skills as young adults entering the workforce.

Offering additional service learning courses will likely be a part of the future faculty director’s plans to do this, according to Bischof, as the courses UW-Madison already offers have helped students gain a more enriched education.

Some courses on campus have aspects of service learning built into their curriculum without even intending to be classified as a service learning course. Marketing in the Digital Age, a course that has been offered by the business school since 2014, is an example of this.

The final project for the course requires groups of four to five students to partner with an organization — whether it is a business or a nonprofit — and develop a digital marketing strategy for the group. They must also give a presentation on the project at the end of the semester as a way to reflect on their experience.

Students get to pick the businesses they work with either from a list of local businesses and organizations the professor provides, or they can choose their own businesses or organization to work with if they have one. This semester, the company College Cards — essentially Cards Against Humanity with a university-specific twist — is one of the potential partners.

David Kemmerer, the creator of College Cards and a former UW-Madison student who took the course during his senior year, spoke positively about his experience with the final project, citing it as the reason why he offered his business as a potential partner.

“Anytime you’re in college and you can get very real world experience, whether that’s getting an internship or in a class like this, that experience — working with any group — getting awareness is just unbelievably valuable,” Kemmerer said.

Despite the fact that the project doesn’t reach 25 hours of community interaction — a requirement for being classified as a service learning course at UW-Madison — students and instructors alike still find the time students spent working on projects with others from the community beneficial and worthwhile.

“Honestly, when you compare the learning from a textbook or from lectures with real world examples or projects — if you can get paired up with companies that are facing problems or going through some of the things you’re learning about — I think that just solidifies and enhances your knowledge. You don’t really learn until you do it for yourself, and I think it makes it so much more real and tangible,” he said.

Katie Krueger, the marketing professor who teaches the course, believes that when students work with the community around them, they engage in a learning environment that helps them think more critically about the material they learn in class.

“You get some real hands-on experience and you take more theoretical business knowledge you’re gaining and apply it to the real world,” she said of the course’s project. “I do think all that hard work [of the projects] ends up being worth it because it gave them something to talk about in interviews and then also some confidence of what they might be doing in the real world.”

Marty Kimmel, a UW-Madison student who created the Dogspotting app — which allows people around the world to take pictures of dogs they see and share them with others — and its marketing strategy for the Facebook group of the same name, has also taken the class and found the final project helpful in developing his skills as a student entrepreneur.

“Katie Krueger did a good job of opening my eyes up to the depth of the different channels of digital marketing and different opportunities I have,” Kimmel said.

Service learning is a high impact practice — often called HIPs — that combines community engagement or service, traditional classroom instruction and student reflection. Students typically leave these courses with a strengthened relationship between themselves and their communities and a more in-depth understanding of the material they learn in the classroom.

Though service learning courses aren’t as popular as internships — another HIP — it is gaining more favor in recent years, and students’ chances to take these courses are growing.

According to a survey conducted by Michigan State’s Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement in 2014, within the Big Ten, UW-Madison was one of only three universities — alongside Indiana University and Ohio State — to have courses specifically categorized as service learning.

However, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, University of Minnesota and Rutgers University have since added this course distinction. UW-Madison is offering over 60 of these courses this semester — second only to Minnesota, with 75 courses, in the Big Ten — and they span at least 40 departments every year.

For a course to be designated as a service learning course at UW-Madison, students must complete a minimum of 25 hours of service within the community throughout the semester. The courses are required to include a reflective aspect as well, having students critically about their service in a journal, complete writing assignments or give a final presentation.

“Research does show that information learned in service learning classes is better retained, students are able to better apply knowledge, and students learn more than in traditional classes,” according to Haley Madden, a community engagement scholarship specialist at the Morgridge Center. “Students experience a wide variety of benefits from taking service learning courses, including gains in critical thinking skills, the ability to apply the information they learn to new situations, and the ability to synthesize knowledge more effectively.”

While there are benefits of service learning verified by studies like the National Survey for Student Engagement, the university finds it difficult to expand these opportunities for various reasons.

“[Having service learning projects] is an extra element of coordination for the instructor,” Krueger said.

The additional coordination between educators and community members that is required for service learning courses to function plays a significant role in preventing them from becoming requirements for many degrees or for graduation, regardless of a student’s major.

“At an institution this big, setting requirements has a huge impact on the curriculum,” Bischof said. “Institutionally, to set up a bunch of community partners to handle all of our undergraduate students — the capacity and the ability to support high quality service learning I think would be hard to do as a requirement.”

Besides the difficulty of fitting another required course into schedules, some students simply don’t reap the same benefits from working within the community or feel as engaged in this type of HIP as others.

“To me as a student here, I’m trying to take the essential courses to build my basic knowledge on all forms of marketing, entrepreneurship and stuff like that, and in terms of taking a course and doing a project on a specific company, for me it’s more just doing [the work] for the project,” said Jack Weiss, the UW-Madison junior behind Cups Over — a business where students buy college-life essentials like cups, paper plates and fold-out tables — and who has also taken the digital marketing course.

He did find that the course was helpful for his learning experience, however.

“These specific projects that I do on Cups Over really help me get the ball rolling and get me thinking about stuff that I can do with [my company], and I’m able to apply the knowledge I get from the course,” he said.

Though some students value the community service aspect that service learning courses provides, others would rather pursue internships or field observations — both of which are other HIPs. Various volunteering opportunities, like those offered by Badger Volunteers, can also take the place of the “service” aspect of service learning courses.

In last year’s National Survey of Student Engagement, 63 percent UW-Madison seniors took part in an internship some time throughout college, more than the 46 percent of students that took a service learning course. “Culminating experiences” like a senior thesis were the third most popular HIP at the university, with a 43 percent participation rate.

Bischof said the university wants to make more students aware of these opportunities by bringing them up in student orientations and advising sessions more frequently. And though service learning isn’t for every student, the university is looking to expand the variety and number of courses it offers.

“Because we’re such a strong institution in interdisciplinary teaching and learning and research, it makes sense to me that we’d want to continue to grow our opportunities for students and faculty to engage with others in the community,” Bischof said. “I think we need to build even more bridges within our communities in Madison, in the state, in the world. [Service learning] is one way of building bridges.”

As a member of the Search and Screen Committee to pick the final candidate, Bischof says she and the committee are looking for someone who can lead the way in finding and developing new support systems for service learning.

More significantly, additional service learning course offerings could potentially open doors students didn’t realize were there and alter some students’ degree and career paths.

“[Students] have changed their whole field they’re going to major in because of a service learning course, and that they’ve learned so much more about themselves and their own backgrounds and experiences,” Bischof said. “It’s changed lives.”

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