Carnegie Mellon University

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December 14, 2012

Service Learning

Symposium Shares Best Practices for Combining Volunteerism with Education

By Shilo Rea

When Nico Slate joined the History Department, he knew that Carnegie Mellon was a leader in technology. Today, four years later, he knows CMU uses that expertise to help communities and organizations through a robust focus on service learning.

CMU has been recognized by the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for the past five years. During the 2011-2012 academic year, students contributed 202,296 community service hours through courses and volunteer activities.

"There are so many wonderful service-learning initiatives on campus - from Modern Languages to the Robotics Institute," Slate explained. "The challenge is to foster conversations and collaborations across projects."

With that in mind, Slate organized the "Media, Technology and Service Learning Symposium."

Sponsored by the Center for the Arts in Society and the Leonard Gelfand Center for Service Learning and Outreach, approximately 50 faculty, staff and students gathered to share ideas and look for ways to collaborate.

The symposium's attendees - ranging from Eberly Center staff and School of Computer Science faculty to Department of Modern Languages faculty and others throughout campus - shared ideas and asked advice on starting community-focused projects.

Marielle Saums, a senior majoring in Global Studies, shared how the student service organization Juntos used GigaPan technology to document communities in Nicaragua.

"I joined the group my sophomore year because I wanted to be involved with community work that had an international connection and impact," Saums said. She credited several professors including Slate, Karen Faulk, John Soluri and Therese Tardio for helping her frame coursework in a community service context and give it new relevance. "All academic areas, from chemical engineering to fine art, have a community impact, so students from all backgrounds can benefit from a service focus."

Information Systems (IS) - at the undergraduate level in the Dietrich College and graduate level through the Heinz College - has made service learning a core part of the academic program. Professors Joe Mertz and Jeria Quesenberry shared their experiences at the symposium, stressing that service learning should provide clear and definite community service while maintaining discipline-relevant learning goals for students.

"Our goal with the projects is to expand a community partner's capacity to use technology to better meet their mission - not just build them a system," said Mertz, associate teaching professor of information systems.

Quesenberry explained how all IS students take a course their senior year in which they partner with a community client. Student teams have completed projects for Best of the Batch Foundation, Light of Life Ministries, Free Ride Pittsburgh, FBI Cyber Forensics Unit and many more. There is even a global element - several projects have provided service for international organizations, and the course also is taught at Carnegie Mellon Qatar.

"Challenges that we face include students mistaking the client's project as their project, managing team dynamics and the long-term survivability and maintenance of the projects," said Quesenberry, assistant teaching professor of information systems. "But, we're able to put in processes to help mitigate those."

She added, "It's wonderful to be at Carnegie Mellon where so many people are doing so much with service learning."

Ideas discussed at the symposium included creating a database of all of the university's service learning projects and establishing a formal system to follow up with students on their experiences.

"Once we have a database set up," Slate said, "the next step will be to create a process to keep it continually updated. The rate of innovation on campus is so high that new service initiatives are sprouting up all the time. That is why this is such an exciting place to be for someone interested in service learning."

Best Practices

Interested in starting a service-learning course?

Here are some tips:
• Select great community partners.
• Set a timeline and milestone structure for all projects and teams.
• Allow timeline and milestones to be stable yet flexible.
• Identify indicators that students are mistaking the client's project for their own.
• Manage team dynamics with built-in peer reviews.
• Follow-up with students a year or so later to see how the experience helped with their continued education and/or career.

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