Determining whether a potential service-learning opportunity is a good fit for your class can be complicated. There’s more to finding a good service-learning project than just locating an agency that needs volunteers. A poor project fit can result in a neutral effect (when students remain unaffected by the experience) or a negative effect (when students learn the wrong lesson or reinforce negative stereotypes). According to Mark Cooper (n.d.), coordinator of Florida International University’s Volunteer Action Center, three things can happen when students get involved in community service:
First and foremost, students can learn something about themselves, about their community, and about pressing social issues. Second, students can learn nothing. A group can feed the homeless yet remain unaffected by the experience. Third, students can learn the wrong lesson-prejudices and stereotypes can be reinforced or created while on a poorly planned service outing. (p. 4)
The key to a good service-learning experience is getting to know your project and your clients early. Keep the following characteristics of successful service-learning projects in mind. These will help you have a good attitude about your project (Learn and Serve America Clearinghouse n.d.):
- All partners are committed to a shared vision.
- Student-learning outcomes are compatible with the service to be performed.
- Agendas and needs are openly expressed, and while they are probably not identical, they are at least compatible.
- Partners are sensitive to the needs, styles, and limitations of others.
- Among individuals of all levels, there will be frequent and open communication, especially about goals, tasks, roles, and accountability.
Another characteristic of successful service-learning projects is direct service. Most service-learning projects in health, physical education, and Recreation help people directly. Direct service involves mentoring, teaching, coaching, special events, or leading programs. A direct service project that is well suited to service learning has the following qualities:
- There are plenty of opportunities for every student to interact directly with the clients.
- The clients appreciate that the students have performed a meaningful service for them.
- There is enough meaningful work for every student to do.
Since it is important for every student to interact directly with the clients, you and your teacher should decide whether to target one agency that serves a lot of clients or whether a collaborative projects approach would make more sense. A single service project makes sense when there are a lot of tasks to accomplish and a lot of clients to work with. But if that type of project is not available, a collaborative project approach may work better. This can be achieved in two ways. The first is by working with multiple agencies to increase the number of roles for students, thereby exposing them to clients with different needs. The second way is to divide a large class into small groups-for instance, by dividing a class of 24 students into three groups of eight. The objectives and scope of each group’s project would be the same, but there would be more opportunities for students to interact directly with clients, and there would be plenty of work for everyone. Here are some examples of collaborative projects; one of these approaches might be a good fit for your class:
- A therapeutic Recreation class is doing a service-learning project over two semesters. They are working with mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults. In addition to raising funds, they are cooking dinner for another local agency that hosted a Friday Night Supper for people living in poverty. In this example, students benefit from interacting with various types of clients, and the clients benefit from the interactions of various community groups. Another idea is to have seniors interact with young children in a day care program; seniors often value opportunities for companionship, and young children need to have positive interactions with adults.
- A leisure philosophy class of 30 students is divided into groups of three to five students. Each group of students identifies its own clients. Each group customizes its leisure education programs based on its clients’ leisure needs. Students work with diverse groups, such as homebound elderly seniors, children with special needs, family members, and even other college students. Each service project has the same learning outcomes, but the way that students shape each project depends on each client’s needs.
Service-learning projects can also deliver indirect services; that is, students are not directly involved with the people they are serving. Examples of indirect service include environmental cleanup and grant writing. Health, Recreation, and physical education are hands-on professions. Service-learning projects in these areas-projects that include direct interaction with clients-tend to provide the most learning opportunities. In cases where the client’s need is great, and where you feel that that need is important, indirect service may make sense if it fits your class’ learning outcomes. For example, a class on research and evaluation may choose to evaluate a program for an agency (indirect service) rather than directly deliver the program.
Here are some ideas for direct-service programs in health, physical education, and Recreation. Most of these programs can be used with people of all ages. Also consider using these programs with groups who have special needs, such as persons with physical or mental impairments, or with those who are considered at risk due to socioeconomic status or other problematic living circumstances. Your best ideas will come from learning about the needs of your community, such as these:
- Physical activity and active living to improve strength, cardiorespiratory health, and flexibility
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
- Early detection, prevention, and treatment of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer
- Reducing or treating substance abuse
- Stress management and time management
- Tutoring and mentoring with a health and physical activity focus
- Conducting program evaluations and writing grant proposals
- Improving social skills for improved peer and adult interactions
- Life skills and character development
- Sports, intramural activities, and other recreational pursuits
- Creative leisure pursuits such as arts and crafts, theater, and dance
- Adventure activities, outdoor programs, and environmental education
Although your class may find the project-launching activities and team building to be somewhat tedious, remember that all successful projects require careful planning and thorough preparation. Your patience and commitment will be rewarded. You will learn valuable lessons, the benefits of which will last far into the future.