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January 27, 1998

Put the University to Use

by Stephen McClurg

"I hate this class. I'm never going to use anything in it, it's pointless!" Ah, the cries of the university student upon taking a class of "useless stuff." (More frequently it seems that "useless stuff" is translated by many students as information that does not lend itself to increased income.) Some instructors at the University of South Alabama are attempting to show students that much of what they learn in the classroom is applicable to the "real word" and can benefit the surrounding community as well. The teaching technique is called Service-Learning, which incorporates elements of community service with traditional classroom lecture and text components.

Dr. William White of the University of South Alabama incorporates service learning into many of his classes. "The students' service work is directly related to the coursework. This allows them to see the information from books and lectures applied to real-life situations," Dr. White says. A good example of this would be in his Social Problems class in which "the students," he says, "meets a social problem head-on. They get to see, feel, touch, and from past experience, understand the problem from a totally different view than what was previously allowed to them with only the use of the classsroom." Students learn about a social problem first-hand by serving as a tutor to elementary school students who have a reading deficiency.

"Every course could have an element of service learning, and as a university, South Alabama should encourage its use to benefit the community," Dr. White emphasizes.

How have students reacted to the idea? Dr. White suggests that at first students are hesitant and consider community service as some sort of punishment, but that they almost always come to enjoy the work. He even says that he has never received negative feedback and that approximately one-third of the students stay on their service project for a whole year.

Michael Manning, a senior majoring in sociology, has nothing but positive comments about the service projects he has been a part of from Dr. White's classes. He helps children in local schools with reading by tutoring one-on-one. "You really get a taste of the school problems," he says. "Some of these kids have little or no communication at home, and it's tough when one person is put in charge of thirty-five six-year-olds to really give the one-on-one attention that these children need. In fact, the hour of hour-and-a-half I spend with some children is sometimes the only quality interaction time that they are given in the week." Manning sums up his experience by saying that "What I have learned from them is tenfold of what they have learned from me." In fact, Manning is still doing his service work.

Lynn Johnson of Dodge Elementary, one of the schools that has benefited from service learning, echoes the fact that one-on-one mentoring appears to improve the self-esteem of both mentor and mentored. "The children are really taken with the idea of someone having a special interest in them. They get excited about it and are disappointed if a session gets canceled," she says. The program has been implemented at Dodge in the first grade for two years now, and Johnson says that she has only seen benefits.

Service learning could be the key to showing students how practical (or maybe even impractical) their classroom experience actually is. You don't have to be a student to get involved in any of these projects; the community always needs volunteers. On this final note, Dr. White expresses that "the activists in Mobile need to be a bit more aggressive in coming to the university to see how we both can help service agencies."

The author would like to thank Judy Flannigan of Baker Elementary and Pat Carlton of Fonde Elementary for their help in preparing this article.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL