Key Statement: Service-learning projects designed by students can meet community needs while elevating student learning, engagement, and success by integrating high-impact practices (HIPs) and HIP elements.
Keywords: Service-learning, public health, graduate education, community needs, student engagement, research, high-impact practices
High-impact practices (HIPs) such as global learning, service-learning, research, and collaborative projects provide educational benefits by engaging students in a way that elevates their learning. Service-learning is a common pedagogy in disciplines such as nursing, business, and sociology in which community service is combined with the application of knowledge and skills gained from the classroom (Mackenzie et al., 2019; Salam et al., 2019). In a meta-analysis of the service-learning literature, Salam et al. (2019) found that service-learning leads to the “overall betterment of the local community” (p. 588). Further, combining service-learning with other HIPs results in synergistic effects for deeper learning (Reilly & Langley-Turnbaugh, 2021).
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, higher education enrollments and retention have declined overall, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels (Cassell, 2022). Students in a post-COVID world desire a learning experience that has more value—flexible, hands-on, and engaging—at the course, campus, and community levels (Mandernach et al., 2022). Further, students want to be challenged and be in the role of creator (Morales, 2022). What happens when students design their own service-learning projects involving collaborative and research-based work? This article describes two examples of public health service-learning combined with other HIPs that have resulted in high student engagement and success.
What’s Worked: Two Examples
Environmental Justice Project
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Southside Chattanooga Lead Superfund Site extends across 8 neighborhoods just south of the university’s campus (Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2017. This site was named for lead-contaminated soil, a remnant of the city’s industrial past, that potentially impacts child health. Located in primarily low-income areas and minority communities, this site has been the focus of many student projects to address health equity and environmental justice. In 2019, a team of public health graduate students and honors undergraduate students developed a project in collaboration with the EPA and a local community organization to address health literacy related to the clean-up of this site. Students revised the EPA letter that is mailed to residents explaining the potential soil contamination and the option to test
their soil. They also translated the letter into Spanish. Students canvassed door-to-door in affected neighborhoods, speaking to residents about soil lead and the importance of getting their soil tested and urging them to get their children under the age of six tested for blood lead. Students also developed and administered a short survey to better understand barriers for residents to agree to soil testing. One result of this work was a virtual presentation at an international conference (Ford et al., 2019). This work, paused by COVID-19, will begin again as EPA’s clean-up efforts continue for the next several years (Figure 1). In addition to service-learning, this project utilizes another HIP, collaborative projects, to expose students to working in a team environment and incorporating multiple viewpoints (American Association of Colleges and Universities [AAC&U], 2022).
Figure 1. Community outreach with MPH and honors students in October 2019 at the Southside library, Chattanooga, TN.
Chronic Disease Prevention Project
A pilot project was launched in 2022 that involved engaging MPH students in a field experience at the Gerace Research Centre on San Salvador Island, The Bahamas. These students planned a chronic disease intervention during their one-week trip. They gave an interactive presentation about nutrition to children at the local elementary school and held a community-wide event with a presentation on chronic disease and prevention. This project is unique in that it combines multiple HIPS: service-learning, collaborative projects, and global learning. This type of project allows students to view their area of study through a global lens and evaluate how cultural differences impact their work (AAC&U, 2022). When surveyed after the trip, all students who responded (6) strongly agreed the trip was a valuable part of the program and would recommend the experience to other students (see Figure 2). Among comments, one student said “I learned more about public health with this experience than anything else the past year. Being able to be hands-on taught me more in one week than an entire semester.” In a previous study of the personal and professional impacts of science field courses in The Bahamas, Ford et al. (2017) found that these positive impacts are long-term, lasting decades.
Figure 2. MPH students building the community garden at the Gerace Research Centre. Photo by Robert Lathrop.
Challenges and Recommendations
While service-learning projects are greatly beneficial, especially when combined with other HIPs, they are not without their challenges. They are best executed when community partnerships already exist. Being in “the field” may present liability concerns for your institution. There are liability release forms to consider, as well as liability insurance. In addition, your institution may require an affiliation agreement or memorandum of understanding with the community partner.
Some students may be uncomfortable being assigned a project they are responsible for designing. Providing a framework of possibilities and a realistic scope for students to consider can help bridge the gap, along with a rubric of project criteria and levels of performance. It is okay for students to get frustrated—that is part of the process and in the end, makes for a more rewarding project.
To deepen student learning, it is key to include as many HIPs and HIP key elements as possible, as described by Kuh and O’Donnell (2013) and Finley and McNair (2013). Instructors can start small and build capacity over time. For example, identify a project that students can work on in teams (collaborative learning) using best practices such as peer evaluation to help ensure that all students engage with the work. Instructors should be available to give teams feedback as they develop their project plans. Over time, projects can involve multiple HIPs and more advanced strategies and elements such as:
Identify a team-based semester-long project with real-world applications that exposes students to unique perspectives and unfamiliar environments.
Be involved in the development, execution, assessment, and presentation of the project and provide feedback at frequent intervals.
Encourage or require student reflection on learning through written assignments, oral discussions, and/or presentations.
Using available resources, how can you adjust higher education experiences to incorporate multiple HIPs to create learning synergy?
How can you create opportunities for students to design their own service-learning projects?
What partnerships in your community already exist that can be utilized for a service-learning experience?
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