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Service-Learning During COVID-19: An Opportunity for Citizenship

Updated: May 17, 2023

Duke University

I launched my first ever service-learning class - “Neuroscience Service Learning: Brain Connections,” in Spring 2021, during “the COVID-19 semester”. It was the highlight of my pandemic experience, and it almost didn’t happen. It was a no-brainer: we needed to do this.

Starting up a new course is never easy, and it is bound to present unexpected challenges. I found that to be true when creating a service-learning course built on a balanced partnership with the community (Furco, 1996), and the pandemic would only make this more complicated. We would need to connect regularly and frequently, but pandemic restrictions could stunt any meaningful relationships from developing. I was unsure whether I should run it on Zoom or make it an in-person class. How would teamwork happen with everyone masked and 6 feet apart?

With so many reasons to postpone the launch of my service-learning course, I took a couple of days to think it over and came to a crystal clear conclusion: we needed to do this. The extraordinary circumstances created an incredible learning experience for both my students and me. If ever there was a time for engaging the community, it was now. Offering my service-learning course during COVID-19 was one of the most rewarding decisions I ever made.

Learning From Community Partner Experts

We partnered with the YMCA and Durham Children’s Initiative (DCI) in Durham, NC. Both organizations had shut down their everyday operations and created novel ways to serve the community. The YMCA created programs to provide academic support, daycare, and food to children and adolescents throughout the day. DCI boxed care packages for families that included a variety of home goods.

The original plan was to work directly on-site to learn about the organizations, operations, and student population. But because of the pandemic, this would no longer be possible. Instead, we had a couple of Zoom visits from the YMCA staff and DCI staff early in the semester. They told us about being short-staffed, reconfiguring rooms for social distancing, and having to change course at any moment’s notice. A collaborator cut a meeting short suddenly so that they could respond to a more urgent matter, and another Zoomed in from her car between appointments. The whole experience was incredibly inspiring and eye-opening. Instead of seeing ‘need,’ as criticized by some about service-learning (Eby, 1998), we had a valuable lens for seeing our community’s strengths. For example, the YMCA underwent significant restructuring.

Reconfiguration of fitness spaces accommodated social distancing for children to play and do schoolwork. The staff learned new skills and took on multiple responsibilities. It did not matter their title or seniority - everyone rolled up their sleeves. They sanitized surfaces, moved fitness equipment, provided childcare, distributed snacks, helped students with homework, and anything else it took to support one another. Their strength was their capacity for growth and teamwork.

Becoming Good Partners

First, we had to figure out a meaningful way to serve. My students developed educational activities about neuroscience for 1st to 5th graders. Our partners described several factors to consider: the social distancing rules and risks, no on-site programming at DCI, limited staff at the YMCA, many predominantly Spanish-speaking households, and internet fatigue, to name just a few. Successful activities embraced solo work or could be completed 6 feet apart, with minimal adult supervision, in less than 20 minutes and without the internet. Our activity packets had to be easy to pass out, with all necessary materials, using English and Spanish instructions.

We created a dozen or so “neuroscience learning kits”: activities and supplies placed in manila envelopes sorted by grade levels. For example, one kit for 1st to 3rd graders included a crossword puzzle about brain regions, a memory game, and visual illusions. Another kit for teaching students about the structures of a neuron included pipe cleaners and beads accompanied by picture guides. All our kits were interactive and pandemic-friendly. We partnered with another class from Duke in the Spanish Language Program to translate some activities into Spanish. By the semester’s end, my class packaged about 500 learning kits, which were given out in DCI’s family care packages and used on-site at the YMCA.

Measuring The Impact

The students in the class indicated they had a positive educational experience - they shared this in reflection papers, conversations, and end-of-course evaluations. My students also responded to these statements from the Community Service Attitudes Scale, which ranged from 1-7 where 1 is ‘strongly disagrees’ and 7 is ‘strongly agrees’ (Shiarella et al., 2000). Student ratings were reported as 5, 6 or 7:

  • There are needs in the community.

  • Our community needs good volunteers.

  • It is important to be helpful to people in general.

  • There are people in the community that need help.

  • There are people who have needs that are not being met.

  • I will seek out an opportunity to do community service in the next year.

  • It is critical that citizens become involved in helping their communities.

  • I will participate in a community service project next year.

My students likely enrolled in the class with a mindset for civic engagement, so I cannot take credit for these responses. Perhaps the course was a chance to channel their inclinations during a time of profound loneliness, distance, and helplessness experienced by so many in the world.

Despite being over-extended, our community partners took the time to express their appreciation and feedback on the kits. Most importantly, they have enthusiastically agreed to continue partnering.

Although we could not directly assess the impact on the YMCA and DCI students, we know that assessments are critical to the Evaluation Learning Cycle of a service-learning course (Gelmon et al., 2005). Thus, the next iteration of this course, planned for Spring 2022, will involve assessing experiences, analyzing strategies and execution, and planning improvements in collaboration with our partners.

For me, this course had a huge impact. I observed our community’s resilience first-hand, as well as my students’ creativity and teamwork. I also developed heartfelt relationships with our partners. Perhaps I might consider appending my course name to “Brain & Heart Connections.” I am grateful we had this opportunity for citizenship to the Durham YMCA, Durham Children’s Initiative, and our university.

Discussion Questions:

1) How can students feel both empowered and humble about their contributions to the community? What assignments or exercises can help achieve this balance?

2) According to Eby (1998): “Students sometimes use service-learning to make themselves feel good or to strengthen their resumes.” What is your reaction to this? Is this wrong or problematic? Why or why not? And if so, what can be done?

3) In addition to providing a direct service to communities we must also continually ask ourselves – what is giving rise to the need for all this service in the first place? How do those of us who teach service-learning classes help our students better understand this? How do we both “help others” while also at the same time address the root causes of inequities and injustices? (D. Malone, personal communication, May 27, 2021).


Durham Children's Initiative. 2021. Durham Children's Initiative – Building Pathways to Equity. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2021].

Eby, J. W. (1998). Why service-learning is bad . Agape Center for Service andLearning, Messiah College. Retrieved from

Furco, Andrew. (1996). "Service-Learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education". Service Learning, General. 128.

Gelmon, S. B., Agrel-Kippenhan, S., Cress, C.M. (2005). Beyond a Grade: Are We Making a Difference? In Cress, C. M., Collier, P. J., Reitenauer, V. L. & Associates (Eds.), Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning Across the Disciplines. (pp. 125-138). Stylus Publishing, L.L.C.

Malone, D. (personal communication, May 27, 2021) believes that when engaging in “service”, we need to be intentional and humble as we enter communities.

Shiarella, A. H., McCarthy, A. M., & Tucker. (2000). Development and construct validity of scores on the community service attitudes scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement. 60(2): 286-300.

YMCA of the Triangle. 2021. Downtown Durham YMCA. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2021].

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