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Sami Kahn: Service Learning

Note: The above video by the Center for Campus and Community Engagement explains the work they do and why OHIO faculty should engage. The following story is the first in a series about service learning across Ohio University. Several OHIO faculty will be featured, showing how they are utilizing service learning in their curriculum to form mutually beneficial relationships with local and global nonprofits. Each service learning course is unique, given that the style of the professor, course objectives, and community partner experience all vary.

by Emily Baxstrom
September 2017

At Ohio University, the Center for Campus and Community Engagement (CCCE) defines service learning as “structured experiential education linked to a course that intentionally supports student learning and community-based organizations equally.” The organization that partners with the CCCE gets the help and services they need (i.e., skilled labor, leadership, administrative assistance), but the projects also intentionally align with course and learning objectives that faculty set in the curriculum.

“Substantive contributions to communities and rich student learning are both integral to a high-quality service-learning experience," said Pete Mather, professor in counseling and higher education in the Patton College of Education.

Research shows that students involved in service learning tend to be more motivated and engaged while showing a greater understanding of the academic material (CCCE). Cognitive scientists even have found that “college learning that more closely approximates the situation in which students will use their knowledge and continue to learn is less likely to be useless or inert” (Eyler, Giles, & Astin, 1999, p. 9).

Another central element of service learning is the linking of “personal and interpersonal development with academic and cognitive development” (Eyler, Giles, & Astin, 1999, p. 9); that is, linking the head and the heart. Connecting the personal with the intellectual helps students gain an understanding of the world, develop critical thinking skills, and prepares them for life after college.

“Service learning brings together concrete, real-life experience with theories students are receiving in the classroom,” said Mather. “It’s something that impacts them not just intellectually, but emotionally as well, and there’s a symbiosis where heart and head play off of each other.”

Ohio University’s campus locations in the southeast part of the state open the door to many opportunities for students to connect and learn from the community. “We live in a really unique and special place in Southeastern Ohio and we have cultural barriers that are built into the social structure here,” said Diana Marvel, former director of the CCCE. “I’ve seen service learning help break that down and create opportunities for learning on both sides of the equation.”

A past student who took a service learning course at OHIO said, “students usually think of volunteer work as giving to those who are in need. Although the community we worked with was poor in the economic sense, it was so rich in its values, hospitality, kindness, and sense of community. Because of this, I felt the experience was much more about cultural exchange than giving to those in need.”

Sami Kahn: Department of Teach Education, Patton College of Education

Sami Kahn, an assistant professor of science education in the Patton College of Education, has seen a great benefit from incorporating service learning into her teaching. “What I’ve seen happen with my students when they’ve engaged in service learning is that they’re so devoted, so motivated; it is a much more invested way of teaching than I was previously doing,” said Kahn. Her students began not only learning the curricular objectives, but they went above and beyond, voluntarily spending their own time on projects outside of class and visiting organizations with which they were partnering. “As a faculty member, you can’t ask for more of your students. They made me so proud.”

Kahn uses service learning in her courses to give her students an experience-based, immersive experience of what the teaching world is like outside of traditional classroom settings, and to understand the profound ways in which science education can impact individuals and communities. Currently, she incorporates service learning in her Secondary School Scientific Methods course. She also has made service learning the focus of the student organization for which she serves as the advisor, the Ohio University National Science Teachers Association (OUNSTA).

She previously taught courses without incorporating service learning, and said it was difficult to ensure students were connecting their studies to authentic experiences. “Service Learning gives me the opportunity to actually have them doing the real teaching, leading, and serving in the community on course time,” said Kahn.

Inclusive Science Day

This past year, she held a pilot program in partnership with her special education colleague, Karen Oswald. Their students participated in the Inclusive Science Day that was held at the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery (OVMoD). The goal of the event was “to make science accessible to everyone,” including children with disabilities.

Kahn’s and Oswald’s students were in charge of planning the activities at the event, ensuring all children could enjoy them. Their students also lead different stations and worked with children that attended the event. Kahn and Oswald received funding from a mini grant through the CCCE, allowing her to purchase materials for the event that attending children and families could then take home. The Patton College of Education also supported the event through funds available to student organizations. Kahn’s other key partners included Sara Hartman, a colleague from the Department of Teacher Education who serves as board president of the OVMoD, and Jen Parsons, executive director of the OVMoD.

Ohio University student Emily Coen works with a child making kazoos during the Inclusive Science Day
One of Kahn’s students, Emily Coen, works with a child making kazoos during the Inclusive Science Day at the OVMoD. The children were able to take all the event materials home.

“The OVMoD was thrilled to work with Dr. Kahn, Dr. Oswald, and their students to create an inclusive science day for our community,” said Parsons. “The Ohio University students were professional and engaging and created interesting learning opportunities for the whole family.”

Kahn’s students were so engaged and excited about the event that they voluntarily went on to sponsor a 5K race for the OVMoD, in partnership with the Ohio University National Science Teachers Association. Her students were responsible for all of the advertising, permitting, and fundraising for the race. They made a scale model of the solar system that participants ran through on the bike path. The event raised $700 for the OVMoD. “My students tell me it’s so memorable for them to really feel like part of the community, which is something we want them to do when they’re in their own schools in the future: to think beyond the classroom and really be impactful in their students’ lives,” said Kahn.

“The important thing about service learning is that each and every opportunity is very closely connected with the curricular objectives of the course or program,” said Kahn. “The students aren’t just going out and doing nice things; they have to reflect on how and what they’re doing connects specifically to the skills and dispositions they need to become teachers.”

This reflection piece was a large part of designing the courses with a service learning component. Kahn makes it a priority to give fewer, more meaningful assignments to her students instead of a large amount of assignments that will not be as memorable.

Kahn also will partner with Rural Action, another local nonprofit, this fall (2017–18). Her students will volunteer with Rural Action’s Inquiry-Based Learning Conference, including everything from setup and registration to actually presenting at the conference. They also will help with any other projects the organization has going, from “land lab” maintenance to educational outreach programs.

Throughout her first year teaching at Ohio University, and particularly through the service learning workshop with the CCCE, Kahn learned that communication is key when adding a service learning component to a course. “Have the tough conversations up-front with the organization of what the expectations and objectives are,” she said. “If you don’t do that, you just assume everybody wants the same thing and it’s going to be difficult to extricate yourself from a situation that may not be offering what you need for your students.” Kahn also noted planning and asking questions from those that are experienced also have been key.

Ohio University student Kristen Eads poses with a rocket the class made for the OVMoD 5K race
Kahn’s student, Kristen Eads, poses with a rocket the class made for the OVMoD 5K race they sponsored, in partnership with the Ohio University National Science Teachers Association.

Center for Campus and Community Engagement

For OHIO faculty interested in getting involved in service learning, the CCCE holds workshops every spring and fall. The fall workshop series, Introduction to Service Learning, covers the basics about what exactly service learning is, why those criteria are important, best practices or best principles, and dos and don’ts of the field.

“We have a number of resources for faculty at the CCCE, including a database of community partners that we can help connect faculty with, and a library of critical readings, ideas, and strategies for facilitating critical reflection with students,” said Marvel. The CCCE also has mini grants for which faculty can apply; up to $1,000 may be given toward the implementation of a service learning project as part of a class.

The spring workshop series is an in-depth service learning course development workshop, in which attendees can actually build a service learning class, including creating a syllabus, looking at course objectives, finding potential community partners, considering critical reflection and activities, and more.

“The critical reflection component in a service learning class really ties in the experience with students’ educational development,” said Marvel. “As Ohio University looks to be the best transformative education for students, I think it shows as an institution that we’re really walking the walk.”

The Office of Instructional Innovation (OII) serves as a catalyst to spark bold experimentation and sustainable discovery of innovative instructional models that fulfill the University’s promise of a transformative educational experience. OII provides a variety of services to faculty, staff, and students in support of academic units and online programs, as well as to advance initiatives to further the institution’s mission. Visit our home page for more information.