Service Learning Is a Perfect Fit for Occupational and Physical Therapy Education

Article excerpt

Service learning provides invaluable contributions to the education of occupational and physical therapy students by allowing them to contribute to the community while simultaneously optimizing their professional preparation. This report explores the application of five principles in occupational and physical therapy service-learning experiences: placement quality, application between classroom and community, reflection, diversity, and listening to the community's voice. J Allied Health 2005; 34:47-50.

SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY is routinely included in mission statements of most universities, colleges, and allied health departments. At the University of Oklahoma, we work with occupational and physical therapy students to actualize these ideals through course projects at homeless shelters, the Salvation Army, correctional facilities, a children's home, an adult daycare facility, a nonprofit alcohol and drug treatment facility, a residence for individuals with human immunodeficiency virus, a sheltered workshop, a group home, and an after-school program for at-risk youth. By exploring occupational and physical needs and implementing interventions at these facilities and others, we find that we not only contribute to our communities but also simultaneously optimize the professional preparation of our physical and occupational therapy students.

Service learning blends academic learning and service to the community with reflection to yield deep appreciations of one's discipline and civic responsibilities.1,2 This dual focus differentiates service learning from volunteerism and traditional clinical fieldwork. Service learning moves students from the classroom into the community to work with underserved populations, resulting in enhanced critical reasoning, personal and interpersonal development, understanding and application of core knowledge, reflective practice, and citizenship.3 Service learning, we have found, makes invaluable contributions to occupational and physical therapy education.

Service, after all, is the raison d'etre of both professions. Physical therapy provides "services to patients/clients who have impairments, functional limitations, disabilities, or changes in physical function and health status resulting from injury, disease, or other causes."4 Occupational therapy is "the art and science of helping people do the day-to-day activities that are important and meaningful to their health and well-being through engagement in valued occupations."5 Service learning prepares students to deal with these professional challenges in ways that traditional education cannot.

Researchers have identified five fundamental elements in effective service learning: placement quality, application between classroom and community, reflection, diversity, and listening to the community's voice.''6"s This report explores application of these principles in occupational and physical therapy service-learning experiences.

Placement Quality

Two early tasks in creating effective service learning are determining criteria for community partners and building alliances with them. Gugerty and Swezey9 wrote, "How an institution approaches or enters into a community is crucial to the long-term success and sustainability of service-learning programs. Having inclusive representation throughout the process and being clear on goals, responsibilities, and definitions builds trust and encourages lasting relationships."

We have found these criteria for community partners to be productive for our occupational and physical therapy students.

* Services are delivered to diverse populations, enabling students to work with individuals not typically encountered in classrooms, social circles, or traditional, for-profit health care systems.

* Opportunities are available for students to experience leadership roles in program planning and interaction with clients.

* Students can interact with clients with significant issues that challenge problem-solving skills. …