Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Mutual Benefits: Both Sides See Advantages of Service-Learning Partnerships between Agencies and Students

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Mutual Benefits: Both Sides See Advantages of Service-Learning Partnerships between Agencies and Students

Article excerpt


Recently, I taught a classroom-based course about visitor-caused impacts on trails. In several cases, I found myself struggling to describe trail issues and management techniques used to address these issues. My description of sensitive plant species, trail engineering tips and water drainage solutions seemed clear to me, but as I looked out into my audience, it was obvious that some students were not "getting it."

The students' lack of understanding came from never having experienced real-life examples of these trail issues or management techniques and, in many cases, never having visited a state or national park. In general, I found it difficult for park and recreation-related lessons to be fully communicated in a classroom setting, void of practical application or an experiential, hands-on element.

Interestingly, I found that another group of people that I interacted with were not getting what they needed either. Park personnel described to me how they lacked the resources to complete the many projects they wanted to accomplish. In one case, buildings were not being painted quickly enough to keep up with a schedule for their maintenance. In another, projects that a manager hoped to complete in time for an annual park closure could not be accomplished with the number of staff she had. I turned to service learning as a technique to address the issues of both my students and park personnel.

Meeting Volunteerism and Internships Halfway

Service learning is an experiential teaching technique that provides students a chance to reinforce and build on classroom lessons while applying their efforts to socially meaningful projects. In her book, Service Learning in Higher Education, Susan Jacoby defines service learning as "a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development."

How does service learning differ from volunteerism or internships? Volunteerism typically provides the most benefits to sponsors of a project such as, parks, recreation departments or non-profit organizations. Volunteer projects are service-based. In contrast, internships provide the most benefit to the intern and the main focus is on providing a learning opportunity.

Service learning exists in the middle of these two concepts and is designed to offer roughly equal benefits to both project sponsors and students.

This concept is becoming increasingly popular as it is implemented more often at the middle school, high school and university levels. For example, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported that in 1984 only nine percent of public schools offered service-learning opportunities. In 1999, a survey conducted by the Department of Education found that 46 percent of public high schools and 38 percent of public middle schools offered service-learning opportunities. Also, service-learning courses are being offered with increasing frequency at universities and college. For example, the Vermont Campus Compact, a consortium of 22 college and university campuses, reports that the number of service-learning classes in the state has jumped 500 percent since 1999.

Service Learning in Parks

Service learning provides many benefits to both student and parks (or other community partners). Students gain real-life experience related to lessons taught to them in the classroom. They get to see first-hand the challenges facing parks and can interact with professionals in the field in which they may eventually work. At the same time, parks that sponsor service-learning opportunities benefit by receiving assistance with projects that might otherwise go unfulfilled, while helping to prepare potential employees. In addition, parks may benefit from relationships built with organizations and community members during service-learning projects. …

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