Enhancing Academic Learning through Service-Learning

Elaine S. Voytek and Janice G. Sandrick
Seton Hill University

Ms. Voytek is retired from Seton Hill University; Dr. Sandrick is Associate Professor and Director of the Coordinated Program in Nutrition/Dietetics.


Service-learning enhances academic achievement by providing reality-based experiences that meet identified community needs. Integrating knowledge from classes and previous experiences with that community need, junior students successfully conducted a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter. After realizing the need for better sanitation at the shelter, the class, with other family and consumer sciences student volunteers, cleaned the shelter kitchen and posted sanitation requirements. These experiences and student reflection reinforced their learning as well as development of professional values.


In Boyer’s (1994) call to create the New American College, he asked, “Is it possible for the work of the academy to relate more effectively to our most pressing social, economic, and civic problems?” (p. A48) The answer for family and consumer sciences is a resounding yes. Traditionally, educational preparation in family and consumer sciences has included a rigorous academic base plus practical experiences applying the knowledge from that base. Service-learning that connects an academic base and practical experiences to community needs is a natural fit. In fact, it enhances that education. Service-learning is much more than well-meaning community service in an area related to one’s major. As stated by Levesque and Prosser (1996), “Service-learning, rather than limiting learning experiences to vicarious exposure to critical issues and problems, engages students with the phenomenon under study” (p. 327).

Service-learning has been defined in the National and Community Service Act of 1990 (U.S. Code Title 42 Section 12511, 1999) as a process

(A) under which students or participants learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that (i) is conducted in and meets the needs of a community; (ii) is coordinated with an elementary school, secondary school, institution of higher education, or community service program, and with the community; and (iii) helps foster civic responsibility; and

(B) that (i) is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students, or the educational components of the community service program in which the participants are enrolled; and (ii) provides structured time for the students or participants to reflect on the service experience.

In other words, effective service-learning requires an academic base, a community need connected to that base, the opportunity for students to plan ways to meet that need, service connected to the course by assignment, and student reflection on the project and the learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996, Hatcher & Bringle, 1997; Kinsley, 1997; Shumer, 1997). Facilitating a project devised by students to meet a community need would make the learning more meaningful and increase their level of responsibility (Kinsley, 1997; Shumer, 1997).

Although the process can be described in different ways, service-learning activities require planning, implementation, a summary report, and evaluation, with reflection as a part of all steps (Burns, 1998; Tai-Seale, 2001). Planning includes assessing community needs and determining links between those needs and student learning objectives. Involvement of interested community or agency leaders is essential to ensure that the project will fulfill a need and that students and community members will benefit. At this stage faculty members should ensure that students are prepared to complete the project.

Reflection is a key element throughout the process. During the implementation phase of the service-learning activity, students should reflect on their performance and the outcome of the service (Tai-Seale, 2001). However in order for students to capitalize on this learning, faculty should provide frequent feedback and opportunities for guided reflection (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Hatcher & Bringle, 1997; Tai-Seale, 2001). Guided reflection strategies may include guided reflection journals, directed writing projects, class presentations, an experiential research paper, or service-learning portfolio. Students should indicate how the service-learning was related to course objectives and their personal or professional life (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996; Hatcher & Bringle, 1997).

The final two parts of a service-learning activity are the summary report and evaluation. In the summary report phase, students develop a summary of what has been learned. This could take the form of a classroom presentation, media appearance, written report, or publication in print media (Burns, 1998). Evaluation of the project by faculty, service recipients, involved community or agency leaders, and peers is the final component. Student self-evaluation is crucial.

Service-Learning At One Institution

Students at the authors’ institution have numerous opportunities to participate in service-learning. On an institutional level, community responsibility has been encouraged by a university-wide day of service at the beginning of each semester. Activities include highway clean up, gleaning crops for a local food bank, other food bank activities, and literacy work. Individual courses across the curriculum include service-learning components. Students in the Seminar in Family and Consumer Sciences course address ethical issues and the positive aspects of diversity by using activities from Leadership: Reflective Human Action (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm, & Vaughn, 1995). Each option area within family and consumer sciences fosters the use of professional expertise in community service. The study of hunger and its nutritional consequences has long been a part of the dietetics curriculum. After addressing the issues surrounding hunger in various courses, senior level students participated in orientations at a large food bank and soup kitchen. These orientations, arranged by instructors, culminated in brief work experiences at both facilities. Students then wrote journal entries about their experiences.

The outcome of this approach has been a solid intellectual understanding and increased awareness. However the faculty desired students to have a more visceral connection so that they would be ready to accept their responsibility as dietetics professionals to promote food security and optimal nutrition (Fox, 1998; Position, 1998). To nurture a more empathic understanding of hunger and its effect on the lives of individuals, the faculty decided to introduce experiences earlier in the curriculum and strengthen experiences by embracing the tenets of service-learning. As faculty members discussed appropriate service-learning projects, students initiated one such opportunity.

A New Service-Learning Opportunity

Junior-level students in dietetics, family and consumer sciences education, and hospitality take a course entitled Food Service Systems Management I (FSSMI). The overall course outcome required that all students demonstrate decision-making skills in purchasing and production for quantity food service by managing all aspects of a quantity food service project. Each student had the opportunity to manage a quantity project in the laboratory portion of the course. Among the course competencies aimed at facilitating the student’s ability to manage the quantity food project were the following:

  1. Given a menu and numbers to be served, the student determines foods to be purchased.
  1. The student determines quantity of food within 10% of correctness.

  2. The student determines appropriate quality of food based on use, budgetary constraints, and storage capabilities.

  1. The student demonstrates proficiency in quantity food preparation by using correct techniques in the FSSMI laboratory.
  1. The student demonstrates knowledge of the principles and techniques of quantity food production and service scoring a minimum of 70% on an objective test.
  2. The student demonstrates correct operation and maintenance of quantity food service equipment in the lab.
  1. The student applies accepted sanitation techniques in the FSSMI laboratory.
  2. The student manages a quantity food project.

  1. The student plans a production schedule that contributes to a successful project.
  2. The student uses multiple resources in the management of a quantity food service project.

The faculty member decided to incorporate the study of hunger issues into this course. Students examined hunger through readings that included updated national statistics, films depicting victims of hunger, and class discussion. On the suggestion of a local school food service director, the faculty member invited a chef spokesperson from the American Culinary Federation Chef and Child Foundation, Inc. (CCF) to address the class. The mission of the foundation is “to address the dietary needs and nutrition education needs of and for children in America; to be the voice and army of the American Culinary Federation in its fight against childhood hunger in America” (The ACF Chef, n.d.). The chef related the statistics and stories of the hungry in the local county with emphasis on children suffering from hunger. His appeal was made more poignant through the telling of his own story of hunger and homelessness. He challenged the students to join in the effort to end hunger by participating in the CCF Childhood Hunger Day canned food drive and information day activities to benefit the local food bank.

While participating in the Childhood Hunger Day, students were surprised to learn that a homeless shelter, housing women and children, existed in their community. When talking with shelter organizers, they learned that various community groups volunteered to prepare and serve luncheon meals at the site. Participation in this food drive and revelations about the homeless shelter provided rich fodder for classroom discussion and reflection.

Meanwhile one of the scheduled quantity food service projects was unexpectedly canceled. Two of the students were now without a project to manage. They asked their professor if they could plan and implement the service of a nutritious lunch at the homeless shelter as a substitute project. The professor agreed enthusiastically, impressed by their initiative and excited by the opportunity to implement a service-learning project in this course. The design of the quantity food project conformed well to service-learning principles and process, as student managers were required to plan and implement the project and write a report describing the project and its results. Peer evaluation was obtained in class discussion after the event, the manager prepared a self-evaluation, and the faculty member also evaluated the project.

The student managers began to plan the event. They met with the shelter organizers to determine whether their services were needed. The shelter organizers were happy to have the help and answered student questions about procedures at the shelter. They told the students to expect 20 to 25 patrons for lunch; many of the children who lived at the shelter would be at school. Lunches at the shelter had been getting monotonous; they generally consisted of hot dogs or sandwiches. Students also investigated the kitchen facilities and decided to prepare the food on campus and deliver it to the site. They reflected on how they would provide a nutritious lunch while meeting course outcomes to manage a successful quantity food project.

Recognizing that they had limited monetary resources, students networked with wholesalers and a school food service director, contacts they had made through their dietetics program supervised practice for FSSMI. They also contacted a large regional supermarket chain, requesting donations of food and other supplies. Based on the foods received, the students planned a meal and take-out bag lunches. The original goal of a hearty and nutritious meal was met with a menu of beef, bean and vegetable stew, buttered carrots and apple crisp. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches formed the basis of the take-out lunches. Each lunch also included a small toy donated by one of the food distributors. This project allowed the students to apply food service management skills in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the project. The project met the learning outcomes for a food service management project for the FSSMI class.

On the day of the project, all of the students in the class participated in the production and service of the meal. Thirty-two patrons were served, and all 40 of the bag lunches were claimed for children who would return from school later. The students discovered the real face of poverty when a woman thanked then over and over for the lunches saying, “Now I’ll have something to feed my children tonight.”

Post-Project Summary and Evaluation

The student managers completed their summary report, concluding that the project benefited shelter residents as well as themselves, providing a unique opportunity to meet course competencies. Their report included self-evaluation.

During the post-project discussion, the managers evaluated the project as highly successful. More people were fed than had been expected. Generally, the numbers are highest the last week of the month when money has run out. Since the meal was being served the second week of the month, a lower number was forecast. Fortunately, the students had prepared extra food so the leftovers could be served that evening to residents of the shelter. This extra food permitted all who came for lunch to be served. The out-of-pocket expense for the project was $13.00 or $0.166 per person based on 32 hot meals and 40 bag lunches. The production schedule had allowed for adequate time to complete all tasks and the menu met with very favorable acceptance from the clientele.

Reflection on the project brought a consensus that the students now realized how stark life is for those who have so little. The class agreed that they had met with much success in acquiring food but also experienced disappointment in the lack of response in some places. The students saw hunger as a complex, multifaceted problem. As they reflected on the project, they saw another need, that of inadequate sanitation at the soup kitchen. They recognized that the problem existed because the kitchen was staffed by various volunteer organizations working with very limited resources and probably a lack of knowledge.

To address this problem, the students gathered information about who had access to the kitchen and how the volunteer groups shared responsibilities. They found few rules in place. The shelter residents used the kitchen in the evening and one refrigerator was designated for their use. The residents were expected to clean up after themselves. The students concluded that only education could provide a lasting solution, but the immediate need was to clean the kitchen. On the University Day of Service held in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, the students chose to clean the soup kitchen and to provide basic sanitation guidelines to post in the preparation area. They recruited other family and consumer sciences students and faculty to help and by day’s end, the kitchen was clean and orderly. They posted signs highlighting sanitation procedures.

After reflecting on both the meal served and the clean-up of the kitchen, the students concluded that not enough people were reached and that they needed to be involved in a more ongoing way. Unfortunately the shelter was moved to another location in the county so the students were unable to continue working directly with these clients. However, several students chose to volunteer at the local food bank to continue to fight hunger in their local community. In their senior year, they had an experience at a larger food bank and soup kitchen in an adjoining county. As a result of their earlier experiences, they were able to draw more informed, meaningful conclusions about the experiences they had in their senior year. Students appreciated the organization and wide range of services available at this soup kitchen. They recognized that these services met a broad spectrum of community needs.

Each of these experiences took the students into the community. They developed an awareness and appreciation for the extensiveness of the problem of hunger. They saw, first hand, people who had been only statistics. Students discovered that they had the ability to directly impact the lives of people in need by applying the knowledge and skills they were acquiring in their education. They never complained that the work they were doing was too menial or too dirty. They found a true satisfaction and sense of accomplishment while achieving course outcomes. They met Shumer’s goal that “Students learn more when what they do has value to the people they serve or the organizations they assist” (1997, p. 20). The students had truly connected with the community and people in the community, an experience that should help to guide them in their professional lives.

Student experiences at the homeless shelter enriched their learning and fostered the conviction that they could make a difference by using their knowledge and skills. To make learning more meaningful, educators should be open to and more actively search for ways to use service-learning to meet academic goals. These experiences reinforce learning as well as the development of professional values and skills.


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