Learning – and doing – in context

Cynthia D’Costa

The short three minute video had me on the edge of my seat as I saw four engineering students create a scene that seemed like one out of a Harry Potter movie. The students were at a children’s museum working on a project that would enable children visiting the museum to ‘make colourful potions by using a wand’. This project, based on systems engineering, was part of the Masters Programme that the engineering students were undertaking. Before setting up their project in the museum, these students interacted with children and developed an understanding of how they would love to learn science and worked on their project accordingly. The engineering students found this an enriching learning experience; it helped them understand how a science museum functions. Learning experiences as these, more popularly called ‘Service Learning Experiences’ , are deliberately interwoven into the curriculum to provide a platform for learning about community needs and engage in meaningful service that will make a difference. Full scale projects like the one described above are part of the credits that students need to earn for the degree they pursue.

Types of service learning
Service learning can be of four types. In Direct Service Learning, the students’ service directly impacts the one receiving the service. For example, some students from the Teacher Education Institute, where I teach, spend a certain number of days teaching English to school students from rural areas where there is a dearth of good language teachers. Others opt for service learning at a school for the mentally challenged. The second type of service learning is Indirect Service Learning, where students work on broader issues and community projects. Here they may not come in direct contact with the beneficiaries of the programme. A group of sociology students collected data about beggars in their vicinity through informal interviews. This information, passed on to the local police, helped identify rackets involving children being used to beg. The sociology students, through the exercise, garnered first-hand information about several social issues as poverty, illiteracy, and child labour. The third type of service learning involves Research based Service Learning which can be used to decide policies and usher developmental programmes. For example, students of a town carried out an exercise to map trees in the area. A web-based application gave a succinct picture of the areas where trees were sparse. Species that were fast depleting were identified and the local government undertook a tree plantation drive to restore the flora of the town. Advocacy Service Learning includes experiences where action and awareness is created about a topic of public interest.

segregate-waste What does service learning include?
Service learning is not synonymous with community work or social service. While community work and social service involve giving of one’s time and resources to alleviate social problems, service learning includes application of structured and guided classroom learning to social needs. Service learning supplements reading, writing, and classroom discussions. It is reciprocal and benefits the students as well as those who benefit from the service. Service learning can be undertaken by students of any age. For instance, some grade three students created booklets titled ‘Learning about Animals’ for their use and these same books were then used to teach kindergarten students. Similarly, after learning about the three Rs – Recycle, Reduce, and Reuse – class six students of a school made posters and displayed them in their school hall. Later, these posters were displayed at the local departmental store to persuade customers to avoid plastic carry bags. Encouraged by the response, the students extrapolated the activity by organizing a Women’s Self Help Group to tailor cloth bags which were then sold outside the store.

Service learning is not subject specific. For example, as part of service learning, students of social sciences can survey the locality and study the problems faced by specific groups such as migrant workers. They can document local history or create a database of indigenous knowledge practices. Students studying science can document flora and fauna of the locality. Students who learn about symmetry in their mathematics class can use the concept to make greeting cards that involve symmetric paper folding. Later, these cards can be sold and the funds can be donated to an orphanage. A group of commerce students can use their knowledge of writing accounts by helping out ‘Not for Profit organizations’ in their locality.

Impact of service learning
Service learning is meaningful when the topic is correlated with local conditions. The area I live in has a unique system of water harvesting where every village has small tanks to hold water. These tanks ensure that the local wells have adequate water during summer. The tanks were, in the past, used to supply water to vegetable plantations in the area. Unfortunately, with the decline of agriculture and escalation of construction, these tanks were slowly being abandoned and were turning into dumping grounds. A geography teacher in a local school spoke about this issue when teaching her class about ‘water resources’. Her students studied the problem and organized a drive to clear the tanks. With help from the villagers, trees were planted along the edges of the tanks to reduce water evaporation. Sign boards highlighting the significance of the tanks were displayed. In some places, fish breeding was carried out. Thus, the whole exercise provided an interesting landscape to usher meaningful learning.

Research shows that service learning develops civic values, broadens students’ perspectives and immerses them in authentic learning. Since there is greater student engagement, student retention is increased. Moreover dynamic collaborations are developed with the community through service learning. Service learning teaches children how to give. In the Indian context, teachers will be able to identify scores of situations that can be taken as arenas for service learning. Changes that our society needs can be ushered in through such exercises. The words of the athlete Arthur Ashe sum up the essence of service learning – ‘From what we get, we make a living. From what we give, we make our lives.’

The author is an Associate Professor in Education at Pushpanjali College of Education. She can be contacted at c.dcosta@redifmail.com.

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