Friday, July 11, 2014

Service-Learning and Making a Difference

a guest post by Karl-Dieter Crisman

Crisman at the 17th Annual Legacy of R. L. Moore—Inquiry-Based 
Learning Conference (photo Kirk Tuck/EAF)
When I teach a new course, or return to a course after a number of years, one of the most exciting parts is to start with that clean slate. What new text can I choose? Is there a topic I can create my own materials for, to "do it right"? Is there some unifying project I can use to help give my students a broader vision of what the course really is about?

Over the past few decades, in many disciplines the answer to that last question has been to incorporate a service-learning component of some kind. At some institutions, this is even being mandated in various ways. And the words sound nice: Service seems useful, and we certainly want learning. But what is service-learning, and what does it have to do with math?

At its core, service-learning involves students participating in some useful service to the community, but in such a way that the service is itself a learning experience directly related to the content of the course. As an example, having students volunteer at a food bank would be service, and having them write a research paper about distribution of government and private largesse would be learning; students working at the food bank and then incorporating that experience as part of a research paper on the topic would be service-learning.

In addition to "feeling right" for many instructors, there is a growing research literature about benefits of service-learning in a wide range of disciplines. However, many readers of this blog will probably echo Charles Hadlock, the editor of the MAA's book on this subject: "Unfortunately, the mathematical sciences are sometimes perceived as having a more difficult task to incorporate service activities in the curriculum."  Campus Compact, a major clearinghouse, has only two syllabi for math on its website. In one survey of attitudes[*], an anonymous math professor says, "I can think of no service projects in the community that will enhance student learning of the abstract reasoning skills they should be learning in mathematics."

It is true that there is not the same body of plug-in activities as there may be in many other disciplines, and a paucity of resources, published online or in print. But in fact there are many such activities, appropriate for a wide variety of courses. A representative recent sampling I am personally acquainted with includes:

  • Analyzing energy use and sustainability practices on campus (quantitative reasoning)
  • Assessing volunteer versus state-provided aid in a local fire (intro statistics)
  • Helping local American Diabetes Association focus fundraising (finite math)
  • Tutoring high school precalculus students (calculus)
  • Creating math fun fair games (upper-level math and math ed)
  • Designing a new layout for a food pantry (upper-level modeling)
  • Providing feedback on cash flow for a local non-profit (upper-level modeling)
  • Analyzing (scrubbed) freshman orientation data (upper-level math/stats)
  • Running a math camp for middle-schoolers (graduate students)

A math game event is service; what are your ideas for turning this 
into service-learning?
If any of these ideas intrigue you or get you thinking about your own ideas, there are several great resources to examine. I would personally recommend Hadlock's MAA book, which gathers many more wonderful ideas together, and the recent special issue of PRIMUS on the topic (disclosure: I am a co-editor). I have gathered presentations from a contributed paper session at the Joint Meetings as well on a very minimalist website, and other journals in statistics, math ed, and service have related articles on occasion.

There are caveats, of course. First, it is unwise to attempt a project without some administrative support. Hopefully your campus has an office of community engagement or something similar to help find a community partner, and to assist in interacting with them, setting realistic goals, and so forth. Similarly, you will want to know that you have at least tacit approval to try this from your own department, at least as a pilot—especially if it is required of all students in a given course. It helped a lot for me to have both forms of support at Gordon College from the start. 

Third, read case studies and guides. From writing syllabi to managing students to meaningful evaluation, it is well worth planning things out carefully first. That said, I can't think of any example where the first offering went so smoothly that it didn't require mid-course correction, so the potential mentor will need to be open to last-minute changes.

Finally, as one may note from the list of sample projects, there is a big need for more tested ideas, particularly in proof-based courses (think abstract algebra), or those where directly using techniques for modeling for partners would not be appropriate for beginners (like an intro differential equations course). If you have an idea, do not be shy! Try it out, and then write about it for some venue (an article in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of MAA FOCUS was an inspiration to me).

I'd like to thank Dana and Angie for giving me this opportunity. Math ed does matter to those in the university context, and it's about so much more than targeted pedagogical strategies; the values we express in teaching do come home to roost in our students, in more ways than we can realize. And this can make a difference not only in the lives of those served, but also in many deep ways in the lives of our students.

[*] See the first article in volume 9 (2002) of the Michigan Journal for Community Service Learning.

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