There is a growing emphasis on service-learning in higher education. Students in all disciplines are learning not only in the classroom but also in the community. Historically, there have been numerous approaches to teaching university students how to apply knowledge in the “real” world, including internships, externships, practicums, cooperative education, and student teaching. While some of these pedagogies help meet the needs of businesses, government agencies, and schools, service-learning focuses on community needs, which students attempt to meet by applying their newly acquired academic knowledge.
In reviews of service-learning literature, both Cone (2009) and Dorsey (2001) suggest there are many definitions of service-learning, though commonalities exist among those definitions. Specifically, service-learning includes pedagogies that bring together academics with meaningful community service in a way that enriches both (Cone, 2009; Ehrlich, 1996). The National Service-Learning Cooperative (1999) provides a two-page answer to the question “What is service-learning?,” including a description of service-learning as “… an educational method that involves students in challenging tasks that meet genuine community needs and requires the application of knowledge, skills and systematic reflection….” Students undertake projects in the community that go beyond the campus and require the use of specialized knowledge and skills learned in the classroom and laboratory (Kalivas, 2008).
Descriptions of the elements of service-learning also vary. Scholarly reviews of service-learning typically characterize it as having at least four key elements: academics, reciprocity, reflection, and diversity (Cone, 2009; Dorsey, 2001; Education Commission of the States, 2002; National Service-Learning Cooperative, 1999). Service-learning is more than community service because of its academic component (Education Commission of the States, 2002). Service-learning projects must be designed based on learning outcomes (Cone, 2009) and to provide an opportunity for students to learn how to apply and/or convey their academic knowledge within the community.
One part of the academic aspect of service-learning is the element of reflection, including discussions, surveys, journals, and/or other opportunities for students to talk or write about their experiences. A study by Astin et al. (2000) demonstrated that the process of reflection is required for students to understand the relationship between their service-learning and classroom experiences.
Reciprocity refers to the relationship between the community and the university entities involved in service-learning (Kendall, 1990). It is expected that the students will learn from the community and that the community will benefit equally from this partnership (Cone, 2009; Dorsey, 2001). In addition to meeting the academic needs of students, service-learning projects must meet “genuine community needs” (National Service-Learning Cooperative, 1999). Projects are based on community needs, not university interests, and are, therefore, usually identified, modified, and sustained by a collaborative interaction between community leaders, faculty, and students (Brooks and Schramm, 2007; Education Commission of the States, 2002).
Diversity is also central to many service-learning projects because they provide students with opportunities to interact with people different from themselves. Many students possess minimal experience in sharing knowledge across different ages, cultures, experiences, etc., despite this being an important aspect of their professional career development (Cone, 2009). Brooks and Schramm (2007) reported that economics students “…learned the personal skills required to … work with a wide variety of people…” during the completion of their service-learning project.
The expected outcomes from participation in service-learning projects include improved academic performance (Astin et al., 2000; Montgomery, 2004), problem-solving skills (Brooks and Schramm, 2007; Eyler and Giles, 1999; Pinzon-Perez and Perez, 2005), communication skills (Kalivas, 2008; Pinzon-Perez and Perez, 2005), group-work skills (Brooks and Schramm, 2007; Pinzon-Perez and Perez, 2005), and positive changes in attitudes toward community involvement, leadership, and cultural diversity (Astin et al., 2000; Pinzon-Perez and Perez, 2005).
Billig (2002) asserted that the lack of a specific model for service-learning makes it an adaptable method that can be applied successfully to a variety of educational and community needs. Service-learning projects have been demonstrated to improve the depth and breadth of student comprehension in a wide variety of disciplines, including engineering (Pearce, 2006), health (Pinzon-Perez and Perez, 2005), economics (Brooks and Schramm, 2007), geography (Dorsey, 2001), biotechnology (Montgomery, 2004), and chemistry (Kalivas, 2008). Many horticulture programs now include a class or classes with service-learning projects, including those in which students develop and execute community landscaping projects (Berle, 2006; Davis, 1999; Knauft et al., 2008; Trader and Heiselt, 2009), install irrigation systems (Lavis and Brannon, 2010), teach horticulture to elementary school students (Knauft et al., 2008; Motsenbocker and Smith, 2005), or teach integrated pest management for the benefit of community members (Faust et al., 2000). Service-learning has even been integrated throughout the curriculum of horticulture programs at universities such as the University of Georgia (Berle, 2006) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Niemiera et al., 2010). However, given the previously described impact of service-learning on learning objectives, such projects may be an underused pedagogical tool in many horticulture programs.
California Polytechnic (Cal Poly) State University, San Luis Obispo, CA, is a nationally ranked, 4-year, public university located among the major agricultural regions of California. Its College of Food and Environmental Sciences is also nationally ranked and is the fourth largest undergraduate agricultural program in the United States. Cal Poly emphasizes “learn by doing” for all of its students. In keeping with that philosophy, students not only learn during lectures and laboratories but they also work on the campus’ extensive orchards and vineyards and often participate in internships. However, opportunities to use these skills to give back to and/or learn from the community are not abundant because volunteer opportunities are typically limited to extracurricular activities. Therefore, the objective of this project was to assess whether the addition of service-learning to an introductory pomology class provided a sound pedagogical approach to teach horticultural techniques while also meeting broader university learning objectives, including fostering critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and community involvement.
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Pinzon-Perez, H. & Perez, M. 2005 Changes in students’ knowledge, attitudes, and skills in a service learning community health course J. Civic Commitment, Issue 6 6 Sept. 2009 <http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/other/engagement/Journal/Issue6/Perez.shtml>.