Academic Service-Learning: Building Connections from Classroom to Community

by Michelle LaPorte

All Christian educators hope to inspire students to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:30-31). The challenge: How can Christian institutions of higher education help students live out the two greatest commands while engaging the mind and intellect in ways that prepare them for the real world?

At Azusa Pacific, it begins with academic service-learning—a teaching and learning method that promotes student learning through active participation in meaningful community service experiences directly related to course content. Our approach focuses on connecting theory to practice, critical reflective thinking, personal and civic responsibility, faith integration, and relationship to students’ planned vocations. Faculty across disciplines recognize that learning deepens through hands-on activities, interaction with community members, and applying classroom learning to meet the needs of others. During the 2017-18 academic year, 65 APU faculty employed academic service-learning in 185 courses or sections of courses across 24 departments throughout the university, resulting in more than 46,000 hours of service to and engagement with the local community.

“Academic service-learning is the glue that connects knowledge with practice and people,” said Kathleen Tallman, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry who uses the pedagogy of service-learning in her allied health courses. “Reading, reciting, and taking tests may evaluate knowledge, application, and integration, but academic service-learning expands those opportunities into situations with the practical problems of the workplace.”

Different from volunteerism and community service, which primarily emphasize the service and the recipient, academic service-learning involves reciprocity. Through partnership with faculty, community members contribute to the education of college students by providing experience, expertise, and the context for practice. Arturo Ortega, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Azusa Unified School District and co-educator of APU students through academic service-learning, said, “The genius and power of academic service-learning is being able to plug students in to where there is an authentic need and/or the opportunity to experience something powerful.”

24 departments participating in service-learning
185 service-learning courses/sections
3,341 students engaged in service-learning
46,700 hours of service to the community through service-learning
$1.3 million in estimated value of service-learning student contribution—Numbers reflect undergraduate student engagement. Plans include expansion into the graduate and professional student areas, as well as at regional campuses.

The engaged learning experiences look different for each course. Whether assessing community health needs at a local clinic, teaching local elementary students to create ceramic pieces related to their social studies curriculum, practicing theories of communication and group dynamics through an action enterprise with a local nonprofit organization, or applying teaching approaches to diverse populations of students while guiding the young students through a college-preparation curriculum, each APU student participates in a unique project with meaning and relevance to his or her individual academic, career, and service goals. The experience culminates in faculty-guided critical reflection via class discussions, reflective journals, research papers, and group presentations.

Ryan Jewe ’18 participated in an academic service-learning project through the Consumer Behavior course. As he learned about marketing strategies, his class also conducted research and prepared presentations to help the local Department of Children and Family Services strategize goals and next steps for 18-21-year-olds in the foster care system. During his semester away in South Africa, Jewe also enrolled in the Principles of Community Engagement academic service-learning course. “Service-learning enhanced my academic experience by providing me with practical and professional experience that framed my perspective on how organizations can work together to produce positive change in a community,” he said.

Like Jewe, more and more students are recognizing the value of the civic, faith, and professional development opportunities intrinsic in academic service-learning. When surveyed by the Center for Academic Service-Learning in 2018, 92 percent of the 2,444 participating students reported that the service-learning experience provided an avenue to live out their Christian values. They also built their résumés; networked with professionals; strengthened skills in interpersonal dynamics, problem solving, and community relations; and further clarified their vocational paths.

“I view academic service-learning as the convergence of APU’s Four Cornerstones: Christ, Scholarship, Community, and Service,” said Greg Bellinder, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology. “In my Adapted Physical Education course, APU students represent Christ as they engage in practical scholarship by engaging the service to the community. My students design and teach physical education lessons to preschool and elementary special education classes at a local Azusa school; this provides unparalleled context for our discussions of educational theories back at APU. The course material comes alive, and many students receive confirmation of their calling to become adapted physical education teachers.”

Academic service-learning enables APU to offer a holistic educational experience that bridges the gap between theory and application and helps students answer that timeless question: “How does what I’m learning in the classroom matter in the real world?” As Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” By engaging both, academic service-learning brings APU students closer to living out those two greatest commands and gives them hands-on training as transformational influencers and difference makers.

Michelle LaPorte, M.Ed., is director of APU’s Center for Academic Service-Learning.