Learning in service

More students are getting valuable life experience through their academic courses

Learning in service

Natalie Bouyett, a junior nutrition major, and Alps Road Elementary School student Nyvia Brown joke about the tiny radish Nyvia picked from the school garden.

Photo by: PETER FREY

The carrot might well be made of gold as tightly as Makayla Vaughan holds onto it. Fresh from a garden at Alps Road Elementary School in Athens, the carrot, along with lettuce and spinach also plucked from the garden bed, will be part of Makayla’s dinner.

“I’m going to use them in a salad,” the 10-year-old says.

The three UGA students standing nearby are pleased. Their semester-long effort to teach the school children the nutritional value of fresh vegetables, as well as how to grow and eat them, is paying off.

“I’ve never seen kids go so crazy over a vegetable,” says Natalie Bouyett, a junior nutrition major from Woodstock.

During the spring, UGA students from three schools or colleges—horticulture, social work and family and consumer sciences—traveled to five Athens area elementary schools to teach children about healthy eating, nature and sustainability. Co-directed by Shari Miller, an assistant professor of social work; David Berle, an associate professor of horticulture; and Jung Sun Lee, an assistant professor of food and nutrition, it was one of 297 service-learning course sections offered to UGA students during the 2010-11 academic year. In academic service-learning courses, students participate in hands-on service activities designed to encourage community engagement, enrich student learning and provide benefit to communities.

“Part of being an educated citizen is understanding who you are as a community leader and how you can contribute,” says Shannon Wilder, who has directed the Office of Service-Learning since its inception in 2005. “Service learning is a way to connect academic concepts learned in the classroom with real needs in the community.”

“Even as students they have the opportunity to change things.”

Students in Cecilia Herles women’s studies class “Environment, Gender, Race, Class” developed a service-learning project to address the environmental issue of food waste and the issue of food insecurity in the Athens community. The students identified grandparents raising their grandchildren as a population that has trouble putting enough food on the table for the family. Grandparents often have no access to public assistance for their grandchildren because they are not legal guardians.

In the spring, the students organized the UGA Campus Community Kitchen, modeled after a national program run by students who collect excess food and deliver it to hungry people in their communities. Herles laid out the ingredients for the program, but her students did the rest. They partnered with the Athens Community Council on Aging to access grandparents who needed help.

In March, the class had everything in place to open the community kitchen. They picked fresh produce from UGArden, a student-run community garden on UGA property, and gathered food donations from sororities and local restaurants. After preparing meals for six hours, they delivered food to 16 families.

“I’m in the college of agriculture, but this is the first time I’ve really worked with food distribution,” says Katie Comer, a sophomore from Carrolton. “Usually I’m just sitting in a classroom.”

The idea of formal service-learning programs at UGA began in 1997, soon after President Michael F. Adams arrived on campus.

In 2002, a Service-Learning Committee was established by the vice president for instruction and the vice president for public service and outreach. The following year, this committee submitted a proposal, “Increasing Learning Opportunities for UGA Students: Linking Academic Study and Civic Engagement,” to the provost. At the time, there was no money available for an office to coordinate the recommended activities.

A few years later a report from the Task Force on Undergraduate Education recommended an Office of Service-Learning. The offices of the vice president for public service and outreach and the vice president for instruction partnered to create the office in 2005.

Service learning was not entirely new to the campus. A number of faculty had included community outreach as part of their academic programs for years, Wilder says. But the offerings have greatly expanded since the university began providing institutional support for the programs.

Denise Lewis, an assistant professor in Child and Family Development, added a service-learning component to her class on midlife and later years. As part of the class about gerontology and aging, students are paired as “friendly visitors” with a senior citizen in the community.

Though the students are required to spend two hours a week with their older friend, many develop relationships that continue after the class has ended.

Kevin Lopez, a child and family development major from Fayetteville, has a standing weekly appointment with Ron Delay, a 64-year-old resident of an Athens senior living community. On Fridays the two walk from Delay’s apartment to the nearby Beechwood theater to see a movie. Afterward, they often go back to Delay’s place to talk.

“I thought it would be good if we broke outside the room and went to do things,” Lopez says. “It was Mr. Delay’s idea to start seeing movies.”

A lifelong movie lover, Delay saw a movie every week when he was younger. His favorites are “Patton” and “The Godfather,” but he says modern animation films are the best ones out now.

Lopez and Delay share one of many cross-generational friendships formed through the Friendly Visitors program. Lewis started the program after realizing how much her nursing home visits meant to her elderly friends. “I saw the ripple effect of just me, one person,” she says, “and I thought, what kind of waves could we make if 30 or 40 students did the same thing?”

In addition to programs here in Athens, more faculty members are incorporating service learning into studies abroad, Wilder says. Of the roughly 90 study abroad courses offered through UGA, more than a quarter now include a service-learning component.

In June, 13 students accompanied David Berle, associate professor of horticulture, and Marianne Robinette, an academic professional in entomology, to Ecuador, where they took courses on medical entomology and presented science programs to school children.

During the three-week trip, the UGA students traveled to four primary schools as well as the community of Playa de Oro to present Our Shared Forest, an environmental education program that works to raise awareness of bird species that migrate between Georgia and the Chocó Andean corridor in northern Ecuador. The program was developed by a bi-national partnership that includes the Maquipucuna Foundation in Ecuador, the State Botanical Garden in Athens and an alliance of farmers and landowners in northwest Ecuador. The foundation, begun in 1988 by Rebecca Justicia (PhD ’07) and husband Rodrigo Ontonedo, owns more than 13,500 acres of forest in northwest Ecuador and works to educate the public about the devastating effects of deforestation.

The program at Escuela Esmeralda in Santa Mariana begins with a puppet show featuring Hester the Sword-billed Hummingbird, Burnie the Blackburnian Warbler and Sammy the Summer Tanager.

Rebecca Lindner, a senior chemistry and Spanish major from Valdosta, is Burnie and she explains to Hester why she and Sammy must migrate to the U.S. from Ecuador.

“During the summer in North America there are tons of bugs and the days are really long so we have more time to find lots of food,” Lindner as Burnie says in Spanish.

Hester doesn’t need to migrate because he has a long beak that can reach food deep in the Ecuadoran flowers, says Sammy, played by Meagan Weathers, a senior biological sciences major from Appling, Ga.

In the story, the birds talk about the different dangers of migration, like lights from tall buildings that confuse their innate navigational systems or deforestation that has decreased their cover from predators like cats and also their access to food, like bugs, which live in the trees and plants.

The children squeal when a cat puppet attempts to pounce on the birds as they feast on blueberries.

Between scenes, Carolyn Dilz, a senior biological sciences and psychology major from Decatur, and Morgan Castellow, a senior horticulture major from Moultrie, ask the sixth to eighth graders questions about migration.

“Excellente!” Dilz praises their responses.

Following the puppet show, the children are assigned passports with nine pictures of birds, which denote specific learning stations. At each, they learn something about migratory birds, predators and temperate versus tropical forests. At a station manned by Matt Baker, a graduate student in science education, students are blindfolded and must use their hands to hunt like army ants, which cannot see, to find food among the leaves, sticks and dirt in a box. Cristopher Guaman, 11, gropes in the box and smiles as he comes up with a Choco Break, the best of the small candies hidden in the forest debris.

Baker takes Christopher’s passport and writes a letter in the block next to the bird representing his station. When the students have their passports completed, the nine letters spell migracion, the Spanish spelling of migration. They take their filled cards to the passport desk and exchange them for a box of colored pencils and a sharpener, luxuries to students in the small, rural community.

On another day, the UGA students, several of whom plan to apply to medical school in the coming years, visit a small hospital in northwest Ecuador, where limited medical assistance is available to the residents within 200 miles of the facility.

Meeting the children and seeing the meager conditions of their schools, hospitals and homes humbles some of the students. Driving through the small town at 5 p.m., the bus carrying the students passes dozens of townspeople walking home on the steep, narrow winding roads after a long day of work.

Families hanging out on the roadside catch the attention of Meghan Murphy, a junior biological sciences and psychology major from Stockbridge.

“The adults were talking and smiling and the kids were running around. They don’t seem to care (about the conditions). They act just like we act and we have everything handed to us,” Murphy reflects.

That insight is what Berle hopes his students gain through the serving learning experience.

“There’s another part of the world that lives a lot differently than we do,” Berle says. “They realize this is a pretty poor population we’re working with.”

Get More

Learn more about UGA’s service-learning opportunities at http://www.servicelearning.uga.edu.

For a multimedia project on UGA's Campus Kitchen, visit http://photo.alumni.uga.edu/multimedia/campuskitchen/

Want to give? To donate to the Office of Service-Learning, contact Director Shannon Wilder at (706) 542-0535 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).