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A teaching note on service-learning through applied community research.


This teaching note is intended to provide an example of the value of service-learning to students, the undergraduate institution, faculty service, and the local community. A case of a servicelearning project herein demonstrates how sociological practitioners can integrate research and teaching into community service involving sociological intervention components. Both challenges and successes of the project are discussed.


Many teachers have reported that service-learning cultivates active, critical, and engaged learners (Kleniewski 1999; Marullo 1996; Parker-Gwin 1996; Markus, Howard & King 1993). In recent years an increasing number of instructors have attempted to incorporate service-learning opportunities into their classes. Still, it has been noted that such service-learning programs do not always engender the intended results (Parker-Gwin and Mabry 1998; Hondagneu-Sotelo and Raskoff 1994). Both the promise and problems can exist for teachers of the undergraduate research methods course. An ideal pedagogical approach to enhancing the learning process is to bring the students into the real life of the community as a way to integrate and apply knowledge they learn in class. Service-learning programs might offer an excellent opportunity for students to practice and further develop research skills while providing service to the community. However, it is not easy to connect specialized research skills with community service within the parameters of the semester and the content for the introductory undergraduate research methods course. Quality research on local community issues generally requires more time than a semester. These problems can be reduced if goals are adapted to fit the situation. Many programs have successfully implemented a community focus into their required course on research methods through observational and ethnographic methods in which "students make observations of social interaction in community setting" (Pestellok, Miller, Saxton, and Donnelly 1996:152). In general, a service-learning project of this sort is an important form of sociological practice for both students and faculty. Yet, if it is not individually-based collaborative research, an instructor wishing to implement a community research project in which all members of the class participate could encounter many challenges.

The purpose of this teaching note is to introduce a case of a service-learning project conducted in the 1999-2000 academic year by the behavioral science department at Sterling College. The project demonstrates how sociological practitioners in the academic setting can integrate research and teaching into service contributions to the community involving important intervention components. In this case students working under faculty direction completed a research project that proved both substantial and doable.

Curricular and Community Needs

Sterling College, a Christian liberal arts institution, has recognized the institutional obligation to provide the opportunity for its students to prepare for responsible citizenship. The college has defined its educational goal for responsible citizenship as "servant leadership" (1). To meet the requirement of Sterling College's educational objectives, the behavioral science department (sociology and psychology) recently instituted a capstone course entitled "Service Data Institute" that connects social research skills with community service. Behavioral science majors are required to take this one credit hour course for each of two semesters after completing the introductory research methods course. Faculty explore issues related to the local community and locate service projects for the course.

In the past academic year nine students took the course and completed a survey research project for the local school district (2). The Unified School District #376 Board of Education proposed to issue $5,000,000 in bonds to construct and renovate the grade school and high school and conducted a mail ballot election in June 1999. About 72 percent of registered voters responded to the ballot, but they rejected the proposal with 59 percent voting "NO." The local newspaper editor called on the board to study the reasons for the proposal's defeat and to be better informed for a future bond proposal. Sterling College Behavioral Science Department offered to conduct a survey to assess voters' opinions and concerns as a service to the community. Sterling College provided stamps, envelopes, paper, copying costs, and other miscellaneous supplies related to the survey project. The School Board accepted our offer, and the students took a major part in executing the community research.

During the fall, students working in groups of three reviewed technical and theoretical aspects of a survey instrument, studied the issue and other related community concerns through the local newspaper articles, conducted informal interviews with board members and carried out a focus group session. Based on the information gathered using these methods, they constructed a draft questionnaire and mailed it to the Board for review. They then designed the systematic sampling procedure to select a sample of 347 (20 percent of 1740 registered voters) from the list of all registered voters in the district provided by the County Clerks for Rice and Reno counties.

For an hour each week, students and faculty met to discuss the issues, concerns, and problems students faced in carrying out the research project. Students were also encouraged to engage in on-line discussions outside of the class. The primary role of the faculty was to challenge students to apply the knowledge and methods they learned in the research methods class to the specific situation in each step of the research model. The students were evaluated by the work they produced each week, the log of activities, and peer evaluations.

As students returned to campus for the Spring term, they revised the survey questionnaire incorporating the recommendations made by the School Board. The final draft was contained questions related to the identified variables in hypotheses. Questionnaires were mailed out with a cover letter explaining the study, anonymity of respondents, and confidentiality. Instead of follow-up mailings, students made phone calls to urge non-respondents to complete and return the survey. The return ratio was fifty-three percent. The students entered the responses into the computer and analyzed the data using SPSS 10.0 statistical program.

In addition, a student from the local area independently collected background information on school financing through interviews with local school district representatives and county officials, and from public records available through government agencies.


The survey and background research did produce a wealth of information on a range of issues in the community. Students completed a 29-page written report and presented it to the school board with oral reports at a meeting on May 8, 2000. The school board received the report with much appreciation.


The community research project integrated into the one-credit course for two semesters in sequence not only demonstrated the application of learning to public service, but also suggested "how the research and the teaching aspects of the faculty role could be integrated" (Pestellok, Miller, Saxton, and Donnelly 1996:154). Informal interviews conducted by the author with students at the end of the project indicated that the applied community research not only enhanced the student's learning, but also gave a sense of self-respect. Students exhibited a sense of pride in themselves when they proposed recommendations to the Board. Clearly, students could see how they could link their specialized research skills with community needs, and they were empowered by learning that they had much to give to their community with specialized social science research skills. Most students also commented that they were happy to learn SPSS, a computer-assisted statistical program, and other analytical skills. The course provided an excellent opportunity for students to practice what they learned in class while offering valuable service to the local community. It was clear that with careful faculty guidance and reinforcement, majority of students enjoyed and benefited from the experience.

The faculty role was primarily to provide students with the opportunity to apply their learning in class to community service and supervise their research activities. Students were treated by the faculty as collaborators; however, due to the students' lack of clear understanding of research procedures, the faculty had to guide students at each step of the research process and help them retrieve the knowledge they gained in the Introductory Research Methods class in the previous year (3). The extra time and energy faculty put into the community research project were not compensated independently, yet they were considered as a contribution to important community service.

Community research, which requires some knowledge of social science research methods, may be difficult to implement in an introductory research methods course. Indeed, some students balked at having to do a research project as a course requirement. Overall, responses from students were positive, although a few expressed resistance to being "required" to perform public service in the course. I believe that this resistance would be weakened if the course were offered to majors as an elective, making service and the other components of the course entirely voluntary. However, if the course were not a required part of the curriculum for behavioral science majors, many students may never have the valuable opportunity to use their newly attained research skills on behalf of the public good.


(1) The college's mission statement reads: "Developing creative and thoughtful leaders who understand a maturing Christian faith."

(2) Following were student participants in the research project: Teresa Allen, Brant Clardy, Brian King, Sarah Klein, Rebecca Kuhn, Spring Magsam, Jill McCann, Valecia Vogts Scribner, and Aaron Wallman.

(3) Arnold Froese, faculty in the department, offered me invaluable assistance in designing the course and implementing the project at the initial stage. He joined the class in the Spring semester to help students analyze the data and write the interpretative report of the results. The author is indebted to him for the opportunity to teach the course during his tenure at Sterling College.


Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette and Sally Raskoff. 1994. "Community Service-Learning: Promises and Problems," Teaching Sociology 22:248-54.

Kleniewski, Nancy. 1999. "Changing Communities and Changing Universities: Why should we care? What can we do?" Research in Politics and Society 7:3-17.

Markus, Gregory, Jeffrey Howard, and David King. 1993. "Integrating Community Service and Classroom Instruction Enhances Learning: Results for an Experiment," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 15:410-19.

Marullo, Sam. 1996. "Service Learning Movement in Higher Education: An Academic Response to Troubled Times," Sociological Imagination 33(2): 117-137.

Myers-Lipton, Scott J. 1998. "Effect of a Comprehensive Service-Learning Program on College Students' Civic Responsibility," Teaching Sociology 26:243-58.

Parker-Gwin, Rachel and J. Beth Mabry. 1998. "Service-Learning as Pedagogy and Civic Responsibility: Comparing Outcomes for Three Models," Teaching Sociology 26:276-91.

Parker-Gwin, Rachel. 1996. "Connecting Service to Learning: How Students and Communities Matter," Teaching Sociology 24:97-101.

Pastello, Frances G., Dan E. Miller, Stanley L. Saxton, Jr., and Patrick G. Donnelly. 1996. "Community and the Practice of Sociology," Teaching Sociology 24:148-56.

B.C. Ben Park, Pennsylvania State University at DuBois

Park is assistant professor of sociology. Before his position at Penn State DuBois, he taught at Sterling College where this service-learning project was implemented. His teaching-research interest includes intergenerational relations, political socialization of youth, and sacrificial suicide.
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Author:Park, B.C. Ben
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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