Integrating community service and coursework

Vanessa Cozzas with class.Hundreds of students on three Washington State University campuses will participate in community service projects as part of their English classes this year.

The projects are facilitated by nonprofit organizations and will provide students with rich experiences to reflect on and write about.

Faculty leading the courses said the service-learning projects were largely inspired by the excellent training, resources, and support they received from the Community Engaged Scholars (CES) program led by the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) in the Division of Student Affairs.

Changing the approach to learning

For his English 101 classes, WSU Pullman Teaching Assistant Professor David Martin wanted the service-learning component to be research focused; however, he did not have a clear idea of what types of projects would work in his curriculum.

“I was able to learn what other faculty in CES were doing and I found that to be very useful,” Martin said. “It got my mind and wheels turning on some possibilities for my classes.”

This semester, his students are working with community partners in the Palouse region to identify local challenges such as food and housing insecurity, abandoned pets, and stream erosion. They will create a problem statement, write a literature review, and pitch ideas for how those challenges can be resolved.

Students in Linda Russo’s English 302 class will work with the Palouse Conservation District to restore areas along the Palouse River. She said CES inspired her to explore what literary studies can look like when students literally get their hands dirty.

“I wanted to see what creative writing encompasses when students had their feet muddied after helping restore the ecosystem,” Russo said. “What is creativity about, if not growing ideas and creating connections?”

Vanessa Cozza and Johanna Phelps, English professors on the Tri-Cities and Vancouver campuses, respectively, said students in their technical and professional writing classes are working with multiple community partners to create promotional materials such as instruction manuals, brochures, logos, and website designs.

“CES supports the idea that students can meet the learning objectives of the class while at the same time addressing the needs of the community,” Phelps said. “It changes their approach to learning in a good way.”

“By far this is my favorite class to teach because I love working with local professionals and community members,” Cozza said. “When students listen to them directly, they gain a better understanding of why this work is important.”

Small communities of practice

CES is a semester-long program that teaches faculty key service-learning concepts: best practices, why service-learning is an important tool in the classroom, how to develop strong community partnerships, assessment techniques, and ways these efforts fit into tenure and promotion.

Jessica Perone, CCE Faculty Consultant, said giving attention to these concepts helps faculty design projects that give students a deeper understanding of what they are learning in their classes.

“It has been great to see this group of faculty develop so many creative ways to implement service-learning into their course curriculum,” said Perone.

One of the greatest benefits of participating in CES, according Martin, Phelps, Russo, and Cozza, was the opportunity to meet other faculty interested in service-learning. Many have stayed in touch with each other since the program concluded.

“The cohorts become small communities of practice where faculty get to know each other, brainstorm ideas with one another, and collaborate,” Perone said. “They also have support from CCE whenever they need it in the future.”

The English faculty were able to participate in CES through a partnership between CCE and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). In all, 12 CAS faculty from a variety of disciplines completed the program last academic year.

Top image: Students in Vanessa Cozza’s English 402 class test game instructions they wrote for nonprofit Tri-Cities Area Gaming before the pandemic (photo by Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities).

By Steve Nakata, WSU Insider