From my most recent conversation, I was asked what to do in encouraging engineering students to participate in a service learning (SL) program?
I have learned that in a research university institution, “recruiting” engineering students–who tend to have “busy” schedule and perceive less direct learning/practice in SL program–has been a challenge.
From the “busy” perspective, I could respond immediately that in my SL course, I always have one sentence in my course description that says “Flexible schedules are expected as likely we will have project tasks that require students to go to meetings outside of regular class times.” How one understands the word busy is relative to one’s socio cultural context. In my SL case, I always try to see it from a community’s perspective, that their schedule is not as straight-forward as us academics. And that we have more resources than community groups, we should be more flexible to meet their schedule.
SL is to serve the needs of the community. We are the ones who should fit our schedule to theirs.
As for the “recruiting,” it took me a while. But finally I remember that SL is about civic engagement. Also, thinking about my current TA assignment with the “Taking Initiative,” I offer the following thoughts.
As a part liberal arts education, engineering as a major is unlikely to be the determining factor of a succesful career, the same applies to all other majors. According to Levy and Murnane (2005), skills like expert thinking and complex communication do matter more than a major. SL, among other college courses, is to help students to master these skills. So, it is not the major, it the skills.
So how to recruit engineers, or other majors that train a set of very specific technical skills?
I would promote my SL to students as an opportunity to reconnect themselves with their community. After participating in education for 12+ years, students are used to interact with their own “learning community” (fellow students and professors) but not with their larger “living community” (parents, neighbors, civic groups, etc). This has produced a gap between their knowledge and their action. SL is to connect students with the real world, that will put students with their natural instinct as a human being and as a member of civic society.
Obviously, one would not see the way I see. It is ultimately their choice to be a part of my SL course. They have to self motivate themselves to honor values they believe in. If their values share with mine, the likelihood to participate in my SL would be high. But if their values are different from mine, then the likelihood would be small.
It is OK either way. Because eventually, community groups that receive the service would be the ones who suffer if students participating in SL course are not motivated in providing their service. This will not only make their service useless, but potentially harmful.
In summary, SL is to provide a real opportunity for students to be an active citizen regardless of expertise or knowledge. It is a way to build social relations of knowledge production, with a term determined by a community partner. It is this way how we can ensure that our knowledge serves the public purposes of education.