Category Archives: service-learning

Where’s the Service in Service-Learning?

toxic charity book cover

A popular book in the service-learning literature asks the important question, Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? —and it has guided many educators to community engagement practices that maximize student learning.

At a recent event at Hamline University, Robert Lupton, the author of Toxic Charity:  How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, essentially asked people to think critically about the other side of that question.  Where’s the service in service-learning and other efforts by volunteers or nonprofits?  Lupton puts forth a strong argument that “most mission trips and service projects:

  • weaken those being served,
  • foster dishonest relationships, and
  • erode participants’ work ethic, and deepen dependency.”

His book is by no means simply intended to chastise and blame. It contains a message of hope that the “compassion industry” can be changed and that virtuous people can do good. As a place to begin, he offers an Oath for Compassionate Service.

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations (crisis situation=YES, chronic situation=NO).
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

Lupton’s book is filled with examples from his own four decades working on inner-city poverty. For example, he talks about a Christmas charity tradition where people would ‘adopt ‘ a poor family and purchase gifts for the children based on knowing a child’s gender and age, and then deliver those gifts to the family’s home. Mothers would politely bear the brunt of the humiliation and fathers who felt emasculated (Lupton’s word), would slip out the back door, as the evidence of their inadequacy was left behind by the suburban folks doing them a service. Meanwhile, as Lupton puts it, “children get the message that the ‘good stuff’ comes from rich people out there and it is free.”

The non-toxic solution to this annual program was to re-direct the giving to help set up a seasonal Christmas store where financial donations would go toward reducing the cost of new merchandise, and where parents could work and earn the money to buy presents that they themselves picked out. Meanwhile, some residents are learning useful job skills in the store.

This would be a great reading for anyone interested in an honest conversation about going beyond good intentions.  How have you tried to develop service-learning courses and community partnerships that are genuinely transformative?  That advance both students’ learning and community members’ well-being?

John Hamerlinck


Minnesota State University, Mankato service-learning business students support Campus Kitchen

Team Awareness, one of six groups that worked to put the Block Party. Other groups included; The Net Raisers, Team Kobayashi, Bean Team, Musical Maniacs and Team S.E.L.L.

Volleyball, an eating contest, and bean bag tosses and more. All of these are strategies that students in Professor Flannery’s Principles of Management course at Minnesota State University, Mankato used to raise money and awareness about the Campus Kitchen at MSU Mankato. Using the skills gained in the class and under the guidance of Professor Flannery, who has been instrumental in institutionalizing service-learning at MSU Mankato, students worked in six different groups to create a block party event this spring to raise funds and awareness.


The Campus Kitchens Project is a nation-wide initiative with chapters at 28 colleges and universities that brings together student volunteers, on-campus dining service professionals, and community organizations to combat hunger in innovative ways. Through student leadership and dedicated stewardship from supporting staff and faculty members, Campus Kitchens are able to harness available resources such as surplus dining hall food and under-utilized kitchen spaces to produce hundreds of thousands of nutritious meals for local communities every year. The Campus Kitchen at MSU Mankato, est. 2005, works as a partnership among University Dining Services, the Student Activities office, and a combination of community and university entities, including student-run service organizations, university service learning programs, and community agencies. Annually, CKMSUM rescues over 10,000 lbs of food, produces well over 11,000 meals, and engages students in over 3,000 hours of Service-Learning.

The students of Principles of Management raised over $700 for CKMSUM and raised awareness both on the campus and in the Mankato community. Through the project, students also learned about group work, the challenges of mass marketing and how to run a professional meeting. Many expressed how valuable the project was for their learning. As one student put it, “this class taught us about leadership without PowerPoints or tests.”

Dana Gross: Saint Olaf College’s Presidents’ Civic Engagement Steward Award Recipient

Dana Gross

For several years Professor Dana Gross has been integrating academic civic engagement into all levels of the St. Olaf Psychology curriculum and participating in efforts to expand civic engagement on campus.

In Fall 2008, students in her upper-level seminar, Infant Development, in conjunction with Faribault Early Childhood and Family Education, created educational DVD’s focused on language and literacy and on motor development and play.

In January 2011 Dana debuted a new service-learning course, Community Applications of Psychology, in which 16 students explored approaches that psychologists use to address social problems and community needs. Throughout the term, students applied psychological research, provided community service, reflected on their experiences and explored their own vocational interests.

Currently, Dana is incorporating civic engagement into Research Methods. For their major project in the course, students are conducting research projects either as part of the Food and Nutrition Collaborative Grant or in partnership with the Northfield YMCA.

In conjunction with St. Olaf’s Center for Experiential Learning, Dana has been a participant in the Bringing Theory to Practice grant assessment project, and for the past three summers she has been involved with the Civic Engagement Institute as a participant or presenter. She has been an integral part of the academic civic engagement initiatives since the beginning and has helped to shape it as a program that can reach and teach a wide range of students.

Want to hear from Dana and other civic engagement stewards? Sign up for MNCC’s Annual Summit!

Hamline University‘s Catalyst 2011 Blogs

This week, seventy-seven Hamline University students are taking part in seven service-learning trips across the country.  Each trip is focused on one of the following topics; community arts, homelessness, multi-faith, environmental justice, LGBTIQA community, food justice from a progressive Christian perspective, and sustainable communities from Anshinaabe perspectives.  Follow their blogs here.

St. Olaf Students Study Psychology inside the Classroom and Out

“Getting a glimpse into the non-profit world” is how St. Olaf student Hannah Westholm described her experience in the course Community Application of Psychology. The month long January course coupled academics, an intensive internship and reflection.  As a result, the students gain valuable insight into their future career aspirations and community partners receive talented students working intensively to build the organization’s capacity. Faculty member Dana Gross designed and taught the course and it was supported by the Bringing Theory to Practice grant project created by Nate Jacobi, St. Olaf’s associate director of civic engagement.   A snap shot of just three of the students’ projects show the variety and depth of the course:

Hannah Westholm, a junior, worked with Growing Up Healthy, partnering with a MN Campus Compact AmeriCorps College Health Corps VISTA.  She helped prepare for a large event, the Mental Health Collective.  For the project, Ms. Westholm researched the populations in Rice County with a focus on underserved and minority groups.  Her research included the risk factors for mental health issues and measurement of effectiveness that currently exists in the county.  She developed a baseline measurement and assessment tool for the entire county which was presented at the Mental Health Collective.

Sara Nobbs, a senior, partnered with the Northfield Area YMCA.  Ms. Nobbs created a program evaluation for the YMCA.  Throughout the month, she designed five different surveys to evaluate several of the Y’s programs.  She was able to launch three of them, analyze the data and write up reports about two of the survey’s findings.

Eric Teachout, a sophomore, interned at Laura Baker Services Association (LBSA).  Mr. Teachout completed several projects and tasks with LBSA.  He researched and compiled behavioral records and worked with clients through music therapy.  He also collaborated with other St. Olaf interns to present to the LBSA faculty on genetics, characteristics and therapies/approaches for Prader-Willi Syndrome.

The course was both challenging and rewarding.   Ms. Nobbs felt that her work in the community impacted her experience in the class.  She noted that “we read several articles each week and wrote responses papers in which we reflected on how the content of the academic paper was reflected in our internship site.”  She also saw the value of the experience for the group overall, “We had great discussions in class because everyone was doing something different in their internship so they could add a different piece to the puzzle in our discussions.”

Mr. Teachout noted that there were challenges as well. “Prior to this course I often approached certain tasks, like school papers, with an easy and slow method, for I enjoy digesting information slowly as I progress through work.  However, my real-life experience at my internship, searching through client behavioral records and summarizing data, helped me understand the importance of speed and efficiency when gathering information.”

Overall, it’s clear that the course provided much more than the average class.  Community partners throughout Northfield benefited from the work and talent of the students and in return, in the words of Ms. Westholm, the students “had the opportunity to gain such valuable experience and to get a glimpse into the realm of non-profit work.”  For more information on the course, see the story here.

Campuses to Address Food-Related Issues through STEM Service-Learning

By John Hamerlinck

Folks in Duluth and Northfield can plan on efforts to get them eating a whole lot healthier. Students at The College of St. Scholastica, University of Minnesota, Duluth, St. Olaf College and Carleton College will all be engaging in multiple service-learning projects focused on food-related concerns.

The campuses and their communities are all benefitting from grants recently awarded by a Midwest Campus Compact consortium established to increase service-learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. The consortium was made possible through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service through the Learn and Serve America Program.

The program focuses on multi-campus collaborations organized to address local food security and related issues. In Northfield, Classes in biology, environmental studies, and other disciplines from both colleges will work with two local elementary schools and local nonprofits, to develop and facilitate food and nutrition-related activities, with a special focus on children at higher risk of obesity and nutrition-related illnesses.

The Duluth campuses are partnering with the University of Wisconsin, Superior on projects designed to strengthen and sustain community commitment to the production, distribution, and consumption of regionally and locally-produced food; and increase the amount of nutritious foods individuals consume, in an effort to reduce the Body Mass Index numbers of people that are overweight.

Congratulations to these campuses for their grant awards. Be sure to check back here for future progress reports on these innovative projects.