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Faculty Spotlight: Why Synergy Learning?
By: Linda Harmon
Have you ever thought about implementing service learning into one of your courses but felt too overwhelmed or intimidated? Cassie Quigley, Assistant Professor of Science Education at Clemson University, offers some advice on why and how to dive into service learning.
Quigley has always had a passion for service learning. Working with organizations such as Upstate Forever, Roper Mountain Science Center and GoFo (a student garden program), Quigley’s love for service learning inspired and fostered her love for her surrounding community. “Service learning has made me get to know my community a lot more,” Quigley said. “Because I’m constantly searching for partners and projects for my students, I’ve learned a lot more about what exists in my community as a result.” This community aspect is a driving force behind many of Quigley’s projects.
In the spring of 2016, Quigley instructed a graduate course entitled STEM Enacted (ED 8380) which helped middle school science teachers from 14 Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) schools across Greenville County to better implement service learning into their daily classroom routines. Hoping to implement service learning as a permanent fixture in the classroom, Quigley aimed to encourage her graduate students to help their middle school students understand how service learning relates to problems in their own communities, such as the 2015 floods around the Columbia and Charleston areas. “Service-learning projects tend to be sort of one-stop, quick fixes instead of expanding into understanding,” Quigley stated. “But after the flood waters recede, so does the help. It doesn’t provide students with the understanding of ‘Why do the problems keep happening?’ You can connect it in that way for teachers, and they can really sink their teeth into it, and the students as well tend to respond really well.”
“Service learning has made me get to know my community a lot more,” Quigley said. “Because I’m constantly searching for partners and projects for my students, I’ve learned a lot more about what exists in my community as a result.”
Tips for Getting Started
As a Clemson faculty member experienced in the service-learning field, Quigley follows several steps when starting a service-learning project. “The process typically starts with me reaching out to places I know that need help, which tend to be not-for-profits,” Quigley said. “They are always looking for volunteers.” Quigley then looks to negotiate specific guidelines for both the community organizer and the students so that it doesn’t create a lot of work for the not-for-profit. Quigley explained that these guidelines vary upon the organization. “Some really established not-for-profits have very specific guidelines for volunteers or very specific projects that they want only volunteers to do, which is great,” Quigley said.
Quigley also makes sure the project connects back to the learning goals she has set for her students. “I always just start with how you get anything going — a meet and greet. I ask myself, ‘Is this going to mesh?’” Finally, she considers the aspect of convenience for her students by evaluating the responsiveness of the community partner. “If I notice they’re not responding to emails, I know it’s going to be super frustrating for the student to meet with them,” Quigley said. “As soon as you start creating hurdles for the students, then they’re not going to work to implement this later in their own classroom. I try to ease that burden as much as I can.”
Quigley’s advice to faculty members looking to start service-learning projects of their own is to find material that bridges the project to the classroom. “My advice would be to really just connect it to whatever they’re already doing with their own teaching,” Quigley said. “I would say most areas that we work in can be really relatable to a service-learning project. It’s not this disconnected notion—it’s a part of what we do as educators.”
Quigley says that it’s much better to start small and slowly network within the community. “I would say just start small with some of their well-established contacts,” Quigley said. “Most faculty that I know do collaboration; that’s sort of how we work. So it’s relying on some of those existing contacts versus going out and finding new contacts.” Quigley explained that it can be overwhelming and frustrating for both the faculty member and the students if there are difficulties with a new contact, so beginning with what you already know and starting smaller makes more sense.
“My advice would be to really just connect it to whatever they’re already doing with their own teaching,” Quigley said. “I would say most areas that we work in can be really relatable to a service-learning project. It’s not this disconnected notion—it’s a part of what we do as educators.”
What’s In It—For Everyone
The most rewarding aspect of service learning for Quigley as a faculty member is the student engagement and development opportunities. “For me, just because I’m such a community activist, I really enjoy seeing that same level of engagement in my students, so they feel empowered to go and act and change things in their own communities,” Quigley said.
Quigley also sees service learning as a forerunner for student development. “When you engage students with real-world problems, they really respond by being much more focused in the classroom,” Quigley said. With an increase in students’ focus, it is easier for teachers to concentrate more on the project and demonstrate to the students how it relates to classroom material. Quigley firmly believes that service learning not only encourages student involvement in a subject in which they are particularly interested, but can also serve as a bridge to attract students’ attention to other subjects that may not have initially captured their interest.
Finally, Quigley sees this student development in terms of the surrounding community. “When it comes to the community, you’re creating civically-minded citizens, which is what service learning really is. It’s about being a citizen — a good citizen — and seeing their role in the community,” Quigley said. For Quigley, this is the ultimate goal of service learning—it goes beyond personal and academic interest and expands into inspiring change within the greater community by making sure that service learning isn’t a quick-fix solution to a community problem. “People often become involved (in community service) during times of tragedy,” Quigley said. “But it’s teaching kids to become more civically minded throughout the year —that’s where I see a lot of the change happen.”
Written By: Linda Harmon
Linda Harmon is a senior English Writing and Publication Studies major minoring in Business Administration. She is originally from Chapin, South Carolina and hopes to pursue a career in digital media or publication upon graduation.