Classrooms in the Community

Students and faculty share ways to interweave classwork and social work at Academic Service Learning Symposium.

Maurice Smith, coordinator of academic service learning, with Engaged Faculty Award winner Tara Scully. (William Atkins/GW Today
Maurice Smith, coordinator of academic service learning, with Engaged Faculty Award winner Tara Scully. (William Atkins/GW Today)
April 27, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

From creating a digital history of Washington, D.C., to gardening with children with special needs, George Washington University students and faculty shared some of the ways their classwork has had an impact on their communities at the biannual Academic Service Learning Symposium Tuesday.

More than 110 attendees circulated through the symposium, organized by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service. The day, which marks the end of each semester’s service-learning classes, included poster presentations, panels, TED-style “service talks” by students and an award ceremony recognizing outstanding service learners and teachers.

Teaching Assistant Professor of Biology Tara Scully received the Engaged Faculty Award for her integration of service into her own curriculum.

In “The Ecology and Evolution of Organisms,” a biology course for non-majors, Dr. Scully helps her students create personalized service projects that link social ills to their larger cultural and ecological contexts.

Several of her students presented at the symposium, with projects ranging from rural dog rescue to saving the oysters of Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Scully said that while she values traditional lab experience, service classes give her students broad and unique perspective on the science they study.

“Biology is not just found in a textbook,” Dr. Scully said. “It’s something that’s all around you. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the diseases we have—everything we interact with is biology. [Service learning] gives students opportunities to be creative.”

Maurice Smith, coordinator of academic service learning and director of the Civic House Academic Residential Community, said linking classrooms with communities has positive effects beyond the academic.

“It’s not just students going out and volunteering and connecting that to their academics, even though that’s great,” he said. “It also helps students develop real workplace skill sets, like interpersonal skills and understanding how to communicate. They have a true understanding of what they’re doing in the classroom, and they’re able to apply it instantly.

“That’s going to be useful beyond college.”

At the symposium, Mr. Smith announced the winners of the Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service Learning: Maranda C. Ward, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, who won for her project, “D.C. Youth Expression: Art, Community and Identity,” and School of Media and Public Affairs master’s student Zinhle Essamuah for “The Minority Vote.”

Rachel Fishman won the symposium’s research excellence award for “How Sincere?: A Rhetorical Analysis of Reflections on Service,” her analysis of the ways service participants talk about the relationships built through that service.

Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski attended the symposium with his human services capstone seminar students, who spent the semester creating and administering a philanthropic foundation that awards grants to community organizations.

This year the foundation focused on diversity and inclusion, awarding $7,500 to Empower DC and $3,000 to Arcadia.

“Service learning is the quintessential opportunity for students to put their knowledge into action,” Dr. Konwerski said. “It’s their chance to apply in practice what they’re learning in their classes—not just in human services or education but in any field.”