Service learning projects provide alternative method of teaching, learning

Nearly 30 minutes after FIU English professor Tania Lopez completed her Writing as Social Action class last spring, students remained in her classroom discussing course material.

“It happened after every class meeting,” Lopez said.

ENC 3354 Service Learning Class

FIU students and English professor Tania Lopez of the ENC 3354 Writing as Social Action class visited Miami Northwestern Senior High School for one of their two visits last spring.
From left to right: Dadeley Charles, Emma Brown, Ashley Reid, Mario Garcia, Dashna Compere, Yuleni Pulido, professor Lopez and Juan Pablo Osorio. (Photo by student Jessica Davies)

It got to the point where Lopez had to start “kicking” students out of the classroom.

This was not your typical lecture-based course.

Writing as Social Action was part of a service-learning literacy project where FIU students mentored nearly 20 Miami Northwestern Senior High School tenth graders once a week at the Biscayne Bay Campus.

The class was a part of FIU’s overall partnership with Miami Northwestern, The Education Effect.

FIU students designed and facilitated classroom activities for the Miami Northwestern students.

“As an instructor, community engagement is the perfect avenue to give my students more opportunities to engage in learner-centered learning while also helping develop our communities’ literacies,” Lopez said.

Service learning allows faculty and students the opportunity to apply elements learned in the classroom to real-world settings. FIU’s Office of Engagement, which oversees The Education Effect, recently hosted a series of workshops to encourage faculty members to consider service-learning opportunities.

As a public institution within an urban community, Irma Becerra-Fernandez, vice president of engagement, said the university can make a difference in the community, especially with minority students, through service learning projects.

“This is an effort to involve our faculty, staff and students,” Becerra-Fernandez said. “We can make an impact by sharing our institutional resources, our intellectual capital, with the community.”

A partnership between FIU and Miami-Dade County Public Schools, The Education Effect provides university resources specifically to Liberty City schools Miami-Northwestern Senior High, Charles Drew Middle and Holmes Elementary.

The project is funded by a $1 million seed grant by JPMorgan Chase and includes a financial literacy program, where students learn about the fundamentals of budgeting and the stock market, enhanced dual enrollment, where students take college classes on FIU’s campus and an aquaponics lab and organic garden to foster interest in science, technology engineering and math.

“It is an ideal partnership,” said Maria Lovett, director of The Education Effect. “It is a way that we are introducing college earlier.”

Leslie Richardson, director at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching at FIU, said her office can help connect faculty with service learning projects like The Education Effect.

“If we can help to streamline the process and assist faculty with project design, we can facilitate some momentum for service learning projects,” Richardson said.

Lovett said she works to make the process for faculty involvement as simple as possible.

“We have built relationships with the community,” Lovett said. “Let us be your tour guide to show faculty Liberty City and Miami Northwestern.”

Along with its benefits, Lopez said she is aware of the concerns faculty may have about service learning, particularly the perception of a greater time commitment.

“Service learning, if done right, only means remolding our teaching strategies to fit the new service learning model,” she said. “Instead of preparing lecture notes, we may be collaborating with students in curriculum development. We don’t really dedicate more time. We just use our time differently.”

FIU also partners with the after-school program, the After-School All-Stars, for service learning opportunities. After-School All-Stars is a national organization that provides year-round, after-school programs to students in their middle school years and mostly from low-income families.

“We can’t do this without community partnership,” said Aaron Dworkin, executive vice president of the National Network of After-School All-Stars. “Being with FIU helps us in a number of ways.”

FIU has hosted After-School All-Stars events, such as the SuperFest sports tournaments.

FIU’s College of Education and the STEM Transformation Institute partner with After-School All-Stars to provide FIU students the opportunity to intern with the organization.

Patricia Lopez-Guerrero, associate director of FIU’s Center for Leadership and Service, said her office has a project with North Miami Middle School that works with the Academy of Leaders (AOL), a leadership development program for FIU students. She said AOL students could also partner with the After-School All-Stars to expand into other middle schools.

“It is a great way to take what they have learned out of the classroom and put it into the community. It puts theory into practice,” Lopez-Guerrero said.

Paul Feigenbaum, a professor in FIU’s Department of English, is also involved in service learning with his Writing, Rhetoric and Community class.

Students consider and write about what civic role students can and should play in local, national and global communities and how they can use writing and rhetoric to advance the goals of various communities that matter to them.

Students collectively choose what issues they want to tackle and which audiences they want to address regarding this issue.

Feigenbaum said other faculty members can benefit from service learning by relating their scholarship with their teaching and connecting both to community-university partnerships.

“I believe faculty members can experience synergistic effects that increase both the relevance and rigor of their scholarship and that produce more dynamic classrooms and engaging curricula,” Feigenbaum said.

Faculty members who are interested in pursuing service learning projects are encouraged to contact the Office of Engagement at 305-348-7752 or

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