From the classroom to the community, Service Learning approach takes hold at Saint Mary’s

An exciting pilot project this winter semester has turned a third-year management course in the Sobey School of Business into an experiential opportunity for students who are applying their learning out of the classroom and in the community.

The first meeting of the Community of Practice for Service Learning will take place on Thursday, April 19 from 12-1 pm in Atrium 216. Lunch will be provided.

RSVP to service.learning@smu.ca

Ninety students in Dr. Xiaoyu Liu’s course “Ethical Responsibilities of Organizations” have been partnered with one of ten community organizations—including Adsum for Women & Children, the Parker Street Food Bank, Fairview’s Mobile Food Market, the SMU Community Food Room and the Saint Mary’s Spark Zone, which ran a “food hack” during the semester—in a pilot project to expand community-based service learning.

So, what is service learning?

“It’s intended to take students out of their comfort zones and get them to put theory to practice,” says Sarah Bray, the university's newly hired service learning coordinator. “Aligning course concepts and academic knowledge with real-world experience. In this case, working in teams of five, each student group was paired with an organization and completed 15 hours of service over the course of the semester.”

   Service learning students at the Saint Mary’s Spark Zone Food Hack :  (l–r) Ryan Carmichael, Diyaa Al Hamad, Rohan Avirah Paul, Ryan MacDonald, Carmen D'Intino, Garry Russell Jr.

Service learning students at the Saint Mary’s Spark Zone Food Hack: (l–r) Ryan Carmichael, Diyaa Al Hamad, Rohan Avirah Paul, Ryan MacDonald, Carmen D'Intino, Garry Russell Jr.

Unlike volunteerism, or work-experience placements, service learning involves an explicit connection between the service performed and the course’s academic content, and the work performed by students is related to needs identified by the community partners. The focus is usually on non-profit organizations, publically funded institutions, and social enterprises.

The theme of food security connected closely to Dr. Liu’s course—all of the community partners were connected to the larger theme of food security, which is one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, aimed in part at the business community.

Daniel Keays, a 23-year-old honours students in Economics, was part of a team that worked with The Spark Zone on Food Hack Nova Scotia. The Spark Zone is a partnership between Saint Mary’s and other local post-secondary institutions, creating a space for collaboration and creative thinking across institutions. The Food Hack is an attempt to address problems in food safety, sustainability, and security.

With Nova Scotia having a relatively high degree of food insecurity, the connection back to business ethics was pretty clear to us.
— Daniel Keays

“Our idea was to take lobster waste out of landfill and out of the ocean—which is a financial burden for companies and an environmental issue—and instead collect that shell waste, process it, and turn it into fertilizer.” Over two days, Keays’ team competed to eventually take home the top prize. They’re now looking at local seafood companies they can reach out to with the idea.

“With Nova Scotia having a relatively high degree of food insecurity, the connection back to business ethics was pretty clear to us,” says Keays. “Any food business operating in Nova Scotia ought to consider that a part of their corporate social responsibility efforts.”

Another partner was Adsum for Women & Children, where a team of five cooked meals at Adsum House, a temporary shelter for women and children. Kathy McNab, Fund Development Officer, says that the experience made the reality of food insecurity in the community very real for students, and introduced some to ethical issues they may not have previously encountered or considered: “Some of the male students, especially, had to stay a bit more contained in the kitchen, as many of our residents have recent trauma related to domestic abuse. So they had to negotiate ethical territory in this workspace they may never have had to before.”

  Service learning students working with the Square Roots Bundle Program:  (l-r) Joseph Henry, Hongwoo Kim, Stephanie Ibrahim, Gavin Grant

Service learning students working with the Square Roots Bundle Program: (l-r) Joseph Henry, Hongwoo Kim, Stephanie Ibrahim, Gavin Grant

Nearly half the service-learning students worked on campus with the Saint Mary’s Food Room. Nishka Rajesh is a fourth-year Psychology major, and President of the Saint Mary’s University Community Food Room society. She oversaw the teams that worked with the Food Room.

“We had a group working on social media strategy, one did a mobile food room, four did food drives and fundraising—one in each faculty and off campus—and another did scheduling. So it was really a coordinated, business-like effort, and we’ve really seen a great result. Before this semester we could only be open two hours a day, and now we’re open 10 am to 5 pm every weekday, except for deliveries on Monday morning.”

Rajesh says more people are using the room, and awareness has increased. “It’s made a big difference to us, and I think demonstrated to students the community need.”

Service Learning at Saint Mary’s is not a brand-new concept. Among other examples, since September 2014, Criminology professor Dr. Stephen Schneider has spearheaded a remarkable partnership with Corrections Nova Scotia, in which Saint Mary’s student mentor and otherwise work with young offenders in a local youth detention facility.

But today, with Bray on board, service learning is moving into a more central role in the university, with greater administrative and logistical support to faculty members. Bray will also help to prepare students for their experiences, and develop new opportunities with community partners.

“With support from the Studio for Teaching and Learning,” she says, “we’re also going to be starting a Community of Practice for Service Learning on campus, where faculty members who have been engaged in service learning for years can connect and share with others who are interested in learning more.”

The first meeting of that group will take place on Thursday, April 19th from 12-1 p.m. in Atrium 216. Lunch will be provided. RSVP to service.learning@smu.ca