Service-learning: The Methodical Phenomenon in Higher Education Emerging Strongly at SUU

Published: February 01, 2006 | Read Time: 13 minutes

Earl Mulderink, associate professor of history at Southern Utah University, has been recently appointed as SUU’s first Faculty Coordinator of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement for a tenure extending to 2008.

Mulderink has a history of civic engagement and has been involved with community service a number of years. This is the first time that a coordinator of civic engagement has been named at the University, and Mulderink possesses the solid and unique qualifications for this appointment. He has been teaching at SUU for more than a decade, during which he has served in the high-responsibility and high-impact positions of Faculty Senate President, Chair of the Steering Committee for Accreditation, and Chair of the History and Sociology Department. With master’s and doctorate degrees earned at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Mulderink is also gainfully educated in, and a regular practitioner of service-learning. He has presented papers on the subject service-learning at several national and international conferences.

While some of his responsibilities are still being defined, Mulderink explains that his duties will primarily involve training faculty who want to be involved in service-learning and civic engagement; leading the service-learning committee; finding funding for civic engagement efforts; attending and hosting workshops; and promoting the civic engagement program.


Service-learning is a curricular-based educational experience in which students participate in organized service activities that meet community-identified needs (Faculty Committee 2002). These curricular projects are designed to generate further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. Service-learning experiences always relate to course matter, provide a needed service, and most often, an education to individuals or entities in the community.

Service-learning is a component or tool of civic engagement. The latter might also include pure service, voluntarism, internships, and practica, for example. Service-learning is a theoretically-based pedagogical endeavor with a history and firm foundation based on the works of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, David Kolb, and L.S. Vygotsky. In essence, students use concrete learning experiences to help construct their understanding. It is learning and practicing citizenship through a clear link between the service experience and academic objectives. It is not the addition of service to learning, but rather the integration of the two. The process is guided by the distinct steps of planning, action and analysis.

“I’m learning what we do on this campus in term of service-learning and seeking to help faculty members do it better,” Mulderink says. “I will be providing some workshops and information to faculty who are new to service-learning or who want to refine their efforts.”


Practitioners of service-learning find it easier to define the pedagogy by stating what service-learning is not. First, service-learning is not voluntary service. It is as much an integral part of the learning process as classroom lectures, textbooks and exams.

Service-learning is not an internship. Rather than a demonstration of the mastery of skills, service-learning requires genuine interaction in which community needs are indicated and met, and the students’ sense of citizenship is bolstered.

Service-learning is not a syllabus add-on. It is a pedagogy—that is, the art or profession of teaching, and a learning tool just as are reading and written assignments are.

Service-learning is not fluff. On the contrary, it can be demanding for both students and faculty. Students are often forced to exit their comfort zone and face real-world issues while applying course content. Service-learning gives them opportunity to test and apply the principles they’re learning in class. It requires them to execute interpersonal, problem-solving and collaborative skills. In fact, more and more requests for proposals from prestigious funding agencies are requiring service-learning criteria. Additionally, more professional accreditation organizations are requiring service-learning in pre-professional preparation programs.

Service-learning is not for everyone. “It would not make sense or be effective for the student if every professor incorporated service-learning into their lesson plans,” Mulderink states. Not all faculty need or should teach service-learning, and not all courses lend themselves to service-learning. Likewise, not every student would learn or be inspired by the formalized process of service-learning.

Information in the preceding section was obtained largely from “A Service-Learning Primer for Faculty—Everything you need to know but are afraid to ask”; Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, University of Utah,


A recent statewide survey indicates that service-learning is being taught in more than 40 disciplines in the Utah System of Higher Education. Mulderink indicates that more than 50 courses at SUU currently include a service-learning component, far exceeding the average figure at other USHE institutions. One of the goals of the SUU Service-Learning Committee is to find financial support for those involved in service-learning and civic engagement. “Faculty members do it because they think it’s important and pedagogically useful for themselves and for their students.” Mulderink explains that SUU subscribes to the Ernest Boyer model of scholarship that suggests scholarship is not just about pure research; it’s about the scholarship of application, discovery, and integration. Service-learning is a form of teaching that can also be a form of scholarship. Based on this model, too, Mulderink would like to bring some attention to service-learning in SUU’s Leave, Rank & Tenure policies. “It’s important that faculty are given some recognition, support and reward for service-learning through our LRT policies.”

Mark Grover, SUU Assistant Professor of Biology, for instance, incorporates service-learning into his Conservation Biology course. Students execute critical re-vegetation strategies in the desert tortoise habitat. They assist with surveys of the raptor and pygmy rabbit populations out in the Three Peaks area—information which will be directly linked to land management decisions. They work to protect some riparian habitats on the banks of a natural water course where wild horses and cattle also compete for limited forage.

Service-learning is a significant component in the introductory psychology class taught by Dr. Steve Barney, SUU Associate Professor of Psychology. For instance, when trying to convey to his students what Confirmation Bias is—that is, in layman’s terms, determining why you believe what you believe—Barney assigns his students to identify their prejudices. Then they must submerse themselves in a situation surrounded by these prejudices—thus the service-learning component. For example, if a student discovers she has issues with homeless people, she may find herself serving them lunch for a month at the local soup kitchen. The exercise, Barney states, “really helps students get what they want out of learning, and out of life.” The objective, Barney explains, is to produce civic-minded, civic-engaged students by learning as they’re doing. “I am trying,” Barney admits, “to make the world a better place, one general psychology student at a time.”


The pivotal element of service-learning, is the Reflection phase. “Learning is often demonstrated through projects, reports and some form of reflection,” Mulderink explains. “The reflection component is crucial to the learning experience.” Reflection encompasses activities that provide the bridge between the community service project and the educational content of the course. It is most often documented in a written essay, in light of a particular learning objective.


SUU promotes the Service-Learning Scholar program (through the Service-Learning Center) for those students who are particularly serious about their service-learning credentials and their intent to market these skills in the career world. The basis of the program is to act, by taking what one has learned in the classroom and applying it to a
community need.

Students who fulfill the requirements of the Service-Learning Scholar program are honored at their senior University Commencement program, and receive notation on their transcript and diploma-verification materials. An honored Service-Learning Scholar would have completed 12 semester credit hours of service-learning coursework and 400 hours of community service. Fifty of those community service hours are part of their capstone Service Project. A capstone example would include a chemistry student who tests homes of low-income families for lead-based paint. When houses test positive, a project is organized to re-paint the houses to acceptable safety levels. VITA--Volunteer Income Tax Assistance—where business students process simple income tax forms for people in the community, for free--is another excellent example of service-learning.

“We want the students to be very creative, and come up with something that they think could help the community,” Jo Kremin, Service-Learning Student Leader, and spearheader of the Service-Learning Scholar program at SUU, explains. “The entire point of service-learning is to get involved in your own education while helping your community. I promise that when you connect the warm fuzzies with an intellectual principle, it is much harder to forget it!”

Still in its first year, SUU’s Service-Learning Scholar program already has 10-20 students registered, and 10 of them will graduate with honors next spring. Proportionately speaking, in comparison to other Utah institutions, SUU has one of the higher, if not the highest rate of participation in and graduation from its service-learning program.

“I think (the Service-Learning Scholar program) will make the difference to many people, students, faculty, staff, and most importantly, the community,” Kremin says.

Several reputable schools have a functioning Service-Learning Scholar program in place, like the University of Utah and Harvard. “I surmise that a Service-Learning Scholar program is a growing phenomenon in higher education,” Mulderink says, “because of the likelihood of industry looking for, recognizing and rewarding service-learning credentials more strongly in the near future.”


One reason Mulderink was hired for this new position is because of his active involvement in the Utah Campus Compact (UCC), a national coalition of more than 950 college and university presidents representing some five million students who are committed to fulfilling the public purposes of higher education. “Utah is the only state in the country in which all institutions of higher education (public and private) are members of the Campus Compact,” Mulderink reports. Pam Branin, Coordinator of SUU’s Service-Learning Center, says UCC “provides training and support for key people on each campus, like Earl and myself, so that we can then come back and help train other people.” Utah joined in the 1996-97 school year. The link to information about the Utah Campus Compact is

Mulderink served as a faculty consultant with the UCC for a couple of years and became a member of its faculty executive committee this year. He is currently involved in an enormous project to take an online survey of all faculty members in Utah to determine who uses service-learning and for what purposes it is used. Both he and Barney and their students have won the Utah Campus Compact Award for the Outstanding Service-Learning Project of the Year (2002 and 2005, respectively). “I’m working with colleagues at all the other institutions of higher education in the state,” he reports. “One of the goals of the Utah Campus Compact is to encourage faculty to work together across institutions.”

At his own campus, Mulderink and the Service-Learning Committee that he chairs are taking steps to lay a foundation to a new culture at SUU. Two of the foremost priorities are to educate various audiences on what service-learning is and why it is an important, exciting and worthwhile program. Also, they seek to conduct formal inventories of the institution and of the community to assess the real needs from a service-learning perspective, and then to develop curricula and programs thereof.

One of the strategies to accomplish these goals will be to continue educating themselves. In February, several faculty will be attending the 2006 Moab Engaged Scholar Institute at which they will dialogue with colleagues and leaders about civic engagement. More information on the Moab Institute is available at

Another national movement SUU plans to establish as a major part of its service-learning program is the American Democracy Project, administered through the American Association of State Colleges and Universities of which SUU is a member. The American Democracy Project seeks to increase understanding at the higher education level of democracy’s conceptual and historical roots by creating an understanding of contemporary issues and events; providing opportunities to learn and experience core processes of civic engagement; and developing a commitment in individuals and entities to act and become involved in the life of communities. For more information on the American Democracy Project, see


One of the reasons the Utah Campus Compact is such a solid organization is because of the political support it has received. For instance, Governor Huntsman recently declared November 17, 2005, as “Coalition of Civic Character and Service-Learning Day,” in honor of the Second Annual “Dialogue on Democracy” moderated by Utah Chief Justice Christine Duram. The Chief Justice leads the Utah Coalition for Civic and Service-Learning consisting of more than 20 professional groups.

The day was set aside to challenge the leaders and citizens of the State of Utah to step forward to better model the principles of civic engagement. Mulderink, other faculty, students and SUU President Bennion were all in attendance at this event. “What is happening at the state level is exciting,” Mulderink says.

He feels the same of what’s happening at SUU. “Service-learning is most certainly interrelated into SUU’s Mission and Core Values Statements,” Mulderink says. “It is part of our philosophy and function, and on its way to becoming a vital part of our campus culture.”

Branin, too, is enthused about the promising developments at her University. “SUU is a member because President Steven Bennion has made the pledge that on our campus, service-learning is important,” she says.


Branin says the institutionalization of service-learning will be most important to students’ learning and growth. “Students are already heavily involved in service work, but it will only be enhanced if we can connect it to what students are studying academically.” She continues, “Research has shown that students learn better if they can be involved in something experiential. This creates a richer experience for the students. She believes that Mulderink’s latest appointment will provide the leadership to make this happen. “Words can not express how excited I am, first of all, to have the position, and second of all, to have it be someone like Earl,” she continues. “He’ll do a great job . . . He’s been involved for years in doing service-learning in his teaching, and it will be a huge benefit to have a faculty member provide some leadership to other faculty in assisting and encouraging them to incorporate service-learning.”

The SUU Service-Learning Center, in existence for five years now, largely due to Branin’s presence and influence and caring, offers students a myriad of opportunities to learn through serving their fellow human beings. The Center sponsors the H.O.P.E. Pantry which provides food to both needy students and members of the community. Bread-n-Soup Nite, Sub-4-Santa and Make A Difference Day are some of the other very successful and worthwhile endeavors of the Service-Learning Center. Also, groups of students and employees travel during their Spring and Christmas breaks to places like Mexico and inner-city California communities to build homes, sewer systems, playgrounds and toys for the needy citizens in these areas. “Pam does a fantastic job despite limited funding,” Mulderink states. “Whatever success in service-learning SUU has up to this point is a credit to Pam’s enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment.”

In support, SUU’s Service-Learning Center website,, features testimony from students who have been involved in the University’s service program as to the valuable role service-learning has played in their college career.

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