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April 16, 2009


The Senate community relations committee has helped to sponsor University Senate plenary sessions examining service in our University mission and promoting the scholarship of our community engagement. These campus-wide discussions have led to greater recognition of service in faculty work.

Pitt faculty have begun to incorporate a wide variety of service-learning approaches in their courses:

• Maureen Porter ( in the School of Education used her Provost’s instructional excellence award grant to take a group of faculty and students to Urumbamba, Peru, where they constructed a preschool and community center and studied comparative educational programs.

• Dan Bain’s hydrology class in geology has been studying water levels in Panther Hollow and Nine Mile Run on behalf of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, which is hoping to restore Panther Hollow’s lake.

• Kevin McLaughlin’s health and physical activity coaching students are teaching advanced swimming and lifesaving to local youth who, if certified, will be eligible for summer lifeguard jobs at city pools.

• Laura Lund’s freshman honors engineering seminar created the handicapped accessibility links for campus buildings on the University web site and also mapped hiking trails in Hill District greenways as well as safe Oakland walking routes.

• Drew Armstrong’s urban design lab in architectural studies designed public spaces and buildings in Hazelwood that addressed community needs.

• Fiona Cheong’s creative writing students worked with area high school students to develop and compare visions of the city for the Pittsburgh 250 Celebration.

These faculty members used service-learning to link community service to teaching and research. Through these classes students learned to apply their knowledge critically and reflect on the learning experience; local communities benefited through the service-learning process and products.

According to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse ( and Campus Compact (, national initiatives advancing this educational approach, “service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities.” Service-learning combines service objectives with learning objectives to change both the recipient and the provider of the service by combining service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery and the acquisition and comprehension of curriculum-related values, skills and knowledge content.

How do you go about beginning to integrate service-learning into your classes?

The School of Arts and Sciences ( and the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education ( have more information about how service-learning works. Some Pitt faculty and students have been completing service-learning courses funded by the new SPRING Service Learning Network (, a consortium of local universities that provides extensive resources for developing and integrating service-learning.  Also, Amizade Global Service Learning Center (, once housed at Pitt, has re-established a Pittsburgh office.

Through the University’s Community Outreach Partnership Center, Sabina Deitrick and I have partnered with the University Honors College to fund several research service-learning courses, and we incorporate this model in our own courses ( As advanced at Duke University (, “research service-learning (RSL) is an emerging practice connecting service-learning with the mission of research universities to create new knowledge that benefits both university and community. Students participate in a structured process of critical reflection on the ethical, intellectual and civic aspects of their experiences while also producing a tangible research product for their community partner.”

For faculty who want to learn more, the SPRING Service Learning Network will hold a Service-Learning Course Development Institute on May 14 and June 10 at Carlow. Area faculty will have the opportunity to work intensively on redesigning a course with guidance from faculty-development and service-learning professionals. Participation is free. For information and registration, go to the SPRING Network at

Pitt already is among 25 Saviors of Our Cities, universities significantly impacting their community as recognized by Evan Dobelle of the New England Board of Higher Education. However, as we press for increased public funding, service-learning affords another important pathway for academic excellence that builds on our community service strengths. Learn more about service-learning and help advance this work at Pitt.


Tracy M. Soska is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and a member of the University Senate’s community relations committee. He can be reached at

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