In the words of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, 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.”
EEI students have the opportunity to “give back” to the people and communities that host and share their passions with them during a semester through service learning experiences. These experiences add immeasurably to the curriculum, making the learning “real” and often bringing together physical and intellectual pursuits. Such projects help the travelling bus program genuinely experience and engage with the communities they are visiting and from whom they are learning.
The organizations and individuals we meet with look forward to engaging with bus students year after year. Our long-term relationships with our field contacts (often over 40 years!) means that our hosts can prepare for our service ahead of time, figuring out where they would most benefit from 10-20 extra hands, minds, and bodies. The students gain as much as they bring, of course.
Engaging in service calls for students to move from the mindset of learner to that of practitioner. They often come to understand that important work to keep organizations running can at times be quite mundane – whether it is physical labor or addressing envelopes or clearing trails.
Translating knowledge gained through observation, reading, or seminars into practical applications is a key element of service learning on the bus. Skills such as critical thinking, innovation, and responding to changing circumstances – necessary and valued in today’s work environments – are honed, as are communication and presentation skills. The opportunity to articulate what they have been learning and why it’s important can often come up quite spontaneously during a service project. In working with people outside the learning community, the learning that has been happening during experiences, discussions, and reflections is revealed and applied.
Service projects move students outside of the learning community, where they get to see different faces of their bus mates whom they have come to know so well. In service, students get to share some of their skills knowledge, and enthusiasms (e.g., building skills, knowledge of plants or farm animals, love of children and pets).
Here’s a small glimpse of recent service learning projects EEI students have engaged with on the Pacific Northwest semester:
- Trail work at the Whidbey institute
- Building fences and a greenhouse at Highland Farm, a World Steward affiliate, between the Cascades and the Columbia River Gorge
- Garden work and composting at Lost Valley Education Center, Dexter, OR
- Natural building: plastering an earthen straw house at Tryon Life Community Farm in Portland, OR
In summary, for EEI busses, service projects help to hone student interests, make learning relevant, and further community building. And, almost always, it’s both satisfying and FUN!