Service learning

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Discovering a worthy dream

The Collaboratory enhances curricular and co-curricular learning in the School of Science, Engineering and Health and across our campus at Messiah College by implementing pedagogical innovations that enable students to express value commitments and disciplinary knowledge through creative, hands-on problem-solving in real-life settings. Our goal is to more fully embody the College’s identity and holistic mission. Messiah College is an institution of the liberal and applied arts and sciences rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church. Our mission is "to educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character and Christian faith in preparation for lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation in Church and society." The mission of Messiah College reflects a growing commitment in higher education to the unity of cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning; a commitment that is essential to making graduates into citizens. But making citizens is more difficult than making graduates. It requires that multi-directional connections be made between academic knowledge, vision and passion for a positive future, and the active response of the learner.

In the Collaboratory, students engage the knowledge content of their discipline in the context of a specific problem or need, and to reflect on the experience in view of their Christian faith commitments. As Donald Schön recommends, we propose to "reverse the figure and ground between academic work and the practicum". It is normative today for the practicum to come last in an undergraduate curriculum. Theory and technique are developed first in the core of the curriculum and followed by a capstone application. Contextualization of theory and technique comes almost as an afterthought, and problem-solving is approached more or less as a linear application of fundamentals learned in the core curriculum. Real problem-solving, though, is messy. It is highly non-linear and iterative, requiring constant interplay between theory and application such that each is informed by the other. The Collaboratory is where our students put theory to work, and when theory matters students are motivated to learn.

We privilege service over other modes of engagement, and incorporate best practices from service-learning pedagogy to foster students’ development as ethical beings. Service-learning is an engagement pedagogy that is well established in the literature for achieving holistic, value changing, and action oriented learning objectives. It places students in contact with the needs of others, in relationship with persons different from themselves, and is of long enough duration to facilitate mutual understanding and tangible results. A service-learning curriculum includes instruction in relevant theories and knowledge content; engagement that is strategic to established learning objectives; and student reflection to increase understanding of course content, assess the efficacy of the work, guide future engagement, and enhance civic responsibility.

The significance of this work is that in committing the resources of our institution to service that helps meet the pressing needs of today, we are also educating new generations of servant-leaders for the needs of tomorrow. Sharon Parks calls Daniel Levinson "the first developmental theorist to recognize the power of the Dream." Levinson argues that the “novice” phase of adulthood is the crucial time for forming a Dream for one’s life. He and Judy Levinson have contended that "the most crucial function of a mentoring relationship is to develop and articulate the Dream … an imagined possibility that orients meaning, purpose, and aspiration. The formation of a worthy Dream is the critical task of young adult faith." Unfortunately, as Parks observes, the Western mind equates imagination with fantasy. "Fanciful in its common usage connotes the unreal. Fancy takes the images already in the memory and arranges and rearranges them associatively or aggregative. The task of imagination, and particularly religious imagination, is to compose the real." The Collaboratory provides a learning environment that connects human imagination to knowledge in action, to help our students find their Dream. This project seeks to value and make a lasting commitment to this type of learning in curricula of majors in the SEH School at Messiah College.

Institutional fit

Service-Learning supports many of the Community Wide Education Objectives of Messiah College, but particularly objectives 5, 6 and 7.

  • CWEO 5. To develop an understanding of one’s identity and Christian vocation.
  • CWEO 6. To develop the intellect and character necessary to express Christian commitments in responsible decisions and actions.
  • CWEO 7. To become servants, leaders, and reconcilers in the world.

These objectives relate to students’ development as ethical beings and to empowering them to act upon their knowledge. Coursework in the humanities, arts and religion permits students to explore knowledge of what is good; students develop special competencies to act in the world through discipline-based study in a major. Knowledge, however, does not equal action. Responsible living and problem solving are learned when educators provide students with opportunities to express their value commitments and disciplinary knowledge in authentic, real-life settings. Such learning must be socially constructed and require of students commitment, engagement, deep understanding, performance, reflection, and judgment.

Service-learning is a pedagogy that embodies several of the Guiding Educational Assumptions of Messiah College. In addition to being experiential and contextual (GEA 3), service-learning activities can be designed to operationalize the following GEAs:

  • GEA 4. The importance of balancing disciplinary expertise with integrative learning.
  • GEA 5. The importance of holistic learning.
  • GEA 6. The importance of active student involvement in the learning process.
  • GEA 7. The importance of personal relationships to the learning process.

Building on classroom excellence

The literature on service-learning provides this support for the pedagogy:

  1. Application that is informed by theory also tests the “truth” of theory and refines it, particularly when the scholar is in relationship with those who own the problem or issue being addressed.
  2. Service-learning is problem solving and therefore fundamentally interdisciplinary; it engages multiple academic disciplines and modes of thinking and analysis, and helps students to value the perspectives and contributions of other disciplines.
  3. Community engagement fosters mentoring relationships between educators and students, between student peers, and between students and community partners.
  4. Learning that is tied to the needs of a client or community partner provides opportunities for student self-direction and genuine success or failure.
  5. Learning to serve the needs of others engenders humility and enables students to value persons and cultures different from themselves.
  6. Doing service provides a context and opportunity for vocational mentoring and Christian discipleship.
  7. Commitments made by students to care for others can engender lifelong commitments to service, leadership and reconciliation; service-learning links learning to commitment and action.

Curricular components

Whether engaged through the curriculum or co-curriculum, students in the Collaboratory will experience these learning components:


Instructional content in the Collaboratory will:

  • Introduce students to research problems and community partnerships that address a significant need in our community, region, country, or the world.
  • Prepare students for service by studying theories and gaining academic knowledge relevant to the problem.
  • Prepare students for service by orienting them to the problem and the context in which they will work.
  • Use common readings and discussions to connect academic learning to service, Christian discipleship, vocation, leadership, civic responsibility, justice, and reconciliation.


Service in the Collaboratory will:

  • Provide opportunities for students to express value commitments and disciplinary knowledge in an authentic, real-life setting.
  • Enable students to personally connect with people involved with the issue to which the service is directed. Ideally, this will include a relationship with persons directly affected.
  • Relate to programs with long-term commitments to the communities and issues they address.
  • Include sufficient contact time and duration to allow students to build relationships with people facing the issue and to develop deep understanding.


Structured reflection in the Collaboratory will:

  • Include students, faculty and community partners from multiple disciplines engaged in similar activities.
  • Explore the theories, structures and assumptions of students’ academic disciplines in the context of the service experience.
  • Help students to link their values and academic learning to other parts of the curriculum and co-curriculum.
  • Helps students to evaluate their personal values and commitments, and to grow in discipleship and toward a mature Christian faith.
  • Helps students develop a sense of vocation and to think about integrating faith with an occupation.


  • Boyer, Ernest L., Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, New Jersey: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).
  • Boyer, Ernest L., “The Scholarship of Engagement” and “A Community of Scholars”, in Selected Speeches: 1979-1995 (Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1997).
  • Eyler, Janet, and Giles, Dwight E. Jr., Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1999).
  • Parks, Sharon Daloz, Big Questions Worthy Dreams (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2000).
  • Kimball, Bruce, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: Teachers College Press of Columbia University, 1986).
  • Kolb, David, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1984).
  • Schön, Donald A., The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (London: Temple Smith, 1983).
  • Schön, Donald A., Educating the Reflective Practitioner (San Francisco: Jossy-Bass Publishers, 1987).
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