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Service learning is a method of teaching, learning and reflecting that combines academic classroom curriculum with meaningful service, frequently youth service, throughout the community. As a teaching methodology, it falls under the category of experiential education. More specifically, it integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, encourage lifelong civic engagement, and strengthen communities.

Key components

Service learning combines experiential learning and community service opportunities. It can be distinguished in the following ways:

  • Curricular connections- Integrating learning into a service project is key to successful service learning. Academic ties should be clear and build upon existing disciplinary skills.
  • Student voice - Beyond being actively engaged in the project itself, students have the opportunity to select, design, implement, and evaluate their service activity, encouraging relevancy and sustained interest.
  • Reflection - Structured opportunities are created to think, talk, and write about the service experience. The balance of reflection and action allows a student to be constantly aware of the impact of their work.
  • Community partnerships - Partnerships with community agencies are used to identify genuine needs, provide mentorship, and contribute assets towards completing a project. In a successful partnership, both sides will give to and benefit from the project. In order for this partnership to be successful, clear guides must be implemented as to how often a student engages in service to a particular community agency.
  • Authentic community needs – Local community members or service recipients are involved in determining the significance and depth of the service activities involved.
  • Assessment - Well structured assessment instruments with constructive feedback through reflection provide valuable information regarding the positive 'reciprocal learning' and serving outcomes for sustainability and replication.


As Defined by Robert Sigmon, 1994:

  • Service-LEARNING: Learning goals primary; service outcomes secondary.
  • SERVICE-Learning: Service outcomes primary; learning goals secondary.
  • service learning: Service and learning goals completely separate.
  • SERVICE-LEARNING: Service and learning goals of equal weight and each enhances the other for all participants.

In this comparative form, the typology is helpful not only in establishing criteria for distinguishing service-learning from other types of service programs but also in providing a basis for clarifying distinctions among different types of service-oriented experiential education programs (e.g., school volunteer, community service, field education, and internship programs). [13]

Effect on Engineering Education

Many engineering educators see service learning as the solution to several prevalent problems in engineering education today. In the past, engineering curriculum has fluctuated between emphasizing engineering science to focusing more on practical aspects of engineering. Today, many engineering educators are concerned their students do not receive enough practical knowledge of engineering and its context. Some speculate that adding context to engineering help to motivate engineering students’ studies and thus improve retention and diversity in engineering schools. Others feel that the teaching styles do not match the learning styles of engineering students.

Many engineering faculty members believe the educational solution lies in taking a more constructivist approach, where students construct knowledge and connections between nodes of knowledge as opposed to passively absorbing knowledge. Educators see service learning as a way to both implement a constructivism in engineering education as well as match the teaching styles to the learning styles of typical engineering students. As a result, many engineering schools have begun to integrate service learning into their curriculums.


The end of World War II, marked the beginning of a movement toward increased emphasis on engineering science in engineering education. Initially, this movement enhanced the quality of engineering education. However, after decades of rising focus on science engineering, undergraduate engineering education began to lack instruction on practical engineering applications. Concurrently, the undergraduate engineering experience became increasingly fragmented [1]. As one author described it, "Schools break knowledge and experience into subjects, relentlessly turning wholes into parts, flowers into petals, history into events, without ever restoring continuity [2].”

In the 1980s, many different organizations, including both research institutions and professional associations, conducted studies in attempts to resolve the educational problems in the engineering field. Though they conducted their research independently, they arrived at several common conclusions. Researchers agreed that the engineering schools should continue to provide solid basic theory knowledge. However, they also called for added emphasis on synthesis and design understanding as well as increased exposure to societal context and interdisciplinary teamwork [1]. Later reports reiterated the need for more exposure to engineering’s context as well as a need to make engineering more attractive and relevant to students [3]. Papers also reported the need for engineering students to develop professional and interpersonal skills [4].

Engineering Education Today

Today, requirements for engineering programs reflect a movement to resolve the engineering education problems found in past studies. Many engineering educators see service learning as a way to enhance their programs by exposing students to engineering context while also giving them a chance to develop professional and interpersonal skills. These values are reflected in the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) standards for engineering schools. For an engineering program to maintain accreditation, ABET requires that they “demonstrate that their students attain the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context [5].”

Pedagogical Implications


The service learning method ties in well with a teaching philosophy known as constructivism. Constructivism is an educational theory rooted in psychology and sociology [6] [7]. It asserts that learners construct knowledge from previous knowledge rather than passively absorbing knowledge from outside sources [6] [8] [7]. Furthermore, learning includes both creation of new factual knowledge and understanding the connections between different nodes of knowledge [9]. Service learning provides an environment where students can actively construct knowledge while engaging in actual projects. The reflection portion of service learning gives students time to create connections between old and new knowledge.

While accepted by many, some educators have criticized constructivism both epistemologically and pedagogically. Pedagogically, critics claim that a constructivist approach gives students in-depth knowledge but not breadth of knowledge. Since in a constructivist approach takes a significant amount of time to allow students to create new knowledge and relate it to previous knowledge through reflection, instructors usually cannot cover a large amount of material [10]. However, while this may become a real concern for many courses, the specific role of service learning plays in engineering school courses mitigates these concerns. Service learning typically appears in introductory or optional courses in the engineering school. The goals of these courses is not to much to gain a detailed and broad understand of a field, but rather to have a real world engineering experience. This is notably different from courses where students must obtain vast amounts of accurate knowledge for precise calculations.

Critics also worry that a constructivist approach to education leaves the learner too disconnected from reality since it constantly focuses on building new knowledge based off of pre-existing knowledge. Thus, theoretically, as they continue building knowledge off of their pre-existing knowledge in isolation, their view of the world could slowly become skewed from reality [11]. While this may be a weakness for many courses, in service learning, students work to create real solutions for a real customer. Thus their ideas must be resolved, not only with fellow engineering team members, but also with reality.

Learning Styles

In past years, studies on engineering education revealed the learning styles of most engineering students and the teaching styles of many engineering professors were incompatible. The five well known learning style dimensions include: sensing/intuitive, visual/auditory, inductive/deductive, active/reflective, and global/sequential. These learning styles and their corresponding teaching styles are summarized in the table below.

According to Richard Felder from North Carolina State University and Linda Silverman from the Institute for the study of Advanced Development, most engineering students are visual, sensing, inductive, and active learners. Also, many of the creative students are global learners. However, most engineering education is auditory, intuitive, deductive, passive and sequential [12].

Engineering Programs with Service Learning

Many different universities have incorporated service learning into their curriculums to address the contextual, motivational, and multi-disciplinary team needs. Purdue University created the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program in 1995. Under this program, freshman to senior undergraduate engineering students form multi-disciplinary teams to meet community needs. Students earn a variable number of credit hours based on their year in school and related contribution to the project. At Purdue, the service projects are long-term and students earn up to seven semesters worth of credit working on the service project. The program began with 40 students on 5 teams but has quickly grown to 400 students on 24 teams [11]..

The EPICS program at Purdue as well as service learning programs at other universities, have succeeded in offering students practical experience, context, and motivation for engineering. Seventy seven percent of the students who were able to come back to the EPICS program stayed for additional semesters. On student evaluations, 70% of students indicated that the program positively impacted their decision to stay in engineering; of the 30% that responded differently, several indicated they had previously decided to stay in the engineering before the program and thus, the program did not affect their decision to stay in engineering. Student responses also returned favorable results for the educational objectives. The table below summarizes the responses:

On evaluation comments, students also expressed that EPICS had completely changed their view of engineering, giving them both meaning and direction in all of their engineering studies [11].

Social and Ethical Implications

The ACM Code of Ethics lists contributing to society and human well-being as well as improving public understanding of an engineer’s practice area. Through service learning provides engineers with the opportunity to both contribute to society and educate the public.

Along with fostering a good community-university relationship, educators hope incorporating service learning will increase diversity and retention in the engineering school. Diversifying the engineering population will allow engineering teams to maintain a better understanding of the needs in a society. So diversifying engineering teams will allow engineers to both meet real needs as well as provide interfaces to their solutions which the public can understand. Likewise, a society needs a vast population of engineers to meet the needs of a vast society.

Supporting Programs

  • The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (NSLC)- provides the world's largest database of Service-Learning materials, electronic resources, and job listings.
  • National Service-Learning Partnership- a national network of members dedicated to advancing service learning as a core part of every young person's education. Service learning is a teaching method that engages young people in solving problems within their schools and communities as part of their academic studies or other type of intentional learning activity. The Partnership concentrates on strengthening the impact of service learning on young people's learning and development, especially their academic and civic preparation.
  • Facing the Future develops young people’s capacity and commitment to create thriving, sustainable, and peaceful local and global communities. They do this by equipping teachers and schools with the curriculum and workshops used as strategies to help students, and maintaining an online database of service learning projects of international and local interest.
  • Serve Canada engages diverse youth in experience-based education, teamwork and community involvement so they may establish personal direction, overcome obstacles, achieve goals, and contribute to society.
  • The International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership offers programs uniting academic study and volunteer service to the community in international/ intercultural settings that are models for the practice of service-learning, and promotes the theory and practice of service-learning through research, publications conferences, and training.

External links

  • National Service-Learning Partnership is a national network of members dedicated to advancing service learning as a core part of every young person's education. Service learning is a teaching method that engages young people in solving problems within their schools and communities as part of their academic studies or other type of intentional learning activity. The Partnership concentrates on strengthening the impact of service learning on young people's learning and development, especially their academic and civic preparation.
  • The International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership offers programs uniting academic study and volunteer service to the community in international/ intercultural settings that are models for the practice of service-learning, and promotes the theory and practice of service-learning through research, publications conferences, and training.
  • National Youth Leadership Council provides service-learning training and technical support; hosts The Annual National Service-Learning Conference and The National Youth Leadership Training, and provides an extensive collection of tools, articles, and project examples in its online Resource Center.
  • Campus Compact is a national coalition of more than 950 college and university presidents - representing some 5 million students - dedicated to promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education.
  • North Carolina Campus Compact is a coalition of college and university presidents established to increase campus-wide participation in community and public service and to integrate community service as a valued component of undergraduate education.


Retrieved from ""

See also


[1] E. Fromm, "The Changing Engineering Education Paradigm," J. Eng. Educ., vol. 92, April 2003.

[2] M. Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s, St. Martin's Press, 1980.

[3] Engineering Deans Council and Corporate Roundtable of the American Society for Engineering Education, "The Green Report: Engineering Education for a Changing World," American Society for Engineering Education., 1994.

[4] T.W. Hissey, "Education and Careers 2000," Proceedings IEEE, vol. 88, 2000.

[5] ABET, "Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs," The Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology., 2005.

[6] J. Mariappan, S. Monemi and U. Fan, "Enhancing Authentic Learning Experiences through Community-based Engineering Serive Learning," 2005.

[7] M. Ben-Ari, "Constructivism in Computer Science Education," SIGCSE, 1998.

[8] Smith, J. P. III, A.A. diSessa and J. Roschelle, "Misconceptions Reconceived: A Constructivist Analysis of Knowledge in Transition," Journal of the Learning Sciences, vol. 3, pp. 115-163, 1993-1994.

[9] J.D. Bransford and B.S. Stein, The IDEAL Problem Solver, New York: Bice-Heath, 1993.

[10] R.K. Coll and Taylor, T. G. N., "Using Constructivism to Inform, Tertiary Chemistry Pedagogy," Chemistry Education: Research and Practice in Europe, vol. 2, pp. 215-226, 2001.

[11] M. Olssen, "Radical Constructivism and Its Failing: Anti-Realism and Individualism," British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 44, pp. 275-295, Sep., 1996.

[12] R.M. Felder and L.K. Silverman, "Learning and Teaching Styles In Engineering Education," Engr. Education, vol. 78, pp. 674-681, 1988.

[13] A Furco, "Expanding Boundaries: Serving and Learning,", 1996.

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