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What in the World is Service Learning?

If you google “what is service learning,” you’ll find that a lot of the answers are complicated, but the truth is, it doesn’t need to be. So, let’s break it down. What is service learning?

It's a type of learning that...

  • Involves volunteering or tackling a problem or project

  • The project should have a positive impact on a community or the environment

  • It allows you to connect “classroom learning” to real-world situations

The last bullet point is the crux. Academic preparation, assessment, and reflection are what differentiate service-learning projects from other, more traditional forms of community service.

Why do a service learning project?

Often, serving learning hours are required for jobs, certificates, credit, graduation, or any number of things, but one of the main reasons to get involved is the opportunity to make a positive impact on an issue that matters to you.

Whether it’s volunteering at your local food bank or traveling to Costa Rica to help scientists and researchers protect threatened sea turtles, it’s a chance to stake out your claim, take meaningful action on an issue, and become part of the solution, not the problem.

Another reason to get some service learning hours is that you’ll get to learn about an issue in-depth. Too often the classroom is an arid and sterile place. With service learning, you experience all the messy, real-world details.  

Take EPI’s Galapagos Island Ecology Program as an example. One of the service learning projects on that program is to remove invasive species that are taking over the islands and destroying the natural habitat.

In the classroom, learning about invasive species can be kind of boring. But in the Galapagos, participating in the project, you get to see how dire the invasive species situation is. You see the human impact, both good and bad. You see firsthand how it affects species like the Galapagos giant tortoises (and how they unwittingly exacerbate the problem!). And best of all, you get to help. Unlike many classroom lessons, service learning projects have a way of sticking with you.

Click here to learn more about EPI's Galapagos Island Ecology Program.

The last reason to get involved is that volunteering on a service learning project can be very helpful for your own future. Whether you’re applying for a job in conservation or trying to get accepted into a college program in ecology or environmental science, service learning hours can be the difference between getting ahead and falling behind.

How to find a good service learning project?

Finding a good service learning program doesn’t have to be difficult.  The key is to look for a project or issue that’s embedded in a wider learning context.  What do we mean by that?

Well, you could easily spend a couple of hours a week volunteering at the humane society. It would definitely have a positive impact on some animals.  But without other lessons, instruction, and reflection time, the learning won’t be as rich as it could be.

Let’s compare that to our earlier example, EPI’s Galapagos Island Ecology Program.  There, you don’t just volunteer on the invasive species project. 

  • You also study the ecology of the islands.

  • You learn how tortoises act as a vector to move invasive seeds.

  • You study how invasives are displacing native plants and affecting animals' migratory patterns

  • You become an expert in ecology and environmental studies.

That is the kind of comprehensiveness you want in a service learning project. Look for the service and the learning. And when you find it, don’t hesitate. Jump in and get your hands dirty!


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