Service Learning – a concept to make social responsibility a real-life experience

Educating responsible future managers is one of the main duties of a business school. At the University of Mannheim, Business School, it is an important part of our mission. Students’ awareness for social responsibility is raised in the classroom, since courses on related topics are part of the curriculum. But can we go a step further?

At the University of Mannheim, we offer students the possibility to engage personally in a social project by the pedagogic concept  “Service Learning” which combines scientific class content with real-life, nonprofit management. Service Learning has been established within the curriculum of the Chair of Public and Nonprofit Management of the University of Mannheim over the course of several years, beginning in 2007. As a result of the connection of theoretical and practical aspects in- and outside of the classroom, students receive a hands-on approach to nonprofit management and strengthen their ability of critical thinking, problem-solving and knowledge-transfer.

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The concept envisages that the university provides within the classroom the theoretical background for Service Learning (ergo the “learning” aspect) while the “service” part takes place outside of the classroom. Service Learning premises the involvement of three parties, namely the university, the student and a community partner, which can be either a local public institution or nonprofit organization. Ideally, all three parties benefit from the collaboration: the students can apply their practical knowledge in real-life situations and organizations, while the participating institutions receive new input and scientifically-sound support. In order to secure the sustainability of the projects, attention is paid to the long-term usability, implementation and continuation of the results for the collaborating nonprofit organization.

It is an innovative approach to teaching and learning, though it requires a higher amount of planning and coordination than a regular class. The execution of a Service Learning seminar is usually carried out in three phases. Phase one starts before the semester, when projects corresponding to the theoretical contents of the seminar and which actually serve a distinct purpose for the chosen community partners have to be drafted. In a kick-off workshop,the community partners present their organization as well as the question, which has to be treated by the students within the framework of the project. The second phase combines service and learning. Students are supposed to independently work on their designated projects, while the ‘learning’ takes place in the classroom, usually in the form of lectures, and provide the scientific basis for the projects. Another component is also the training of presentation skills and group work, which are crucial parts of project management. In order to bridge the gap between theory and practice and to prevent that ‘service’ and ‘learning’ are not tangent to each other, sessions for reflection are a vital part. The third phase serves to present, either orally or in written form, the results of the projects. A concluding evaluation at the end of the semester is crucial to secure the overall quality of teaching.

2012-09-13 15.39.14All parties involved highlight the additional benefit they could pull out of the Service Learning concept. Students emphasize the enrichment in regard to content and also the personal gain stemming from the application of practical knowledge in a real-life setting, often for humanitarian causes. The organizations involved were grateful for the advice and assistance they received and for which they usually do not have the financial and human resources. For the university, the innovative teaching method is a another tool to improve the learning process of students and to send the students off with additional skills, such as independent, critical thinking, reflection, team playing and the ability to understand and apply theoretical knowledge in actual scenarios of nonprofit organizations.

Professor Dr. Bernd Helmig, University of Mannheim, Germany

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