Education professor Richard Kiely is teaching his students how to join the theory behind service learning with experience-how to combine thought with action.
From developing a preventive educational device in partnership with the American Cancer Society and the Georgia Cancer Coalition, to designing a dog park, to working with Georgia’s growing Hispanic population, Kiely’s students have found ways to make individual and social contributions while at the same time learning the theory and research of service learning.
“Students constantly develop an understanding of how theory connects to practice and how practice informs theory,” says Kiely, an assistant professor of adult education. “With service learning, you don’t have to speculate on the application of what you are learning, because you are actually doing it.”
As Kiely illustrated in his adult education for community development course this past fall and his program development course this semester, service learning involves the application of academic skills to address or solve real-life needs or problems in the community.
“Organized service-learning experiences build on both student and community interests and are assets in developing partnerships that are collaborative, reciprocal and sustainable,” says Kiely, who is considered a national expert in the field.
Kiely’s experience in service learning began in 1994 while he was teaching at Tompkins Courtland Community College. He and a faculty colleague developed a global service-learning course called “international health on-site” in Nicaragua.
“Since we had both studied abroad and been immersed in other cultures we wanted to use our experiences in developing this course,” he says. “We decided on Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, because it is an extremely impoverished area.
We spoke with members of that community who told us there was a tremendous need for health clinics and health education.”
The course is still taught at Tompkins and, while it remains focused on developing health clinics and health education, the emphasis varies each year. For instance, in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch devastated the area, the course focused more on disaster relief.
Although Kiely’s schedule prohibits him from traveling with students to Nicaragua each year, he remains involved in the service-learning course at Tompkins.
“I learned so much from working with those communities in Nicaragua, which is really nice because that is what education should be about anyway-constant learning,” he says. “The impact on the students, the communities we worked with, the faculty members-it has been transformational and, in many cases, life saving. Any time you can do work that saves lives and makes a social contribution, it is very powerful.”
While working on his doctorate at Cornell, Kiely was able to incorporate his work in Nicaragua.
“When I started my doctorate work I wanted to focus my coursework on the Nicaragua project,” he says, “and was able to learn about the literature and theory behind service learning.”
During his time at Cornell, Kiely was also involved in domestic service-learning projects, including an alternative spring break project where students worked at a battered women’s shelter in West Virginia.
Based on the Nicaragua project, Kiely has developed workshops on how to implement and design global service-learning projects. He also served as an adviser for a group of UGA students who went to Tanzania last May and developed a community center. Along with teaching and developing service-learning courses and projects, Kiely focuses his energies on helping others understand and define service learning.
UGA’s service-learning initiative coincides with the university’s mission of excellence in public service and was the subject for this year’s Public Service and Outreach Conference on Jan. 27. The conference focused on existing and developing service-learning opportunities at UGA. Several service-learning projects that Kiely advised were on display, and he facilitated a session on how service learning can generate community economic development.
“Service learning has a dual purpose,” he says. “First, there is the individual contribution in terms of student learning and development. There is also the social contribution in that service learning addresses community needs or problems. We look at ourselves and the courses as resources and knowledge that can be applied in a useful way.”
Kiely says it is important to look at service learning on different levels.
“Service learning is not just a pedagogy, it is a philosophy,” he says. “You have to look not only at your own coursework, but also how it relates to larger social structures and institutions.”