As the University of Alberta’s Community Service Learning program nears its 10-year anniversary, the program directors are about to give their students a slice of the PIE: Partners in Education.
The pilot project launches this fall after almost four years of pla ning aiming to take the university’s Community Service Learning (CSL) program to a new level. Students can gain valuable experiences in the non-profit sector while simultaneously benefiting the community.
PIE will offer a unique opportunity to its partners by allowing them to sit in and audit certain CSL classes at no cost. In many cases where these small non-profit agencies cannot afford professional development training, this is a valuable opportunity.
“I think too often we have talked about how we do outreach to the community; we provide things to them, and we haven’t recognized enough how it is that community partners provide a lot back,” said CSL founder and former director at the U of A, Sara Dorow.
Dorow initiated the CSL program back in 2003 with only three registered classes in the Faculty of Arts. The popularity of the classes has now grown to more than 750 students in CSL courses across seven faculties — including business and education.
“Ten years from now, it would really be really nice if there is a CSL component in every faculty,” said Administrative Director Lorraine Woollard.
“We’ve grown quickly, but it’s managed growth. And so as we see ways that we can get involved in faculties that we’re not involved in, we’re going to pursue those,” she said.
Part of the popularity was due to a unique learning experience that gets students out of the classroom and explores learning in a challenging new way.
“You can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen, because what you’re doing is bringing together all of these different players: instructors, students and community partners, who together are partnering up around a certain set of social questions or set of issues,” said Dorow.
The program now has connections to more than 100 partners, such as Edmonton Women’s Shelters and even environmental learning partners in Fort McMurray, although most fall within the limits of Edmonton.
CSL director Alison Taylor, who just recently stepped up to the position, is focused on getting out into the community and meeting students and faculty members to look into opportunities for the future of the program.
One challenge of this expansion is in certain science faculties, where it is often difficult to find non-profit organizations to pair with CSL.
“It’s challenging because sometimes someone will say, ‘how can you possibly make an organic chemistry class into a CSL class?’” said Woollard.
She believes it’s important to creatively seek out the right organizations for students to explore their field of study.
“It’s a way of them seeing how their discipline actually fits into the larger world. Oftentimes we forget that,” she said.
Another priority for the team is making the program courses more available for graduate students.
With the university emphasizing undergrad research with initiatives like the poster symposiums held last year, Taylor believes CSL can contribute to encouraging this research even more.
“There’s also a trend from the university to involve more undergrads in research, and I see CSL as a very good way to also fulfilling that goal,” she said.
“It’s certainly allowing more opportunities for students who engage in research in consistence with what we do at CSL.”
When the program began, funding was essential to get CSL off the ground. The foundation also had a strict definition of what community partners should be.
As the program becomes more successful, new dynamic partnerships continue to form with school boards, sectors in municipal government and broader non-profit agencies.
“It would be nice to see every student being aware that this is an option for them, and also to make sure that the opportunities they are provided with are enriching their learning experience,” said Taylor.
The PIE program is expected to remain as a pilot project for at least one year.
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