There’s a lot of “doing” in Raquel Alexander's Kansas University business classes.
The assistant professor of business teaches a capstone graduate course on how to prepare tax forms.
The subject, on its face, sounds a bit dull, but Alexander has found a way to help engage students.
During the years, Alexander's students have used their knowledge to help many fill out complicated tax forms — for Hurricane Katrina victims, for residents left behind after a tornado ripped through Greensburg and for nonprofits across the region after the tax laws changed a couple of years ago.
It’s all part of a growing national trend that’s picking up at KU, too. So-called “service learning” brings real-world applications that benefit the broader community into college classrooms as part of the curriculum.
“At first, you think, tax? Really? That’s a little bit counter-intuitive,” said Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the Douglas County United Way. “But it makes so much sense.”
And business courses are just one of many different applications at KU.
About 3,700 students are enrolled in service learning classes across the university today, Alexander said, spanning a number of disciplines.
Classes in the department of Spanish and Portuguese have translated court and legal documents for Spanish-speaking residents. And students in an environmental journalism course recently installed solar panels on a house in a Habitat for Humanity house.
Dvorske said she’s worked with KU to expand service learning, with positive results across the community. Students are getting exposed to community service more in high school, and are beginning to expect it at the college level, she said.
And, she said research shows that service learning can help keep students in school — matching up with one of Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s goals for KU.
“We know that students who are connected to the community are more likely to complete their degree,” Dvorske said.
New KU provost Jeff Vitter has mentioned his desire to expand service learning at KU several times since his arrival last month.
“We will nurture the synergies between the classroom, the laboratory and faculty office and the world around us to realize our important mission to benefit society, to have impact,” Vitter told the audience during KU’s opening convocation last week.
KU has also begun an Advocacy Corps program to match up community organizations with representatives at KU to help them navigate the bureaucracy and find resources such as willing volunteers and expert advice when needed.
About 50 advocates at KU and a similar number of community organizations have signed up so far, said Amanda Schwegler, associate director for KU’s Center for Service Learning.
“KU is a big and decentralized place,” Schwegler said. “We’re trying to help organizations know where to look for help.”