Service learning courses at KU provide real-life lessons

For a project in a Mechanical engineering class, KU students are constructing an exercise machine for people with cerebral palsy who are confined to a wheelchair. Testing their machine Wednesday in Learned Hall, from left, are KU seniors Alex Porter, Hollie Benson, Katie Sanders and Sakeeb Mehdi.

For Kansas University students in assistant professor Ken Fisher’s mechanical engineering course, learning goes beyond taking notes in lecture.

It reaches all the way to a house in Wichita.

The students are building a simple machine that will allow a woman with cerebral palsy to accomplish her goal of getting more exercise. It’s a fairly inexpensive device, and with it, the woman — with the help of a trainer — will be able strap in her hands and feet and move them both in a circular motion at the same time.

“We’re actually working with people in the outside world,” said Katie Sanders, a senior from Lenexa studying mechanical engineering and business.

It’s an example of service learning — projects that take students outside the classroom and apply their knowledge to benefit the broader community.

In the past year, KU has continued to expand its service learning presence, and more students are picking up the service learning certification that KU offers. And more courses are adding service learning components.

KU has a Center for Service Learning that coordinates those efforts and offers the certification, which students can have added to their transcripts by taking enough service learning courses.

This fall, KU hopes to have 450 students earn that certification. Ninety-one students earned it five years ago.

The center’s director is Andi Witczak, an assistant professor of design. She said expanded service learning opportunities are part of KU’s strategic planning process.

“The university is trying to get all students more engaged with their learning,” she said. “Especially in the freshman and sophomore year.”

Today, about 150 class sections include a service learning component, she said. Colleges typically ask about community service in the application process, and are looking to extend that kind of learning as a structured part of their course work.

And, Witczak said, today’s students are typically more engaged with their communities coming out of high school.

“It’s really a bottom-up kind of thing,” Witczak said. “Students are asking for it.”

What she’d really like to do, she said, is reach more faculty on campus who can incorporate this kind of thing into their own classes.

No need to do that with people like Cheryl Lester, chairwoman of KU’s American studies department. She’s been incorporating service learning into her classes for years.

“I believe service learning is absolutely essential to undergraduate education,” she said. “Because I think that connecting knowledge to everyday experience is how people really learn.”

In her Jewish-American literature and culture course, students read literature for Audio-Reader.

“It is important to develop a focused experience and develop one that would be a meaningful experience for students,” Lester said.

Students began reading Jewish publications to serve Jewish listeners but quickly realized that many would be interested in things beyond Jews in Jewish places, too. So, today the students read materials on immigration, diversity and a range of other topics that reflect the Jewish experience in America.

“It’s what we all hope to do — get an education and do something with it,” said Hannah Vick, a junior from Lawrence in Lester’s class.

She said the service part doesn’t stop when the class is over. She hopes to continue being involved with Audio-Reader after the class.

“The best way to get an education is do real-life examples,” Vick said. “It sort of focuses the student to build that connection, which could so easily be lost.”