4 Perks of Academic Service-Learning

written by Jaime Notzen

St. Norbert College offered two community engagement opportunities for J-Term 2016.

Dr. Laurie MacDiarmid’s Creative Nonfiction Workshop course introduces students to creative nonfiction (personal essay, memoir and literary journalism). Her J-Term class, deemed “The Fab Five”, didn’t write your usual run-of-the-mill essays; instead, they wrote about their own experiences, and became comfortable enough to share them with one another. After learning how to share their own stories, the Fab Five went out into the community to teach sixth graders how to do the same.

Dr. Erik Brekke’s course, Physics in the Arts, illustrated the physics of light, colors, and sound waves. After applying this knowledge to photography, visual art, and music, Dr. Brekke’s class went to several elementary school classrooms to teach them in an engaging approach to the sciences.

While J-Term has passed, there are opportunities to sign up for community engagement courses in upcoming semesters. Here are 4 perks of Academic Service-Learning as experienced by our two J-Term classes.

1.) A solid grasp on the material

Dr. Brekke finds that when his students are responsible for making fun lesson plans, they have a better understanding of Physics.

“For our students, I think community engagement leads them to thinking harder and taking ownership of the material. They have to really understand the topic to be able to explain it to elementary students. For instance, one of our students taught wave speeds in the classroom. He used a slinky to represent the speed dependent on the wave of the slinky. These demonstrations give both parties a better understanding.”

2.) Growth as an educator

For education majors, community engagement courses provide extra experience in the classroom. Abby Butterbrodt (’16) appreciated her raw teaching experience in the Creative Nonfiction Workshop.

“In an education class, sometimes you feel a lot of pressure to do the right thing. But in this class, you get to experience what it’s like to really work with a group of students.” 

For non-education majors, community engagement is still extremely enriching. Even Dr. MacDiarmid finds herself enriched by the experience:

“I think that teaching writing is a really good way to become a good writer yourself. It puts you in the role of expert. When you are explaining, it’s more effective than being in the traditional, passive student role. Teaching for me is really learning.”

3.) Impact

During the academic school year, college students (and faculty!) don’t always have the opportunity to work with individuals off campus. After doing his own science demonstrations in local schools, Dr. Brekke wanted SNC students be able to do the same.

“Physics in the Arts is interesting and encourages students to think about the sciences more. I have kids in elementary school, and I’ve been doing shows in various schools in the area. We want to get these students interested and thinking about science.”

Creative Nonfiction Workshop students learned about the hearts of their sixth graders through their writing. Nicole Gardner (’17) was moved by her students’ development.

“I was so impressed with what they could write and how mature they were. A boy I worked with wrote a piece about his grandpa who died and had Alzheimer’s. He wrote about how he wishes to grow up to be like his grandpa some day. I found it extremely inspiring, especially coming from someone so young.”

4.) Insight

Dr. MacDiarmid’s course helped students feel more connected with themselves and with individuals in the community.


“Sharing our stories is a really effective and important way for us to connect with ourselves and others. It’s therapeutic on a certain level, which other courses may not have. It’s the danger piece that potentially makes it scary. We might not know how to handle it. We wanted our sixth to find out that writing doesn’t have to be a horrible chore that makes you feel stupid, but instead, it can a way that makes you feel a part of this world. You are important and you matter. It’s hard to hate people when you know their stories.”

If you are interested in experiencing Academic Service-Learning, you can refer to this link for more information. Keep an eye out for CENG  (community engagement) on the upcoming course timetable!


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