As a communications instructor at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn., I am always looking for new ways to reinvent my communication courses for first and second-year students. In September 2008, I took 10 students to National Public Lands Day at our local state park, Bledsoe Creek State Park.
National Public Lands Day, a program of the National Environmental Education Foundation, is the largest annual clean up of America’s outdoor spaces. The students and I spent the day clearing brush, disposing of litter, and weeding a garden. National Public Lands Day was so rewarding for both the students and me that I immediately approached the park ranger about continuing volunteer work that combined learning, service, and the environment. I told the ranger that if the park had a problem, I was looking for a project to solve it.
It didn’t take long for an opportunity. After learning that storm water flooding was creating a hazardous situation for visitors at the park, I proposed a service-learning project for my 70 communication students. I believe that part of the collegiate obligation is to instill a sense of civic responsibility in our students. Service-learning projects are a great way to encourage students to engage with their community to solve a common problem by using concepts taught in the classroom. The students and I teamed up with Ranger Lance Crawford, maintenance supervisor Bill Wheeler, and Sharon Armistead of Friends of Bledsoe for support and guidance as we sought to solve the storm water drainage problems. Students logged in a minimum of five hours of service to dig drainage ditches, lay a drainage pipe, remove impediments, redirect the flow of water and refill ditches with rock, and seed and erosion-control blankets.
This class of enthusiastic students gained valuable knowledge and real-world problem-solving experience. In the end, the class was about learning how to create meaningful messages and to effectively communicate those messages, whether in the classroom, in a boardroom, or in conversations. This project provided students the opportunity to use these skills to grow into leaders, develop critical-thinking strategies, and help a state park in need. Throughout the semester, many asked, “How is ditch-digging relevant to a communication class?” The answer is service-learning. This teaching method allowed students to learn in the classroom and then implement their knowledge at the Bledsoe Creek State Park. The project not only contributed to the community and provided students with new skills, but also led students to self-reflection about the value of service.
In one self-reflection piece, Chris Hembree wrote, “Five hours of digging ditches and hauling rocks? I would have thought such labor would be for just about any other class except Communications, but now I know what service learning is! Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that incorporates meaningful community service, instruction, and reflection to enrich the learning experience and teach civic responsibility. It turns out that while service learning can be the “pitts,” it can also be fun and exciting!” Once we were finished, I saw the students swell with pride as they watched the first storm water flow in the intended direction. “Y’all did a good job; it’s been working,” said Mr. Wheeler.
For me, National Public Lands Day became a year-long event that is continuing to grow and expand to include more of the community. The Bledsoe Creek State Park was so thrilled with the success of this project that they are again participating in National Public Lands Day and continuing to work with students enrolled in service-learning projects. I’m thrilled that United We Serve has urged enthusiasm for service-learning projects, and I hope it will continue into the fall with programs like National Public Lands Day. What started with 10 students has grown to include several schools throughout the county. The local high school and middle school formed outdoor clubs, which will organize and participate in after-school service-learning programs starting this fall. Other schools dedicated their volunteer days to undertaking service-learning initiatives as well. National Public Lands Day brought our community to Bledsoe Creek State Park. The National Public Lands Day events teach our children about the environment and the importance of maintaining the public lands in our community.