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December 15, 2000

UW-RF Students Contribute to Social Good Through Service Learning Program

Perched on a steep bluff overlooking Lake Louise in River Falls, the historic Foster Cemetery rests among overgrown grasses and trees. The cemetery, deeded by Eli Foster to Trinity Episcopal Church in 1856, was later given to the City of River Falls by the church. The lopsided headstones of city founders dating back to the mid-1800s are incorporated in the conservancy area, awaiting preservation.

Four UW-River Falls environmental science and management students recently climbed the steep hillside with plans to restore the cemetery to its natural state and develop a management plan for the historic area. They will accomplish this through Wisconsin Partnership in Service Learning, a program that redefines what it means to be an educated person by blending the course work of students with the work of civic agencies to meet community needs.

UW-RF Chancellor Ann Lydecker embraces the method of education at the university level. "I am committed to continuing to develop service learning on this campus," she said.

In 1997, UW-RF was one of six Wisconsin universities to share a grant of $464,000 for WPLS through the Corporation for National Service, a federal program to engage Americans in service to communities. The WPLS grant is the first model in the United States in which universities, Cooperative Education Service Agencies (CESA) and two-year campuses work together.

WPSL Program Director Florence Monsour, and Co-Director James Stewart , both with the UW-RF Regional Development Institute, worked in cooperation with Stanley Potts, consultant to the Department of Public Instruction, as grant writers. The University institutionalized the program in 2000, budgeting $9,000 to incorporate service learning into class curriculum. Annual funds are available through mini-grants.

"I think we have a good start," said Lydecker. "Now, we need to develop the infrastructure to permit this to happen." She said the program has generated a lot of interest across the nation.

Sharing in the federal grant funding are UW-Green Bay, UW-Superior, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Whitewater, UW-Stout, and UW-River Falls. Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in Shell Lake and CESA 11, in Turtle Lake, are partners with UW-RF. The intent of the program is to create more civic-minded individuals who will value service as a component of their personal lives.

Common Experience, a UW-RF service learning project, served as the springboard in 1998-99 for freshman students. Within hours of settling on campus, more than 1,000 students were immersed as volunteers in group homes, state parks, public housing projects, and the Kinni Land Trust.

"Our hope is that students will see the importance and value of volunteering," said Kay Schendel, event coordinator. "The pay-off for students is phenomenal."

The August 2000 WPSL Semi-annual Progress Report records that nearly 11,000 educators, university students, technical and K-12 students, and community members are involved statewide. UW-RF continues to cut a path of innovative teaching through ongoing training of instructors and community partners.

Professor Kelly Cain, who directs service learning projects in the department of plant and earth science, values contributing to the social good over receiving personal economic gain. He highlights three motivations for teaching with service learning components.

"Community service raises everybody up," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the papers I get back say the students got more out of service learning experiences than they thought they would.

"In addition, students learn more from actual experiences than from contrived classroom experiences. They have a personal investment and take ownership of the work.

"Finally, the program provides students with actual professional experience to include on their resumes."

During 1999, students worked with River Falls city planners to develop a seven-acre area slated for low-income housing. The project involved thinking critically about the community, according to project member Adam Snegosky.

Said Snegosky, a recent graduate who is now a geographic information systems specialist in Stillwater, "We looked at what would accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of people."

Service learning includes three criteria: assessing community needs, devising a plan to meet the needs and carrying it out, and evaluation. During the evaluation, the personal and community benefits surface.

"Processing has to take place," said Cain. "Otherwise, the projects just become a scrapbook of experiences."

River Falls planner Tony Steiner agrees that service learning is a valuable approach to education. Steiner welcomes student input on his projects, teaches the process of city planning, and recognizes the benefits of cooperating on actual community projects. "I am not a teacher, but we all have a responsibility to help others learn," said Steiner.

The approach to service learning varies widely with instructors and disciplines.

*Twenty-two students earning a bachelor's degree in social work influenced public policy by meeting with legislative committees in Madison on issues of campaign finance reform, dental care access, developmental disabilities, evaluating drunken-driving and safety laws, arts funding, and the use of prescription drugs for children.

* UW-RF senior Ben Siepel taught seventh-grade Spanish at St. Bridget's Catholic School, River Falls, as a service- learning project. Seipel, a broad area music major, is from Prescott, and is currently student teaching music at the River Falls High School.

*Kari Klocke, UW-RF broad area art major from Hayfield, Minn., designed a massive mural on an interior wall of Bookpress Bookstore in River Falls. Klocke and seven other UW-RF art students collaborated with the bookstore to engage children visually in the history of classic children's literature. The effort transformed a bland wall into a colorful work of art.

* Land use management students teamed with Prairie Enthusiasts, a state organization that promotes the protection and management of native prairie and savanna remnants. Together, they burned back native prairie grass on the south portion of the campus to provide better habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.

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