Dr. Ambler employs service learning in sociology classes

Photo courtesy of MC website

In an uncommon break from the traditional classroom learning setting, Dr. Susan Ambler’s social problems class is participating in service learning projects across Blount County. The class itself is focused on issues such as poverty, race issues, age inequality and environmental problems.
“We want to study what communities have done [about these problems] and want to study a potential solution to that problem,” Ambler said.

All students are required as part of the class to complete 15 hours of community service and write a paper at the end of the semester relating the service work back to topics addressed in class.
Service learning projects come with many benefits, including giving temporary aid to community organizations and providing valuable resume-building experience for those looking to go into social work. Students are given a choice of six community organizations to choose to work with, although they are permitted to suggest others in lieu of these. The six are Asbury Place nursing home, New Hope Child Advocacy Center, Keep Blount Beautiful, the GATE, Haven House and the Martin Luther King Center.     Ambler has been assigning service learning projects in her sociology classes for years, even before she came to teach at Maryville College.

“My idea is that it’s important in learning, instead of reading in a textbook, that students experience these things first-hand,” she said.
Students agree that gaining hands-on experience in social work is highly beneficial.

“As a sociology major, I appreciate getting hands-on experience in my field, which will be valuable in my future career,” said Rachel Jarnagin, a sophomore.  “Being immersed in the situation is much different than just learning about it. You get to know people and their situation. When you learn about it in class, you’re getting a general overview of what ‘usually happens’ but it doesn’t compare with actually experiencing it.”
Jarnagin is completing her 15 hours of service work at New Hope Child Advocacy Center, which focuses on providing a place of comfort and aid for children in abusive situations.
Sophomore Emily Pickett was already a recipient of the Bradford Scholarship, a literacy tutoring scholarship, when she enrolled in the class. Students who were currently involved in community service work were allowed to apply that work toward their project. Pickett, who volunteers as a reading tutor atEverettAdultLearningCenter, was able to use that volunteer time for the project.

“I love doing adult-literacy tutoring. It’s so eye-opening,” Pickett said.
While the service work students provide is beneficial for them in that they gain invaluable experience, the question has been raised of whether the service work is truly beneficial for the organizations involved. One of the main concerns which Ambler has over the service learning aspect of the class is how effective it is, due to its short-term nature.
“The ideal situation is when [the work] lasts longer,” said Ambler. “The work doesn’t stop in the organization. The real world doesn’t operate by a semester calendar. Putting the two together isn’t easy.”
Those who have completed volunteer work in the past have the same concerns.

“[The organizations] really don’t want you to just come in for 15 hours. They want you for a longer period of time,” Pickett said.
Last fall, Dr. Ambler’s research methods class surveyed the organizations to which she had assigned students in the past to see if the projects were adequately meeting organizational needs. The majority of the organizations responded complimentarily, which indicates that the issue of whether or not semester-based volunteering is ineffective is currently not a problem.

Ambler presented a research paper on the effectiveness survey over spring break at a meeting of the Southern Sociological Society in New Orleans, which should aid other colleges and universities in their studies of service learning projects.

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