Learning through service

Dr. Stefanos Gialamas and Ellen Froustis discuss ways of implementing a successful program

ECIS, Autumn- Spring 2009, pp. 32-33.

New challenges have arisen for academic institutions due to demographic, social, economic, and cultural changes and the rapid advancement of technology which creates complex global issues. Academic institutions have the responsibility to engage students in civic service so that they become catalysts to social change when necessary, while preserving their ethics, principles and values as responsible members of society.

When integrated across the curriculum, community service can become a tool for developing an appreciation for civic responsibility. In the form of service learning, it can also become a strategy for helping youth develop social and emotional competencies and other valuable life skills.

Curriculum learning objectives

When implementing a service learning program, it is important to begin by identifying major academic learning objectives directly related to the institution’s curriculum. Learning objectives must be PROMPT (precise, relevant, organized, measurable, and timely). Objectives must be introduced in the classroom, and then reiterated in the process of learning at the service site.

For example, one can identify water pollution as a learning objective during a class discussion. While actually testing for water pollutants at the service site, it is import ant to re-examine the precise and relative objectives and make connections to the curriculum. It is important to identify and encourage students to reach the related learning objectives of each project, which can improve intellectual, collaborative, persuasive or research skills.

Once the learning objectives are introduced, guiding students to the right questions will lead them to the best solutions. The guided inquiry method (Gialamas, Cherif Keller & Hansen, 2000) enables students to develop refined inquiry skills by encouraging them to integrate critical thinking and decision-making techniques that can lead to questions aimed at effective problem-solving.

Addressing real community issues at the student level is at the heart of service learning. Involving students in the problem – solving and decision making process, at every stage of a project, is the key to a successful and meaningful service learning project.

Since the model is based on multiple levels of collaborative effort and team accomplishments, learning outcomes must be defined both on an individual and team level. The most challenging part of the process is to establish measurable outcomes at both of these levels.

Civic service objectives

The civic service objectives of a project must be clearly defined and specific outcomes established. They should include a written guided reflection to help students develop an awareness of their strengths and limitations and recognize opportunity for person al growth. If, for instance, the objective is to engage the community in recycling, one should see the objective as part of the broader issue of citizen respect and care for the community, in which recycling is one of the challenges.

Academic institution

ACS Athens has acknowledged service learning as one of the major commitments to their students. As the curriculum is prepared, service learning is included, not as an isolated act of community service, but as par t of the comprehensive approach to teaching and learning.

Many books and articles have been published addressing the concept of leadership. We embrace, and promote the Morphosis Leadership (Gialamas & Pelonis, 2009), which is defined as the continuous act of influencing yourself and others to accomplish person al and professional goals in life, in line with the adopted principles and values.

In addition, the leader develops a partnership with the team based on clearly-defined and distributed authority to every team member. The leader’s behavior must be consistent, and focus on motivating all members of the institution to reach their maximum capability and instill in them the desire and determination to accomplish the institutional goals.

The leader DREAMS (is Decisive, Resourceful, Energetic, Approachable, Mindful, and Self-Aware), and then ACTS

(Assertively, Creatively, Timely, and Stimulating). The leader must unleash the talents of his/her team members by promoting the idea that they should strive for ownership of their actions and dreams that include love and respect for their environment and learning.

The greater community

Creating community partnerships is the link that makes experiential learning possible outside the classroom. The search for a community partner begins with an in-depth study of the needs and resources of the community and its challenges. Setting the ground-work includes informing the engaged community group about the concept of service learning, their responsibility in the partnership, and the importance of their commitment and readiness to see the project through.

Service learning outcomes

Service learning enhances content specific and related learning and, at the same time, helps students to develop a higher level of self-worth and confidence while building integrity and ethos. In addition, teaching and learning in the classroom, in connection to the real world, can help students to develop core social and emotional competencies including nurturing, empathy, and acceptance of others, while promoting intercultural sensitivity with a deep sense of civic responsibility for the well being of the community.

Addressing complex community issues promotes learning through active participation that requires guided reflection, analysis and integration of the experience to acquire insight and understanding. It benefit s both the provider and the recipient and fosters social and personal responsibility.

A project in action: a service learning program for 9th Grade environmental science

ACS Athens, the 3M Company, the municipality of Tyros (a small coastal village in the Peloponnese), and the local schools collaborated on an environmental project that focused on examining water pollutants and the effect on public health.

  • Identify learning objectives within the curriculum which can be accomplished.
  1. Analyse the effect of water pollutants on surrounding plant, animal life and ecosystems.
  2. Measure level s of nitrates, chromium, phosphates, turbidity, and ammonia.
  • Identify community needs, location, possible partners and local leaders.
    In the seaside village of Tyros, potential water pollutants may be affecting surrounding ecosystem s due to nearby fisheries. ACS Athens, the 3M Company, the Municipality of Tyros, and the local schools become partners.
  • Describe clearly the project, its learning objectives and outcomes.
    Content specific learning: how do pollutants infiltrate the water system and affect the ecosystem?
  • Content related learning: what is the procedure for setting up a science lab, conducting an experiment using the scientific method and carrying out fieldwork?
  • Identify civic objectives and outcomes.
    Increase environmental awareness.
    Improve skills in public speaking, analyzing and interpreting data.
  • Create an action plan.
    Learn science concepts in class.
    Create objectives.
    Select required equipment.
    Visit the location before the event.
    ACS students teach the village students how to analyze water samples.
    Present findings to local community.
    End with beach cleanup and celebration.
  • Identify resources needed to implement the service learning project.
    Allocate funding to cove r cost of transporting students, supplies, equipment, testing kits, and other expenses.
  • Establish implementation teams with clear expectations for collaboration.
    ACS team: administrators, service learning coordinator, science teachers, students, 3M representatives.
    Community team: mayor, city council representatives, principal, teachers.
  • Reflection: measuring the academic success of the project.
    Students and teachers reflect on the academic success of the project.
  • 9: Reflect on organizational success.
    Was the organization of the project successful?
    Were expectations from the community team met?
  • 10: All celebrate success!

Students from both schools presented their findings in a bilingual, Power Point presentation at a community assembly attended by the mayor and city council.

Employees from 3M posted a road sign to remind visitors to keep the area clean. After a joint beach clean up all participants pledged to establish a community partnership to educate the public on preserving a clean environment.

Establishing a school culture to value creativity in learning with the ability to impact profoundly on communities begins with a leader who radiates enthusiasm, ethos, empathy, a commitment to civic responsibility and who can motivate others. Schools are responsible for preparing tomorrow’s citizens with the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding of the human conditions across communities, countries and continents.

Service learning is the most enriching opportunity for students to take an active role, to share their good fortune and resources to improve the human condition for their fellow citizens.

Dr. Stefanos Gialamas is the President of the American Community Schools of Athens. Ellen Froustis is a High School Counselor.


Eyler, J. and Giles, D. Jr. (1999). Where is the Learning in Service Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gialamas, Cherif, Keller & Hansen (2000): Using Guided Inquiry in Teaching Mathematics Concepts, The Illinois

Mathematics Teacher Journal, Vol 5 1, No .1

Gialamas & Froustis (2009): Academic Leadership: Inspired by Civic Responsibility in The Department Chair. Vol. 19, No 3.

Gialamas & Pelonis (2009): The Morphosis Leadership in The Academic Leadership On-Line Journal Vol. 7.