Using a Service Learning Project to Enhance Collaborative Learning in a Construction Curriculum
Stuart P. Bernstein
University of Nebraska
A service learning project is a community project run through a particular course where the activities performed by the students on the project coincide directly with material they are learning in the course. In this way, the project becomes an essential component of the class and the material learned in class can be used during the project. Then the activities performed during the project can be brought back and discussed and analyzed in the classroom.
Finding the right project is essential to the success of the students’ ability to learn from it. Not every class is conducive to the addition of a service learning project, but for those which are, when it is done correctly, it can improve the success of the class tenfold. Success is measured here in terms of what the students learn and retain from the class.
This paper explores the addition of a specific service learning project to a personnel management class, in a post secondary construction program.
Key Words: Service Learning, Collaborative Learning, Personnel Management
Students learn using a variety of different methods. In an attempt to reach as many students as possible, professors should be able and willing to adopt the best teaching method suitable for the course and the students. It has been shown that (Smith, Sheppard, Johnson, and Johnson, 2005) “interaction among students, and interaction between faculty and students were by far the most predictive of positive change in college students' academic development, personal development, and satisfaction and affected more general education outcomes than any other environmental variables studied, including the curriculum content factors.”
It has also been shown that lecturing is the least effective method of teaching. Studies show (Lussier, 2002) that students hear 80% of what is said to them, comprehend 80% of what they hear, and retain only 20% of what they comprehend. This should be a very discouraging statistic for anyone who still lectures exclusively to their students. Lectures have their place in the classroom, but not at all times or in all classrooms. Getting students involved in the learning process (collaborative learning) can be a much more effective and engaging style of teaching. Another disturbing comment heard from many students, is they have less tendency to read the text if they know the professor is going to lecture and cover all of the material anyway. When the students don’t read the text before coming to class, interaction between students and professor can be very limited. Group projects, service learning projects in particular, are an effective method of collaborative learning.
A service project occurs when a group of students work together to accomplish a task beneficial to the community. This is very admirable, but does not necessarily enhance the students understanding of any specific subject matter. A service learning project is where students work on a community project applying the specific skills and concepts they are studying in the classroom directly to the project. The project is organized to enhance specific concepts being taught in the classroom providing the students an avenue to explore these concepts in structured environments, and the opportunity to return to the classroom to discuss and analyze the results. A service learning project can be the most valuable experiential learning tool available, because it allows the students the opportunity to test the theories and methods they are studying for validity; an opportunity to interact with their peers and professor, while interacting with community members; and a chance to step outside the classroom while providing a positive outcome for the community. This is especially important at colleges and universities which have pledged community involvement as part of their mission.
This paper will discuss a specific service learning project, which was included during the spring semester of 2005 into a construction curriculum course entitled “Personnel and Supervisory Methods.” This course was originally designed, without a service learning component, to introduce students to various management concepts, such as communication, leadership, motivation and teamwork.
Personnel and Supervisory Methods is the only course within this particular construction department in which the students are taught about managing the personnel on the project and not managing the project itself. As most construction projects built these days require a number of people to complete them, it is important for a student preparing to enter the field of construction management to be able to understand and deal with the plethora of issues held by individuals and groups. In the deep, dark, past of the construction industry, projects were often managed by the largest, the strongest, and the loudest persons on the job site. They typically got others to work for them through intimidation. While the previous two statements are largely meant to be facetious, there is some truth to them. However, this is not the situation, anymore.
Typical construction projects are now worth millions of dollars, with the construction industry now one of the largest industries in the United States. Construction companies and each of their projects must be run with the greatest efficiency regarding time, money, and resources (including people.) As the amount of construction work performed each year continues to grow, so too does the demand for management personnel. Currently, the number of students graduating from construction programs in the United States (Gehrig, 2005) does not meet the industry need, and the shortfall is projected to get even worse (BLS, 2006). As with any limited commodity, good employees become valuable and must be properly, and carefully, managed; hence, the importance of properly training students in the art of managing people.
Personnel and Supervisory Methods is a sixteen week long course, which is barely enough time to introduce the students to the important concepts contained within the curriculum. Some of the more important concepts are as follows. The students learn about individual behavior and learning styles, and how they fit within an organizational, or team, structure. They learn about a person’s value system and how it affects their attitude at work. They are given an understanding of the different personalities people have, how they can be recognized and tested for, and how these individual personalities will affect and enhance the team structure. With an understanding of these, and other, concepts, the students are then able to move on to learning how to motivate themselves and others, through proper communication in a team (organizational) structure, with the ultimate goal of becoming a leader. Seems like an awful lot to expect of someone who may never have been in a management position previously, especially within 16 weeks. In fact, expecting them to be able to apply these principles in the field after having only read about them in the classroom is absurd!
Since many of the students in construction programs will eventually become project managers, with some of them going on to become company executives, the skills and concepts introduced in the Personnel and Supervisory Methods class could be some of the most important ones they will take with them. Even if students don’t aspire to that level of management, they will most likely be working on teams throughout their careers and will need to know how to communicate and work with others. These may be difficult concepts for a 22 year old college senior to accept unless they have actually been placed in a situation where they were responsible for motivating and leading others. The service learning project provides the students with a safe and ideal arena in which they can practice these newly learned concepts.
Prior Difficulties Engaging the Students
One of the main difficulties in teaching a Personnel Management course within a construction curriculum is that there are no textbooks specifically written for the construction industry. The textbooks are generic and intended more for business, management, and leadership students. While the concepts are still valid, the examples used in the text focus on the management of personnel in office and factory situations, not construction sites. Construction projects offer many unique situations, which are not properly represented in the current texts, making it more difficult for the average construction student to interpret and assimilate the information
It seems reasonable to assume, that, in teaching a course on managing people the professor should be able to properly manage the students. Four of the main concepts introduced to the students in the Personnel course are communication, teamwork, motivation and leadership. If a professor is going to lead a group of students in this type of class most effectively they need to be able to communicate the importance of these concepts, and motivate the students to perform within a teamwork environment (collaboration.) Prior to adding the service learning project, this method of teaching was attempted through various classroom based experiential exercises.
The experiential exercises previously used in this classroom included team teaching, role playing, and open classroom discussions. While the role playing exercises were definitely more effective than lectures, they still required the students to suspend their sense of reality and engage in a make believe scenario, which confined their ability to come up with creative solutions. For example, a job meeting would be acted out in class. In order to facilitate this exercise, a scenario would have to be set, participant roles created with parameters and backgrounds, and underlying themes fabricated to keep the exercise active and interesting. With a class of sixteen or more students, it was not feasible to have all of the students involved in “the meeting,” which meant some were not active participants and soon lost interest in the presentation and failed to appreciate the message being conveyed. Those who were “in the scene” had to not only drop their “cool, detached, façade of indifference”, but had to be willing to accept and embellish their roles and take them seriously enough for the meeting to be effective. As one could imagine, these exercises were occasionally less than effective as learning tools.
The pedagogy of teaching and learning has become more widespread over the past few decades and many texts and styles have emerged as a result. One of these texts (Entwistle, 1988) describes three “Approaches to Learning and Orientations to Studying.” One of those is a reproducing orientation where students learn on a surface level, relying on memorization, with little attempt to actually understand the material. Students with a meaning orientation take a deeper approach, wanting to understand the material and be able to apply it in various situations. Those students with an achieving orientation are generally interested in making a desired grade, and will take a surface approach whenever possible and a deep approach when necessary. The goal of professors should be to motivate their students to take a meaning orientation to both their academic studies and their overall personal and professional development.
The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a psychological testing survey, based on Jung's Theory of Psychological Types, which indicate the personality type of the individual taking the survey. “Gordon Lawrence (Felder, 2005) characterizes the preferences, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the sixteen MBTI types in many areas of student functioning and offers numerous suggestions for addressing the learning needs of students of all types.” One of the learning needs describes the extraverts as being those who prefer to learn by talking about ideas and physically experiencing them in order to help formulate and retain them. On the other hand the introverts prefer to think things through quietly, on their own, and then discuss them only when they have become concrete and fully understood within their own mind (Lawrence, 1993). It takes the cooperation of too many people to complete a project for anyone in a management position to be a loner. Therefore, it seems to be more beneficial for a professor to focus on using a teaching style which caters to the extrovert.
Kolb's Experiential Learning Model
David A. Kolb created a learning model consisting of four elements: concrete experience, observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and testing in new situations. These are represented as four distinct elements connected in a circle. According to Kolb’s model the student experiences something new in the first phase; takes the time to observe the actions and reflect on the results in the second; formulates a concept based on their observations and reflections in the third; and is able to test their concepts in new, but similar, situations as part of the final phase(Kolb, 1984).
The four types of learners in Kolb’s classification scheme are:
Type 1 (concrete, reflective)-the diverger. Type 1 learners respond well to explanations of how course material relates to their experience, interests, and future careers. Their characteristic question is “Why?" To be effective with Type 1 students, the instructor should function as a motivator.
Type 2 (abstract, reflective)-the assimilator. Type 2 learners respond to information presented in an organized, logical fashion and benefit if they are given time for reflection. Their characteristic question is "What?" To be effective, the instructor should function as an expert.
Type 3 (abstract, active)-the converger. Type 3 learners respond to having opportunities to work actively on well defined tasks and to learn by trial-and-error in an environment that allows them to fail safely. Their characteristic question is "How?" To be effective, the instructor should function as a coach, providing guided practice and feedback in the methods being taught.
Type 4 (concrete, active)-the accommodator. Type 4 learners like applying course material in new situations to solve real problems. Their characteristic question is "What if?" To be effective, the instructor should pose open-ended questions and then get out of the way, maximizing opportunities for the students to discover things for themselves. Problem-based learning is an ideal pedagogical strategy for these students.
Type 2 learners respond well to lecturing, because they want to be presented with the information they need to learn in an abstract, but organized fashion, and then given time to reflect on, or memorize, it. Types 1, 3, and 4 work well within Kolb’s experiential learning cycle because they enjoy relating course material to actual experiences (Type 1); relish the opportunity to be active in the learning process (Type 3); and appreciate being able to apply what they have learned in the classroom to similar, real world problems (Type 4.) Therefore, types 1, 3, and 4 respond very well to having a service learning project as part of a class.
The service learning project, which was incorporated into the Personnel and Supervisory Methods course in the spring of 2005, is known as the 7 Days of Service. It is called this because the project takes place during the seven days of the students’ Spring Break, not including Sundays. The project teams students from the Personnel and Supervisory Methods class with students from Social Work, Marketing, and Language Arts classes all of whom are involved in different facets of organizing the project. The project itself is the rehabilitation of houses in the area’s inner city making them available for sale to needy and homeless families. In the spring of 2005, over 300 student volunteers rehabilitated two homes during the seven day period.
The two houses selected for the project were in a predominantly low income neighborhood consisting of mostly single family homes. Each house was between 75 and 100 years old and in desperate need of repair. Both of the houses needed thorough cleaning, various structural, door, window and wall repairs, as well as a complete painting. Only a few of the Personnel and Supervisory Methods students had experience in residential rehabilitation and very few of the volunteers had any remodeling experience at all.
The students from the Social Work class used their skills to recruit student volunteers to work on the project during their spring break from school. These students also visited area businesses to solicit donations of building materials and equipment, meals for the volunteers, and door prizes to be given to the volunteers who attended the closing dinner ceremony. The communication students prepared media packets and arranged for news coverage from all of the local television and radio stations, as well as the local and college newspapers. As it turned out, each of these media outlets did news stories on the event, with one doing a live feed from the job site. The United Press International picked up the story and ran it on their national wire services. The students from the foreign language department used their training to translate brochures from English into Spanish for the community agency the students were working with. The Personnel and Supervisory Methods students were given the task of managing the student volunteers on a daily basis, using the information they had garnered in class to help them form teams, motivate the members, communicate with the volunteers, and learn to be leaders. They also assisted in the preliminary phase of the project by planning, estimating, and scheduling the entire building process. This became an excellent opportunity for the students to develop their management skills as well as work with students from other disciplines.
The idea of being able to work with people from other disciplines can be as foreign and as difficult as managing a group of unpaid, inexperienced volunteers on a construction project, which made it that much more of a “real life” learning experience. All too often, students are not given the opportunity to work with their peers from other disciplines, allowing them the opportunity to develop an understanding and appreciation for the work they do. In some situations, students may actually learn to develop adversarial roles with their peers from other departments because of preconceived, albeit unfounded, notions of the other’s industry (for example, the idea that contractors are generally at odds with architects and engineers.) Having students work together across disciplines can be a positive experience for all of those involved, and will broaden their appreciation for diversity.
By creating an interdisciplinary team for this project, the professors have facilitated an opportunity for students from four different colleges, who would not normally interact with each other, to work toward a common goal and learn about the functions of each others’ professions. It is fairly plain to see how each of these different disciplines needed each other and could not have taken on this undertaking by themselves. This not only fostered an appreciation for, but also an understanding of each others’ responsibility, skills, and function on the project.
A very interesting life lesson occurred during the project. With all of the media people invading the project with their microphones and cameras interviewing students, and generally getting in the way of production, the Personnel and Supervisory Methods students were frustrated by the interruptions. When the project was over, and the students were being debriefed in class, a number of them brought up this issue and asked that media coverage be eliminated from the project in the future. Their frustration was understandable – they had a job to accomplish and a schedule to maintain and these media people were running around, interfering with production. The students were asked if this type of interruption was similar to having the board of directors of the company they might someday be building a project for, come to tour the job site. The purpose of the visit might be different, but the interruption and the frustration would be the same. Once they were able to make this connection they appreciated the interruptions as another learning tool. They were also given to realize the importance of the media coverage in terms of raising awareness and resources for the project in the future. This was not a lesson which could have been demonstrated or understood in a classroom setting. It also provided the students with an opportunity to expand their social network on campus, as well as their future network in the industry.
Jobsite Safety and Liability
Jobsite safety and liability are certainly concerns on a project such as this. I begin to address the issue of safety by not agreeing to perform any tasks which I deem would be potentially dangerous for inexperienced workers. I will not have the students working on roofs, extension ladders, or even step ladders over 4’-0” high. I also limit the use of power tools to students from my Personnel and Supervisory methods class who have experience using such tools. This slightly limits the number of activities the group can perform during the project, but everyone involved would prefer to accomplish a little less if it means eliminating the possibility of injuries. Before the project starts, I talk with my students about the importance of safety and we discuss ways they can use to motivate the volunteers to work safely. This provides my students with one more opportunity to develop and practice a skill that will be tantamount to them on the job site. Before any work starts the students discuss safety procedures, and the importance of working smart, with the volunteers when they arrive on site. Throughout the day, they move through the house talking with the volunteers, motivating and instructing them, and making sure they are working safely.
All students and volunteers on the project are required to sign a waiver which releases the university and the community sponsor from any liabilities. These are standard waivers, which we have borrowed from one of our corporate sponsors that states the student will be personally responsible for any injuries incurred during the project.
Service Learning Project as the Central Theme of the Course
The 7 Days of Service project occurred at about the midpoint in the semester. Each time a new topic was introduced to the students prior to the project’s start the students were asked how they thought this idea could be used during the project. For example, one of the topics in class was an individual’s ability and the necessary job ability requirements. The students were then asked to discuss how they would evaluate a volunteer’s ability and fit it to the requirements of the jobs needed to be accomplished that day, keeping in mind they were meeting the volunteers for the first time and would have only minutes to make an appropriate assessment. In this fashion, they were not only preparing themselves to perform well on the project, but they had something concrete to which they could relate what they were studying.
In the same fashion, during the project, the students would find themselves in situations where they could look back on what they learned in class and relate it directly to what they were trying to accomplish on the project site. This relates back to Kolb’s definitions of Types 1, 3, and 4 learners. After the project was completed, new subjects such as leadership were discussed in terms of how they were or might have been used on the project. Using the service learning project as the central theme of the class is much the same as providing the students with a specific construction project in an estimating class, which they would use to estimate each week’s lesson.
The project was a smashing success. The work in both houses was completed to the agency’s satisfaction. Although the students were not able to complete every activity on the lists, both houses were ready to be turned over for sale to needy families. One of the project sponsors stated it quite eloquently when he talked about how there was a homeless child out there somewhere who was about to be given a place to come home after school where they could study and do their homework. With any luck, their appreciation and good fortune will lead them to become a good student who decides to study construction and return the favor to some other deserving young person.
The work accomplished by the students along with the materials donated to the project enabled the community agency to turn the houses over for much less than they normally would have been able to. Equally important, though, the students received a great opportunity to practice newly acquired management skills in a safe environment, all the while making new friends and giving back to the community. So, not only did they develop management skills they could use throughout their careers, but they met new people, increased their network, and hopefully developed a concern for community service, which they will carry with them throughout their lives.
As for how much the class improved because of the addition of the service learning project that is difficult to ascertain because of the many variables. There seemed to be an overall improvement in the tenor of the class as the project neared, and a strong feeling of camaraderie once the project was completed. There was also a vast improvement in the students’ communication skills, including their writing skills. One of the exercises used in this class was the writing of reflections, a basic tenet of service learning.
These reflections are unstructured writings by the students conducted at the end of each class and after each day on the project. The students were typically given 5 minutes to reflect on something important they had learned that day. At the beginning of the semester, many of the students had difficulty writing more than a few sentences before they were looking to leave. As the semester progressed, the students were writing more and staying beyond the 5 minutes allotted. This improvement in their skill and desire to write carried over into their writing assignments as well. This is a writing intensive course with at least one paper due each week. Spelling and grammar improved in most of the students who took the course with or without the project. However, content and length of the essays improved more significantly for those students who were in involved in the project.
The students’ oral communication skills improved equally, as well. It was very interesting to watch, and listen to, the improvement. The general classes were conducted similar to seminars with open discussions used in lieu of lectures and every student knew they were expected to participate on a daily basis. Again, there was a vast improvement in their level of participation from reluctant, to comfortable, to eager, from the beginning of the semester to the end. This was also very apparent during the actual project as the Personnel and Supervisory Methods students were required to communicate daily with the student volunteers.
The previous insights are my personal, qualitative observations. Another important indicator of how well the project improved the class would be the opinions of the students. Below are some of the comments gleaned from an assignment given the students requesting them to express their opinions on the course and the service learning project.
· “I feel that this will be one of the most valued classes taken for my degree. Imagine that! The class that I thought would be the most boring. It’s funny how you can be turned around so quick! I believe that the service project had a lot to do with my attitude towards this course. I think it’s a GREAT idea and similar projects should take place in all upper end courses in this program.”
· “…I thought the service project was a very useful tool for learning and practicing some of the techniques and methods we learned in class, I couldn’t imagine a scenario without it. I think the service project definitely helped me understand the methods and techniques that we studied in class.”
· “I definitely believe that some form of a service project should be part of this class. Looking back, we have all grown into better managers, motivators, and communicators through this entire process.”
· “I expected the service project to be an inconvenience, and I saw it as a waste of time and of a spring break. But looking back, if I could do it again, I would. Everything I experienced in those first couple of weeks of class, I applied in real world situations during the Seven Days project.”
· “The service project was a great idea for this course. I felt I was able to get a lot out of this project even though it didn’t go as smoothly as some people thought it would. I think the fact that there were problems made this even more real.”
· “I believe it was a very successful project for everyone in the class to be able to see if they were who they really thought they were.”
· “The project should be continued and instituted as a core part of this course. The experience gained from this type of project is irreplaceable.”
Including a service learning project into an existing class can take a great deal of time and effort on the part of the professor. It also takes a true commitment to teaching and learning. Mistakes were made during the semester and the project, but mistakes are made on every project, and the key is to use those mistakes as learning tools for the students and the professor. If this author were to offer a bit of advice to the colleagues reading this article it would be to include a service learning project into one of their courses, take the time to find the right project, determine the outcomes and goals desired for the students ahead of time, and create an interdisciplinary team to make the experience even more worthwhile and exciting.
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