Students in Donna Lefebvre's Ethics, Morality, Individuality and the Law class don't just learn about the lives of lower-income people in the abstract.
They can be found all over Chapel Hill, working in day cares, at the homeless shelter, on the community police force.
"I think you can sit in a classroom all day long and talk about poverty and about prison, but unless you actually go to a prison or work with people who are impoverished, you have no idea what you're talking about," she said.
Her honors political science class is part of a growing University program called assisting people in planning learning experiences in service -- a.p.p.l.e.s., for short. The program assists faculty members who wish to incorporate service learning into their courses by finding appropriate placements for their students.
Students in a.p.p.l.e.s. courses who choose to volunteer must spend three to five hours weekly working in a community organization that is relevant to the course, said Mary Morrison, a.p.p.l.e.s. service-learning coordinator. Four times a semester they also must attend a one-hour reflection session led by student a.p.p.l.e.s. organizers, where they can discuss their volunteer work more fully than in class.
Some a.p.p.l.e.s. courses require the service component of all students, while others let a student complete an extra requirement instead, such as an additional paper.
Morrison stressed that the service work must be meaningful and that projects go beyond the traditional concept of volunteer work, such as working one-on-one with children, for example, or the elderly.
"Our thinking is you may not see a client," she said. "You may be collecting data. You may be running statistical tests. You may be doing more technical work. But that doesn't mean you're not doing service learning."
Lefebvre sees the service work pay off very quickly.
"I think it enriches people personally," she said. "I have so many students who say, `I learned so much more in that internship than in any class.'"
"It gives students a practical way to see their theoretical work," she said. "Students are able to have a more visceral understanding of social and human needs by interacting with people in the community. And it's great practice for the job market."
Rachel Willis, a lecturer in economics who teaches two a.p.p.l.e.s. courses, sees a difference in the way a.p.p.l.e.s. students attack their coursework.
"It makes them work so hard in their classes," she said. "To be desperate to know something so they can do something. I've just been stunned at what they've accomplished."
She also sees direct benefits to faculty, saying what students learn in their volunteer spots has inspired some of her research topics. For instance, a student volunteering at N.C. Equity, an organization that promotes women, has led her to examine the effects on-site day-care at a Hildebran factory has on productivity.
"Good teaching and good service can lead to very interesting and very important research questions," she said. "Timely subjects."
In addition, a.p.p.l.e.s. participation has opened up resources, such as databases, that exist at various community organizations.
"It brings access to information you'd never find at the library," she said. "[The a.p.p.l.e.s. courses] create professional relationships between agencies, policy makers and institutions that are very related to my research agenda."
In addition, a.p.p.l.e.s. courses make people in the community feel more closely allied with the University. "[A.p.p.l.e.s.] becomes a route into the academy for expertise for these private agencies and non-profits," she said.
Willis and Lefebvre are two of five professors who are teaching a.p.p.l.e.s. courses this semester. Morrison, who joined the program in January, is working hard to find more, but acknowledges the difficulties in tying service into some courses.
"It's much more complex than I had realized, seeing if service learning is really appropriate. The service learning needs to move forward the work of the course," she explained. "Not every course is appropriate for service learning, but we don't know until we sit down and talk to the professor. We don't want to cut off any options."
Any faculty member interested in exploring the suitability of a course for a.p.p.l.e.s. should get in touch with Morrison at 2-0902.
Rachel Willis (left) lecturer in economics, takes a few minutes after class last week to talk with students Amy Wright, Robert Colindres and Mayur Khandelwal. They are all taking Willis' a.p.p.l.e.s. course, Economics of Higher Education.
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