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Sept. 6, 2016

Nick Hays: Incorporating community engagement

Sept. 7, 2016

Nick Hays is an assistant professor in the Eli Broad College of Business and the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management. 

In the fall 2015 semester, I incorporated a semester-long community engagement project into my capstone course for seniors majoring in management. I decided to assign the project because I knew students would learn more from a hands-on experience than they would by writing another research paper about an organization. I also had fond memories of a similar community engagement project I completed as a freshman 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania.

Everyone involved in my course’s service-learning project — students, community partners and myself—learned a lot, so in many ways I accomplished my objective. I would highly recommend service-learning projects to any instructor who wants to provide a meaningful learning experience. The MSU Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement was enormously helpful to me in this endeavor.

The projects certainly did not go as planned. To some extent this is unavoidable—situations change, needs evolve and problems emerge. However, in thinking over what went well and what I would do differently next time I teach the course, I would recommend five things to anyone who incorporates a community engagement component into his or her course:

  1. Establish one point of contact
    Instructors should work with community partners to identify a single point of contact for students to oversee their experience. Miscommunication is too easy if there are multiple contacts who may or may not be communicating with each other. There’s nothing wrong with the students speaking with multiple people, of course; they may need to gather information from different sources. However, they should report to and work primarily with one person from beginning to end.

  2. Create a detailed plan
    It is imperative that the community partners and groups of students work together to create a detailed project plan, which includes an overall objective, a list of specific tasks, deadlines and individual accountability for those tasks. The project plan should be signed by the community partner and all students, and then submitted. This is an important step for groups of students, as it makes it easier to determine whether things are on track, and what students are accountable for specific tasks.

  3. Hold professionalism training
    Students bring great enthusiasm and fresh ideas to the challenges faced in communities. However, they may also have limited work experience. Instructors should organize a short training to set expectations, discuss the basics of professionalism and mention things like texting and playing on social media are considered unprofessional in many community settings and often are perceived as signs of disrespect.

  4. Schedule check-ins.
    As noted above, projects often don’t go as planned because things change. It is easy for projects to go off track if student groups and community partners are not communicating on a regular basis about project status. These check-ins could be an in-person meeting or could include a progress report that goes to both the instructor and community partner. Instructors and community partners should decide on a schedule that works best for them, although it is encouraged that these occur weekly.

  5. Create accountability
    As this was a management course, students may apply a business perspective with this project. The community partner is the students’ client in these projects and should be treated as such. To create a sense of student accountability to the community partner, incorporate a community partner evaluation into the students’ grades. The format and weight of the evaluation are judgment calls, but knowing the community partner will determine some portion of the students’ grades will make them take the whole effort more seriously. A sample student evaluation form for community partners can be found in Appendix Q of the Service-Learning Toolkit.

These points are primarily relevant for a semester-long project. Although unexpected events are always possible, these ideas help to create clarity about the overall project and make sure everyone stays on the same page.