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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 27, 2008 | Vol. 38 No. 9
Reaching Out While Learning

New effort seeks to add service component to courses

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

In response to a call from undergraduates, the university's Center for Social Concern is leading an initiative to foster the development of academic courses and for-credit projects infused with a significant community service component.

The initiative, called Community-Based Learning at Johns Hopkins, seeks to facilitate interaction between faculty members and community organizations in order to find ways that students can simultaneously give back to the community and earn academic credits.

The Center for Social Concern is the student volunteer office on the Homewood campus, and it currently has more than 50 groups that are committed to serving the Baltimore community.

Bill Tiefenwerth, director of the center, said that Johns Hopkins students have increasingly approached him in recent years about facilitating service learning opportunities.

"Students want to reach out to the community and help, and they do, through volunteering," Tiefenwerth said. "But the types of learning opportunities we are hoping to create here will allow them to contribute in a more academically rigorous way."

Specifically, the initiative came out of the Provost's Framework for the Future planning process, intended to engage the university community in thinking about what Johns Hopkins needs to do to maintain its leadership in research, discovery and education, while continuing to positively influence a global society.

Jerome "Axle" Brown, a senior public health major and a member of the Center for Social Concern's student advisory board, was one of the students who led the effort.

Brown said that he was inspired by his participation in the Diaspora Pathways Project, a long-term initiative designed by the Center for Africana Studies to better understand the changing landscape of the living African Diaspora, especially as it pertains to the community in the greater Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area.

Brown said he wished he had had more of these types of learning opportunities available to him when he was a freshman.

"A lot of students want to participate in courses and learning projects that are for the benefit of the community, and even want to pursue careers in this area. That is where we are going with this initiative," he said.

This summer, the CSC hired Lisa Morris of the AmeriCorps Vista program to coordinate the first 12 months of the initiative, which is funded for three years.

Since August, Morris has connected with faculty who have done work in the community or whose subjects would tie in well with community-based learning. Next month, she will convene a Community-Based Learning working group composed of "invested" faculty, staff, students and alumni who will help lay out the vision for how such a program can be structured at Johns Hopkins.

"Basically, we are setting up the process by which faculty members and community organizations can partner in order for a course to include meaningful service to the community," Morris said. "We also want to establish guidelines for what would constitute a community service learning course at Johns Hopkins."

As an example of the type of experience the Center for Social Concern is trying to cultivate, Morris mentioned the trio of Johns Hopkins professors who are spearheading foreign language learning at the Guilford Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore.

The pilot program, which started in January, features full-time faculty from the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures who are teaching French and Spanish at a school that previously had no foreign language component; for the lab portion of this program, fluent French- and Spanish-speaking Johns Hopkins students and local residents come into the classroom so that the middle schoolers can interact with them and learn about the culture behind the language.

Morris said that such initiatives have taken place at other universities. Specifically, she points to the work of the University of Pennsylvania's Netter Center for Community Partnerships that has helped develop an extensive list of what it calls "Academically Based Community Service" courses offered each semester to both undergraduate and graduate students. In one course, Penn students collaborate with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on a clinical research study titled the Community Asthma Prevention Program. The Penn undergraduates learn about the epidemiology of urban asthma in the classroom and then go out to co-teach asthma classes offered at community centers throughout the city. In another Netter Center course, called the Community Algebra Initiative, Penn students conduct hands-on activities with students at a local high school.

Morris said that the Netter Center offers more than 20 such service-learning courses each year.

"Down the line, I see Johns Hopkins developing a similar list of for-credit courses offered through the various schools within the university," she said. "The goal right now is to offer support for faculty who would want to have courses like these."

Morris said that the Center for Social Concern will specifically offer how-to guides, connect faculty with community organizations and facilitate the process any way it can.

In the short term, Morris said the center would help supplement current courses with a community service component. Long term, the initiative will develop a list of brand-new courses and possibly even a community service-learning minor.

To learn more about the CBL working group or community-based learning, contact Morris at or 410-516-4801.


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