Service learning that counts
Class conducts usage survey, research to help the James River Park System serve patrons
University Public Affairs
At times, their learning took place beneath shade trees and their classroom came with a view of the James River.
The 19 students participating in Victoria Shivy’s summer experimental methods service-learning class learned new ways to conduct research as they provided valuable data to help the James River Parks System more effectively serve visitors.
“I wanted the students to do research that is fun, exciting and useful,” said Shivy, an associate professor of psychology at VCU. “We really were trying to determine who is using the parks.”
Karen M. Kester’s “Insects & Plants” Service-Learning class.
Summer Service Learning at VCU
This summer, VCU offered students 22 service-learning experiences on campus and around the world. Here is a sample of those courses:
Insects & Plants: Karen M. Kester, Ph.D., Department of Biology: Students cultivated vegetables to support area food banks, participated in public educational programs at Maymont Park and transformed a neglected butterfly garden at James River Park (Reedy Creek) into a “Bug Garden” for public education on insect-plant interactions. As their final project, they designed a summer vegetable garden with companion plantings to deter pests, attract pollinators and support natural enemies as their final project.
Global Ethics and the World's Religions: Cindy L. Kissel-Ito, Ph.D., School of World Studies: Students engaged in a critical survey of ethical concepts and issues in the thought and practice of major religious traditions. The class considered a comparison of ethical perspectives on selected themes and attention to cooperative efforts toward a global ethic.
Social Media: Marcus Messner, Ph.D., and Vivian C. Medina-Messner, School of Mass Communications: Iraqi students participating in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program and VCU students learned how to use new technology and social networking platforms for civil society participation, community development, and leadership. The students worked in teams to develop social media campaigns for nonprofit organizations in the Richmond area.
For more information about service learning, visit http://www.servicelearning.vcu.edu/.
The class surveyed users on Memorial Day weekend and found visitors from as far away as New Hampshire, Florida, Iowa and Texas.
“But beyond that, we found that this is really a regional attraction,” Shivy said. “The demographics changed throughout the day. We encountered city residents walking or running along the trails in the morning, and, as time went on, we found large numbers of people from Henrico and Chesterfield.”
Shivy said numbers grew throughout the morning from about 15 visitors at 6 a.m. to hundreds by 8 a.m. The increase in visitors continued until parking became a bottleneck.
Visitors told students the river, accessibility, natural and wild beauty, rocks and trails were positives and that trash and a lack of parking were negatives in using the parks.
The average visitor spends 114 minutes in the Belle Isle area and 102 minutes in the Pony Pasture area.
In addition to learning about psychological research and surveying, students wrote a “reflection paper” that answers a question that came out of the data they collected. Each student performed 20 hours of community service as part of the course.
The research performed by the students will help the City of Richmond and the Friends of the James River Park, an all-volunteer nonprofit group, support the parks.
“It’s wonderful what the VCU students have been able to draw out from visitors to the parks,” said Ralph White, park manager of the James River Park System. “We now have a better idea about who is visiting and can determine they want very little development, a focus on nature and an escape from the center of the city, findings which are in line with our current management goals.”
Shivy, who hopes to work with the James River Parks System to offer additional service-learning courses, said students were excited about the work they did.
“The research became not at all a drudge but truly a labor of love,” Shivy said.
VCU seniors Caitlin O’Fallon and Ryan Mitchell discussed their experiences in the class a few weeks later during a return visit to conduct some additional surveys at an access point to Belle Isle.
“It’s intimidating to put together a research paper on a topic you’re not familiar with,” Mitchell said. “But we worked together and it’s a great experience.”
“And we get to be outside as part of class,” added O’Fallon.
The students said their experiences prove that learning does not need to be confined within the four walls of a traditional classroom and that service learning can have a powerful impact on the Richmond area.