Making Community Connections
Editorial by Moira Moynihan from the Farmer's Journal
Editorial by Moira Moynihan from the Farmer's Journal
Forget the ‘lazy student’ stereotypes. NUI Galway is leading the way in teaching students about real life by bringing academic degrees like law and engineering into the community. Maria Moynihan reports.
The Egg Topper Off’r. Ok, so it might not go down in the history books beside the wheel or the printing press when it comes to revolutionary inventions. But if it makes the task of eating a hard- boiled egg less of an ordeal for just one person with a disability, Aoife Heneghan and Kiel McCool will be happy.
The Mechanical Engineering students from Athlone and Ballybofey came up with the device after they were set the challenge of inventing something for a person with limited mobility. Working closely with an Occupational Therapist, they devised the aforementioned ‘Topper Off’r’; a simple instrument that allows a stroke patient or amputee to slice the top off a hard- boiled egg with little effort.
The NUI Galway students found the entire process a valuable learning experience; not only because they got to put their engineering knowledge into practice, but they know that somebody will actually benefit from their work.
“Although it’s very simple, it might actually help someone,” explains Kiel. “There wasn’t a lot of engineering in it because it was a fairly simple concept, but it was more so getting to know various limitations they had and making it as easy as possible to do. It would just give more people independence so they can actually go about and do stuff themselves.”
And it’s just one example of Service Learning in NUI Galway; a unique educational tool that gets college students to use their academic skills to become active citizens in their local community.
Although popular in the United States, Service Learning is a new phenomenon in Ireland, and NUI Galway is the leader. Essentially, it is education through active service in the community; rather than sitting an exam, students get academic credit by undertaking voluntary work and then reflecting on the experience in a paper or project. The result is that bookish subjects like law or engineering are dragged out of the lecture hall and into the community.
“It’s a teaching tool whereby the student is given the opportunity to integrate theory into a practical experience in the community sector, and they’re using their academic discipline or their subject area to enhance the community in some way,” explains Lorraine McIlrath, Coordinator of the Community Knowledge Initiative at NUI Galway, which oversees the project.
“The academic guides the process and ensures that everybody is learning and everybody is a teacher in a sense, so the community becomes like a laboratory or a classroom. So it’s not just about the student going in and doing good; they’re actually learning so much about their own discipline from that sense of engagement.”
The project was first piloted in NUI Galway in Nursing and Bio-medical and Mechanical Engineering, where lecturers were granted funding to develop courses that incorporated academic studies with community work. And such was its success that Service Learning has now been extended to a wide range of under and post- graduate courses, with 300 students participating annually.
For example, in Speech and Language Therapy, students in fourth year have the option of participating in a community outreach programme where they befriend a person with aphasia, which is a communication impairment that affects stroke patients. Rather than building a professional- client relationship, the purpose of the exercise is the student learns how to relate to a patient on a human level.
Likewise, third year nursing students have the option of spending four weeks during the summer working in a different culture- be it volunteering in an AIDS hospice in Zambia or shadowing the district mid-wife- to gain experience for nursing in a multicultural Ireland.
Occupational Therapy (OT) students work with local organisations like AIDS West or Traveller Support to assess the need for an OT and help lobby the HSE for the relevant funding. Meanwhile, students of the MA in Women’s Studies have the opportunity of going on a placement in a women’s refuge, while Philosophy students get first hand insight into global ethics by visiting a local centre for refugees and asylum seekers.
And according to Lorraine McIlrath, such opportunities are very popular amongst the NUI Galway students. “When we mention service learning to students, they get very excited that they could actually gain academic credit from a community experience,” she says. “And they tend to learn so much more about their disciplinary area into the bargain.”
One such student is Kathryn O’Shea from Letterkenny. The 21 year-old Civil Law scholar from Letterkenny has always been passionate about volunteering and recently received the ‘Galway Young Volunteer’ award. Unsurprisingly, she was very keen to get involved in Service Learning this year, working with the Galway Rape Crisis Centre to prepare a policy position for the upcoming referendum on the defence of mistaken belief on age.
And while Kathryn admits that the work is time-consuming- at least eight to ten hours a week- she believes that it’s a worthwhile effort and has definitely influenced her towards working with Non Government Organisations in the future.
“You just feel like you’re part of something,” explains Kathryn. “When you’re in your little student bubble, you don’t see the relevance of any of the work you’re doing and you’re just learning off cases, but now you’re actually piecing together all the work you’ve done and seeing how it can be applied and how you can actually help people.
Personally I would have had a very bad impression of lawyers and I had no intention of becoming a corporate lawyer, but they put me with an organisation that was actually helping victims, so it shows all the good work you can do with a law degree. For me, that was very important.”
Cutting Edge Of Education
As well as the Rape Crisis Centre, Civil Law students are working with the Equality Authority, the National Federation of Voluntary Bodies, actual practitioners and on research projects.
Law lecturer Larry Donnelly, who developed the clinical legal education module, believes that such service learning experience gives NUI Galway students a valuable ‘edge’ when they qualify.
“They’re seeing the theoretical legal concepts that they’re learning in the classroom and they’re seeing how they work in real life,” he explains. “I think that there’s a lot they gain and for our faculty we’re trying to be on the cutting edge of legal education and we think that what they’re doing in the field is the equivalent of what they’re doing in the classroom. It’s a different type of learning, learning by doing really.
It’s a very competitive job market in law and we think that giving students practical experience and contacts in the real world at an early stage is very important.”
Another Service Learning initiative set up this year is the Italian for schools programme. After spending the first college term learning teaching skills for children, 16 Italian students were given the opportunity to teach introductory classes in five local schools to pupils in fourth, fifth and sixth class. And according to Italian lecturer Anne O’Connor, it has proved a valuable learning experience on all sides.
“They’re very nervous getting involved because it is a daunting experience,” she explains. “I think the first few classes they’re really excited and then they have to deal with the problems of teaching rowdy students, keeping their attention, gearing the classes, so it’s a learning experience as well.
But a lot of the people who have chosen to do it aren’t going to go on to teaching. I discovered there was quite a strong community element that we just had to tap into and people who had no interest in teaching just wanted to volunteer and give something back to the community and felt very lucky that they were able to learn a language and wanted children to have that too.”
One student taking part in the programme is Olga Walsh, a native of Galway city. She believes that her pupils gained as much from the experience as she did.
“Some of them didn’t even know where Italy was, but there was a zest for learning there and for learning involving games and fun,” she explains. “It was only afterward I learnt that some of them had learning difficulties, but I hadn’t been aware of them. The methods actually worked and we tried to keep as much fun and games in it as possible.
I just felt it was confidence boosting more than anything else. And please God they can become students of the future and it has made them realise their potential.”
Education For Life
NUI Galway has certainly realised the potential for Service Learning. And given its success in the west, there are now plans to implement it nationwide.
With funding from the Higher Education Authority, NUI Galway is working with third level institutions across Ireland to support the development of a national framework for Service Learning. And according to CKI Co-Coordinator, Lorraine McIlrath, it is a real way to challenge the lazy stereotypes about students and give them the opportunity to be active citizens in Ireland today.
“Our students are thriving on it. I suppose what’s come forward is that there is a real appetite for students to engage with issues of civil society and all students need is some kind of an avenue to express their kind of interest,” Ms McIlrath states.
“Industry now has to have a corporate social responsibility department and I know a lot of people in industry have indicated that they just don’t want somebody who knows the academic subject. They’re looking for a more rounded graduate now, somebody who has all kind of experience.
Our students go away not just as graduates of journalism or law or engineering, but with a much wider conception of their role in Irish society.”