Canadian schools focus on hands-on learning

Students get credit for community work

From the 21st Maclean’s University Rankings—on sale now. Story by Sandy Farran.

Over the past decade, Canadian universities have made it a priority to provide as many students as possible with hands-on learning experience. Traditionally, students take part in programs with a co-operative education or internship component. But increasingly, schools are offering students more ambitious options, such as participating in an international field placement, a university-organized volunteer opportunity, or a course with a community service learning (CSL) component. CSL is a special form of experiential education that connects course material to real-life experience. During the course, students either work in small groups or individually with an organization—often a not-for-profit agency—toward a specific solution or a goal that is mutually beneficial. As part of their grade, students are required to reflect on how their community outreach experience is explicitly linked to what they’ve learned in the classroom. Ultimately, students present their findings to the organization, professor and class.

Here is just a small sampling of the volunteer programs and CSL programs available at Canadian universities:

Queen’s University

First-year science students complete a team-based design project in partnership with a local community group, such as a hospital, charity or museum. Projects completed by students last year included a retrofit bicycle propelled by arm power and an ergonomic design for wheelchair propulsion for adults with disabilities. A final design showcase and friendly competition is held at the end of each term.

University of New Brunswick

A fourth-year business course pairs students with small- to medium-sized companies to develop an export-marketing strategy targeted at the New England states. Working in groups, the students research marketing opportunities and prepare an export-market entry plan for their company. In the spring, one student from each group is selected to accompany the partnering business to a trade mission in Boston, where they get to test their research in the field.

Brock University

Last year, 5,345 students took a course that involved a community service component. The “Foundations of Service Learning” is an interdisciplinary first-year elective course open to all Brock students. Students spend 24 weeks alternating lectures and seminars while participating in 12 different out-of-classroom opportunities, such as working at a local soup kitchen or community garden.

York University

Each year, more than 10,000 students take a course with a community service learning component, including placements at organizations such as the Toronto Arts Council, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Auto Workers. One notable endeavour involved accounting students comparing and contrasting the financial implications of student athletes pursuing post-secondary education in Canada versus the United States.

University of Calgary

The Students’ Union Volunteer Services (SUVS) office runs 10 volunteer programs both on and off campus. “Into the Streets” connects students with community organizations around the city. Each semester, coordinators set up opportunities at not-for-profit agencies, such as the Drop-In Centre in downtown Calgary, where students help prepare and serve a meal to the homeless.

University of Guelph

About 500 first-year students volunteer for a half-day at more than 30 not-for-profit local organizations. In recent years, students painted a women’s shelter, groomed donkeys at a sanctuary, sorted food and clothing at the local food bank, and built a boardwalk at the nature conservancy.

University of Windsor

Windsor’s Volunteer Internship Program (VIP) gives students career-related work experience while providing local non-profit agencies with volunteers. Students volunteer for a minimum of 40 hours over one semester and complete a number of professional development and reflective activities.

The University of Western Ontario

The Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program coordinates groups of students, headed by faculty, to participate in co-curricular service learning in the London area and around the world. Last February, 14 students spent reading week with Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a London-based not-for-profit organization that provides youth with training to develop their potential.

University of Winnipeg

Winnipeg has several community outreach initiatives aimed at increasing accessibility to post-secondary education for those who, traditionally, do not attend university, such as Aboriginal students and students from low-income families. Examples include a new digital learning space on campus for high school students, and the Eco-Kids on Campus program, where Grade 6 students participate in weekly hands-on scientific and environmental activities.

Acadia University

Each semester, 250 student volunteers take part in a community outreach initiative called Sensory Motor Instructional and Leadership Experience (S.M.I.L.E). The program provides approximately 230 with disabilities the opportunity to participate in physical activities designed specifically to meet individual age and development needs. S.M.I.L.E has been running at Acadia for almost 30 years.