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The Value of Service Learning

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My first service learning; with an ‘a’ali’i at Ka’ala kipuka, Fall 2014

The University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu puts a strong emphasis on service learning as part of our student’s educational experience. Numerous courses at UHWO contain a service learning component linked to course content, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) coordinates university-wide events, and students who complete at least 30 hours of service learning during their coursework are recognized with a certificate of accomplishment at graduation. In my intro biology and botany courses, our service learning takes the form of native plant propagation and ecological restoration at two sites on the west side of O’ahu, coupled with a reflection paper in which students are expected to discuss if and how they value service learning as part of their educational experience at UHWO. In this post, I’ll reflect on the value of service learning from the instructor’s perspective.

The CCESL statement on service learning describes the purpose of the service learning experience and the benefits the university believes it provides for students. CCESL states that “In service learning abstract ideas and theories become concrete as they are used to make our world a better place.” I view it more as the opposite, actually – in biology classes, we deal so much with concrete facts and in the service learning we get a chance to look at the messiness of the real world; particularly how to deal with large-scale environmental problems like invasive organisms and climate change in the context of two very different habitats.

My students work at two sites on the west side of O’ahu: Kalaeloa Heritage Park and Piliokahe (aka ‘Tracks’) Beach Park. While the work we do at both sites is similar (remove invasive plants and replace with native and endemic vegetation), the sites themselves have very different histories and present very different problems for successful restoration. I believe our restoration at Kalaeloa represents honoring Hawaii’s past while our restoration at Piliokahe represents the struggles Hawai’i faces now and in the future.


upright stones mark the Kualaka’i Trail

Kalaeloa Heritage Park is a 77-acre archeological park containing 177 documented cultural features of Tahitian origin. When students visit the park, Shad Kane (the park’s director) gives them a tour of the 3-acre section that will eventually be an educational park open to the public. Our role is to restore the vegetation of the park to the native plants which would have occupied the area when it was inhabited. Shad emphasizes to the students that this village was one of farmers, fishers, and gatherers (not chiefs or kahunas), and that the people who lived here faced the constant struggle of subsisting off the land. The Kualaka’i trail, which crosses the park, connected upland farming villages with coastal fishing communities and was a feature of maps drawn in 1825 from off-shore surveys performed by Royal Navy Lt. Malden of the HMS Blonde. The park now abuts the Kalaeloa Airport and both the airport land and the park were formerly part of the Naval Air Station Barber’s Point which closed in the 1990s. The park contains the remains of an airplane that crashed during a training exercise in 1949, killing the three pilots on board (the park plans to erect a memorial in their honor next to the wreckage). In this way, Kalaeloa Heritage Park embodies many stages of Hawaii’s past, from Polynesian inhabitants prior to Western contact to recent relationships between civilian and military presences. The park is protected by a fence, and Shad and his crew care for our native plantings and support our removal of invasive species. Once it is open to the public, entrance fees will continue to support the maintenance and care of the park, which will educate visitors on Hawaii’s sociopolitical and environmental history.


Piliokahe Beach Park is a very different place. The park is open to the public and abuts Farrington Highway in Nānākuli. It is managed by the Honolulu Parks and Rec Department and is an off-the-beaten-path tourist spot (our Saturday-morning restorations regularly run into wedding parties). Unlike Kalaeloa, this park is not protected by any fences, though recently Bruce has posted signs informing visitors that restoration work is occurring on the dune. Our plantings at Piliokahe Beach are vulnerable to many of the social and environmental problems facing Hawai’i generally, such as human apathy and ignorance of environmental issues, homelessness, and climate change. Malama Learning Center initially started restoration work here, with the goal of progressing down the dune front away from the primary beachgoers’ area. In the several semesters I have participated here, our progress has stalled out on two regions which repeatedly face destruction. One semester, a homeless man removed all of the rock rings protecting our plants and placed his multi-tent camp on top of our plantings. The next semester, nearly all of our plants were killed by an unusually hot and dry summer and significant erosion of the dune front. The primary invasive plant on the dune is buffel grass, which takes over again almost as quickly as we can remove it. Buffel grass is particularly helped by the proximity to the highway – one tossed cigarette can start even a small fire that will kill the native plants (which are not adapted to fire), and clear the way for buffel grass (which is resistant to fire) to recolonize large areas.


Seed pods on pohinahina

At Kalaeloa, the naio we planted my first semester are already shoulder-high on me. Many of the species we’ve planted are now reseeding themselves and every time I visit, the park is visibly more lush with native plants. I even once saw an endemic picture-wing fly on a wili wili tree. I can walk around Kalaeloa and remember the individual plants and even which of my students planted it. Almost nothing has died. At Piliokahe I know where we planted on the dune, but I struggle to identify our individual plants. The shape of the dune front changes and I can’t always tell if the new plants we planted there died or were washed out, or still struggling amongst the returning buffel grass. It’s a harsher ecosystem all around; even the plants that survive aren’t showing the robust vitality that the plants at Kalaeloa exhibit. Still, we’re making progress. The sections of the dune where we planted when I first started are slowly overgrowing with pohuehue, pohinahina, and ‘akulikuli, and this semester, I noticed some of the pohinahina setting seed.

For these reasons, the restoration at Kalaeloa feels more successful than at Piliokahe, although the struggle at Piliokahe resonates more strongly with me. It’s easy for people to understand the value of preserving what little remains of the past; it’s harder to convince them to preserve what little remains of the present. This dichotomy is visible even in my students’ reflection papers. Students often comment on looking forward to taking their families to Kalaeloa to learn about the cultural features and show off their contribution to the park’s restoration. Piliokahe is a public beach, and any one of the students could revisit the dune at any time to show their families or observe the progress of the plants, and yet to my knowledge, only one student has done so.


Naio at Kalaeloa, planted Fall 2014, photographed Fall 2016

Which brings me back to the point of this for the students’ educational experience. CCESL states that “Service opportunities provided by faculty in their courses engage students in active, collaborative and inquiry-based learning experiences that meet community needs while deepening and expanding classroom learning objectives… Research has shown that students who participate in focused service learning in a course retain information better and have a deeper understanding of course material.” My students probably don’t see a connection to learning objectives or course content yet, for two reasons:

1) We haven’t gotten to the most relevant content yet. The semester ends with the chapters on ecology, including invasion ecology and sustainability and conservation. When we went to Kalaeloa Heritage Park, we were still covering like, properties of water or something, which was not obviously directly related. The students will get the content in class after we’ve done the service learning, and right before the papers are due (see how I worked that out?! :-D)

2) The service learning relates most strongly to an unwritten learning objective for the class; an unwritten learning objective for college generally, I would argue: by the time students complete their degrees at UHWO (regardless of their major) they should be functional, contributing citizens. They should be informed voters, caring members of their community, have identified social causes important to them and support these causes with their time and/or money. In short, they should give a shit. About something; about anything, really. UHWO doesn’t have a biology major, so I recognize that few (none?) of my students love biology like I do. That’s fine. Love something. One of the things I hope my students see before they’re done here is that your grades, your GPA, your class rank don’t matter. I mean, they “matter” in that they determine if you get credit for the class, keep your scholarship or whatever, but they don’t matter in the real world. The purpose of college isn’t to get A’s or be valedictorian or graduate magna cum laude – the purpose of college is to be an informed, caring, and contributing member of society. If you figure that out, you’ll probably also get A’s, and you might be valedictorian, and you might graduate magna cum laude. But those things are not the end goal.

One of my students this semester commented in her reflection paper draft that the overall point of service learning is to do something that matters, because so many people never feel that they’ve done something of real value. She argued that service learning should be emphasized more in high school because not everyone goes to college. While I agree,  I also find that college is a good time for this kind of work because so many of my students are on the cusp of adulthood. They’re newly living outside their parents’ influence (or maybe longing to do so). They’re starting to get ‘real’ jobs and some are beginning to settle down and start families of their own. They’re maybe in different places, but they’re all on that continuum working their way from child towards adult. High school is weird in that you’re not really a kid anymore, but you’re definitely not an adult either, and I think the concept of being a ‘contributing member of society’ isn’t really on your radar at that age. The college years (whether or not you are in college when they occur) are formative for adult-hood, for shaping the way you will view the world from here on out. This is particularly relevant in science classes, where we emphasize building evidence-based perspectives. Don’t just regurgitate your parents’ opinions, or your textbooks’ definitions, or your professor’s soap box rant in class (What? Doesn’t everybody do that…?). In college, you should learn to read, to evaluate, to think for yourself.  And if, in the meantime, we your professors can get you to care about something now (I mean really get you passionate about it), it will stick with you when real adulthood descends. Trust me, that’s exactly what happened to all of your professors when we were in college – and here we still are.

The professors are not “required” to go to the service learnings. In some classes, the students choose and coordinate their own service opportunities, and few professors attend the university-coordinated events. I go to all of the service learning events with my students; not to keep tabs on them, or take attendance, or whatever, but because I enjoy it. I see the difference we’re making, even in just a few semesters, at both of these sites and I know that our work there matters. I’m proud of my students, and I hope they’re proud of themselves, too.

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