Published on 04/12/06

Students get hands-on application in service-learning classes

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Not all learning happens in a classroom. University of Georgia students are finding this out through something called service- learning, which takes students and professors beyond the typical lecture and lab and into the community.

David Berle, a UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences assistant professor, applies the concept in his classes.

“The students learn out there what they would have [usually] learned in a classroom,” he said. “There’s a disconnect when you design. When you get out there, you realize things are hard to do, and there are ramifications on what you do.”

Berle teaches a residential landscape design class for the UGA School of Environmental Design and the CAES horticulture department. This month, his students took part in “Hands On Athens.” This multiagency program helps economically disadvantaged homeowners whose houses have fallen into bad repair.

Students in Berle’s class designed and installed new landscapes for four families.

On Paris Street in Athens, Ga., homeowner William Barrow sat on his front porch, a smile cracking through his wrinkles as he watched Hands On Athens house captain Drane Wilkinson re-hang his screen door. With plywood taking up space in his back yard and concrete filling his front yard, he had some projects at his home that, at 75, he couldn’t handle on his own. Through Hands On Athens and Berle’s service-learning class, he got the help he needed.

“This has given me a good idea of the construction side of installing materials,” said Larry Brannen, one of Berle’s students. “It’s a good thing to do to help others like this.”

Several students struggled to nail in a new screen, level and build a new porch entrance and move dirt and rocks. The day before they had taken sledgehammers to a deteriorating concrete sidewalk in Barrow’s front yard.

Barrow has lived in his home for “about 20 years, I imagine,” he said. His sister bought the house from his mother, and both are deceased. He owns half of his home and “the other half is going to my niece.”

At a different home, the floor was rotting in. In another, only one electrical outlet was left working. Other groups helped fix these problems while Berle’s class worked on the yards.

“It’s one of the more successful service-learning landscape projects we do,” Berle said. That’s saying something, because each of his classes has a service-learning part.

• In his introduction-to-horticulture course, which averages 300 students, he gives credit for a quiz score if students help at other service-learning projects.

• During Maymester’s three-week term, he’s taking a class to Sapelo Island to survey trees and plants, which will help the dwindling historic community with a land management plan.

• He also teaches a one-hour special-problems class on landscape Spanish. The students in this class cleaned out a ravine, built a park and planted 175 trees at a predominately Latino mobile home park.

• A previous class cataloged trees in the historic African- American Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens. Another inventoried community landmark trees in Athens-Clarke County.

Berle has been named one of UGA’s first five service-learning fellows. The university began the fellow program to cultivate a core group of campus leaders in service-learning, said Shannon Wilder, coordinator of the UGA Office of Service-Learning, in a UGA publication.

According to the UGA service-learning Web site (, service-learning applies academic skills to address real-life needs through a collaborative process between UGA and the community.

To Berle, service-learning integrates a course’s content with activities that reinforce the course goals and objectives.

“It’s good for students to see a slightly different version of the world,” he said. “It’s another way of doing something instead of something else to do.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.