If you have a child in high school, chances are you’ll be hearing something about civic engagement or outreach or service learning. Maybe your child will participate in a community clean-up day, or spend 30 hours over the course of a semester helping out at a local shelter.

Most likely, your child will get to choose how she gets involved in the community. And if you’re lucky, the project will be tied to the curriculum, so your child will have a chance to reflect and think about how that volunteer work relates to her own life—and more specifically, to her life as a learner.

Tom Ehrlich, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation who co-directs the foundation’s Political Engagement Project, says the concept of civic engagement in higher education—using the classroom as a starting point for engaging students in national and local affairs—has been steadily growing on university campuses since the 1980s.

“This started with just a handful of college and university presidents that thought the ‘me generation’ was getting a bum rap,” says Ehrlich, who served as President of Indiana University from 1987 to 1994. Campus Compact was born in the ’80s out of a desire to educate college students to become active citizens equipped to solve society’s most pressing issues. Originally just four university presidents were involved in the effort, and today the coalition is made up of more than 1,100 college and university presidents.

These days, most college and university campuses have a center for civic engagement. And college students across the U.S. participate in activities ranging from working at rape crisis centers to interviewing community members fighting for a change in the local government. Here’s a look some examples of civic engagement projects going on around the country: 

Sample Service Learning and Civic Engagement Projects

  • Teaching literacy skills to disadvantaged youth in a local place of worship
  • Working with high school and middle school teachers to implement dramatization projects about human rights issues
  • Helping out with daily tasks at a local social service organization
  • Collaborating with local youth to create murals for public spaces
  • Using laminated reproductions of American artwork to talk to local school children about voting rights and the American electoral process
  • Raising money to support the local sheriff department

Service Learning Versus Community Service

How is all this different from community service? Officially, a project is considered to be service learning when it is integrated into the curriculum—not an add-on but actually a part of the curriculum.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Lead Researcher for CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, says the impact of civic engagement and outreach has a lot to do with implementation. 

“In some universities and colleges, what civic engagement means is that students get sent out into the community to do volunteer work without reflection or intention,” she says. “The students might not have a chance to think about how that looks to them individually, and to their future. But some faculty really integrate the engagement into the curriculum and their teaching.”

She explains that, for instance, one college course might require students simply to go to a shelter pantry and help bag groceries; whereas in another course students might actually work with people who are homeless—they might speak with them about how they became homeless and about their needs, and then these students might prepare a report to the agency with their findings. This kind of experience makes a huge impact not only in terms of what the agency receives, Kawashima-Ginsberg says, but also in the students’ learning and in their likelihood to become engaged citizens in the future.  

Cross-Curricular Service Learning

Professors across the disciplines are encouraged to integrate service into their curriculum these days. You might think these kinds of service projects would fit best with political or social science courses, but educators in just about all fields have found great success.

Jill Dolan, Professor of English and Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, doesn’t need convincing about the benefits of integrating civic engagement into classroom work. Dolan has spent more than two decades looking at ways in which theater can serve as an impetus for social change. 

“I see one of the main benefits of theater for civic engagement and working on cultural change as the way it draws people together, live, to consider social issues,” Dolan says. “Political change happens in many ways…but being together in an auditorium, however large or small, creates a current of excitement and interest that can be touch people in often more profound ways.”

Dolan, whose most recent book is titled Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre, says theatrical pieces for social change have also been known to generate millions of dollars in fund-raising efforts. Benefits for “The Vagina Monologues,” for example, have raised more than $50 million for women’s anti-violence groups in the past decade.

“Theater like ‘The Vagina Monologues’…creates a way for performers to embody issues—that lets them experience viscerally another person’s story (or their own),” Dolan says. “For spectators watching…the direct address to the audience asks people to measure their own experience—and in the best possible cases, what they think about these issues—against what they see and hear, and perhaps even moves them to do something.”

“That, for me,” Dolan says, “is the kernel of what theater offers to civic engagement.”

Service Learning for All Ages

We might not see centers for community and civic engagement in high schools or elementary schools, but we can certainly find service learning happening in K-12 classrooms. According a report produced by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), approximately 24 percent of all public high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools engage in service learning. However, service learning at the high school level is down by nearly 11 percentage points in the past decade, Kawashima-Ginsberg says. She explains that much of this dramatic decline could be attributed to high-stakes testing (teachers don't have as much time to integrate service learning) and budget cuts (volunteer coordinator positions are being cut, which makes it challenging to successfully carry out school-community collaborations).

What does service learning look like at the K-12 level?
  • Students might engage in community improvement projects, or projects collaborating with older community members toward a greater goal.
  • Students might engage in projects exploring issues of tolerance and acceptance (perhaps using a curriculum developed by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center).
  • Students might learn about world hunger or clean water and explore ways in which their actions can make and difference and save lives (perhaps using a curriculum developed by Teach UNICEF).
  • High school students might collaborate with community members to bring a curriculum on bullying to the local elementary schools.

If you’re interested in bringing civic engagement programs into your child’s school, visit the Corporation for National and Community Service website, Learn and Serve America, for fresh ideas. And take a look at Tom Ehrlich’s most recent book, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement, to get a sense of how civic engagement and service learning benefits students, community partners, and humankind as a whole.