International Conference on Civic Engagement and Service Learning

Monday, 20 June 2005

NUI Galway is the first Irish university to host a conference centred on the civic mission of higher education, which will address issues related to the introduction of 'Service Learning' to the higher education curriculum. Service Learning, a new concept in Ireland, encourages third-level students to explore issues vital to society through active participation or service in communities, non-governmental organisations and other similar organisations. The international conference on Civic Engagement and Service Learning – Universities, Students and Community, will take place on campus on the 23rd and 24th June 2005.

The Conference is timely as the Irish Government's Department of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs actively encourages the expansion of service learning to all third level colleges in Ireland. The conference has emerged from the university's commitment to civic engagement and to a body of work embedded in the Academic and Strategic Plans, entitled the Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI). A number of keynote speakers will participate from the US, South Africa and the UK including representatives of organisations such as the Ford Foundation, Campus Compact and development agencies.

Amongst the keynote speakers from NUI Galway is Lorraine McIlrath, Academic Staff Developer in Service Learning at the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) and conference organiser.

Commenting on the importance of Service Learning, she said, "We are entering into a phase of development in third level university life where we are encouraging and urging students to consider their civic responsibilities and to explore issues vital to society by participating in community work and non-governmental organisations. We support the Taoiseach's recent announcement of his intention to establish a task force on active citizenship, which will advise on how to maintain and develop a culture of active citizenship. As Irish society continues its obsession with material well being, we believe that civic engagement at third level is vital to ensure and foster a sense of social responsibility for the future."

Already, a number of Service Learning pilot projects are underway at NUI Galway, with both the students and academic leaders reporting a high satisfaction rate.

  • Postgraduate IT students have worked with Macnas, the Galway-based street theatre group, to assist in the development of a website, create a performance database, network the organisation's computers and connect Macnas to broadband. Students learned about the community sector and resource constraints of working in community in Ireland.
  • Nursing Studies introduced a module on International Nursing, which saw students travel to under-developed countries, including Zambia and Belize, where they worked with Aids patients and as care assistants in orphanages and community hospitals. Through this module the students examine cultural and political factors underpinning the health care system, reflected on the experience through a "Trans-Cultural Diary" and presented their experiences at a series of seminars.
  • Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering students have engaged with Goal and the Niall Mellon Township Challenge to better understand their sense of civic and social responsibility and how their engineering skills can positively contribute towards society.
  • Development of a new BA programme entitled 'Humanities and Society' which enable students prepare for work within the non-governmental agency community, nationally and internationally.
  • The Faculty of Law will soon offer Clinical Education Placement experiences in the legal and community agencies to enable the integration of theory to practice, in some cases offering pro bono legal advice to disadvantaged groups.

Service Learning was devised by academics in the United States in the early 1970s and since then has been strategically implemented in over 950 universities and colleges, largely supported through a national organisation, Campus Compact, which NUI Galway has joined as the first non-US based institution.

Lorraine McIlrath says this conference "marks the departure of a very exciting journey of international significance and one which we hope will strengthen the academic, civic and personal experience of students, staff and community within all higher education institutions in Ireland and beyond."

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