The Symbiotic Nature of Giving and Receiving: Service-learning and Social Diversity

Bernasconi, Claudia, and Mariarosaria Di Palo

This study investigated key outcomes of community based service-learning in design education and explored the biunivocal relationship between service recipients and facilitators. Though there is a broad agreement on certain outcomes and pedagogical approaches of service learning, there are still numerous unsolved issues such as impact on academic learning (Eyler, et al., 2001), limited community impact, and the difficulty of rigorous and authentic assessment of outcomes (Butin, 2003). As noted by Furco (1996), Sigmon defined service-learning as an experiential education approach based on "reciprocal learning" (Sigmon, 1979). Therefore service-learning really occurs only if “both the providers and recipients of service benefit from the activities” (Furco, 1996).

The research project involved the development, enactment, and assessment of a new service-learning opportunity for graduate architecture and community development students.  Students enrolled in the service-learning course were exposed to design pedagogical theories, and to service-learning approaches and case studies. Students designed a semester long curriculum for a class of seventh grade students at a Detroit middle school, developing project-based learning activities on specific architectural and urban design principles, and implemented the curriculum teaching weekly at the middle school.

The objectives of this research study were to: 1) understand key findings from current literature and define targeted outcomes for the served population (middle school students) and the group administering the teaching (graduate students); 2) develop ad hoc assessment tools to test the effectiveness of the service-learning; 3) measure key perceived outcomes for both the population served and the facilitators; and 4) define recommendations and future directions for service-learning in design education. Qualitative analysis was conducted on: pre and post surveys administered to middle school students and graduate students, in situ feedback forms following each activity, and graduate students’ in class reflections before and after the service, and interim and final essays. The study provided indications on key perceived outcomes of the service-learning, including, among others, increased self-knowledge and personal growth through the questioning of one’s own values and preconceptions in the engagement with a diverse community, increased capability to respect diversity, and increased sense of civic engagement. This study provided a student perspective on the “symbiotic nature of giving and receiving” (student, interim paper), confirming the importance of exposing students to real world contexts and social diversity, and the centrality of service-learning in the shaping designers capable of envisioning design solutions that reflect comprehensive perspectives on the surrounding social environments.


Butin, D., (2003), Of What Use Is It? Multiple Conceptualizations of Service Learning Within Education, Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 9, 2003, p. 1674-1692

Eyler, J.S., Dwight, E. G. Jr., Stenson, C.M., Gray, C.J., (2001) At A Glance: What We Know about The Effects of Service-Learning on College Students, Faculty, Institutions and Communities, 1993- 2000: Third Edition. (121 pp.) online publication available at

Furco, A. (1996). Service-learning: A balanced approach to experiential education. Expanding Boundaries: Service and Learning. Washington, DC: Corporation for National Service, 2-6.

Sigmon, Robert L. Spring 1979. Service-learning: Three Principles. Synergist. National Center for Service-Learning, ACTION, 8(1):9-1 1.


service-learning, design education, outcome assessment, diversity