The Impact of Service Learning on Academic Knowledge, Personal Growth, and Civic Engagement in Community College Students

Abstract

Research indicates that well-designed experiential learning promotes learning of course content, problem-solving, integrative thinking, and high-order reasoning skills. Faculty at an urban community college designed a survey tool to assess the impact of students’ participation in an academic service learning project on their academic knowledge, retention at the college, and critical thinking skills as applied to personal growth and civic engagement. Results indicate that at the end of the service learning project students who participated in service learning knew more about academic content and displayed increased critical thinking skills when reflecting on their personal growth and civic engagement. Additionally, service learning students achieved high grades and were retained at the institution. Future research should seek to replicate these findings in larger samples and with a variety of service learning projects.

Introduction

Students entering the 21st century workforce must link material learned in academic courses to real-life situations in the work environment.  Applied learning strategies, such as service learning, provide students with meaningful opportunities to make connections between theory and practice.  Well-designed experiential learning promotes learning of course content, problem-solving skills, integrative thinking, and high-order reasoning skills (Eyler and Giles, 1999).  Effective experiential learning utilizes critical reflection, which requires students to conduct an evidence-based examination of the relationships between course content and its application in a real-life context or experience (Ash and Clayton, 2009).   Ash and Clayton (2009) note that service learning’s positive impact on students’ essays and written assignments (Strage, 2000; Osborne, Hammerich, and Hensley, 1998) suggests that the combination of service learning and structured critical reflection enhances students’ ability to think critically and support arguments or positions in a logical, evidence-based manner.  While Ash and Clayton (2005) propose a framework for assessing the critical reflection process, more research must be done to examine the effectiveness of these practices in a diverse, community college population that includes students from multiple academic disciplines.

Developing students’ critical reflection and thinking skills is a crucial outcome of a service learning project. Critical thinking, as described by Paul and Elder (2002) is based on intellectual standards that include accuracy, clarity, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness.  The DEAL Model of Critical Reflection conceptualizes reflection as a three step process: (a) describe the academic theory and experience in an objective manner, (b) examine out-of-class experience and theory in light of specific learning objectives, and (c) articulate learning from the course and out-of-class experience to deepen learning and guide future goal-setting.  Critical reflection is guided by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which structures the learning experience to promote increasingly complex levels of reasoning (Bloom, 1956). These models were incorporated in the critical reflection instruments.

In this study, faculty at the community college developed a survey tool aligned to assess whether students achieved project objectives for academic learning, personal growth, and civic engagement. The instruments were based on the DEAL Model of Critical Reflection (Ash and Clayton, 2009), which encourages students to describe the academic theory and experience in an objective manner, to examine the out-of-class experience and theory in light of specific learning objectives, and to articulate the learning from the course and the out-of-class experience in order to deepen the learning and guide future educational and career goals. Assessments of academic learning were aligned with specific content from their course. While academic questions had specific correct answers, questions about personal growth and civic engagement were scored using the DEAL rubric.

Structuring a critical reflection activity using the DEAL model has several benefits for community college faculty and students. The DEAL model encourages a structured approach to reflection that is aligned with a service learning project’s learning objectives. Additionally, reflection activities designed using the DEAL rubric foster a deeper exploration of learning objectives that goes beyond basic summarization (Ash and Clayton, 2009). Structured reflection activities bring a rigor to reflection that moves it beyond subjective, vague, and difficult-to-measure results. This project utilized the DEAL model in order to give faculty a clearer structure for understanding whether students met the goals for the project. The DEAL model has not been the official model/rubric used or recommended by Queensborough Community College’s Office of Academic Service Learning, however individual faculty engaged in service learning have often used it.

In addition to collecting survey data from students, course grade and retention data were also collected from the college’s office of institutional research. This study hypothesizes that students who participate in service learning will stay at the institution at high rates and receive grades comparable to or higher than peers not participating in service learning.

The study hypothesizes that students who participate in a service learning project will have a greater understanding of academic course content at the end of the project. Students will also display increased critical thinking skills with regard to their personal and civic growth. Students who participate in service learning projects will also achieve higher graders in their course compared to students in a comparison group with no service learning project. Students will also be retained at the college for the following semester.

The community partner

All five courses worked with a single community partner. The partner, Hour Children, is a non-profit agency providing services to incarcerated and recently incarcerated women and their families. This agency is a leading provider of prison-based and community-based programs. Their in-prison programs include transportation and visitation services; parenting education; mental health support for women, children and families; a teen program; advocacy; and a residential nursery unit. Their community-based programs include transitional and permanent supportive housing; job training and job placement services; therapeutic services; adult mentoring; mentoring for children with incarcerated parents, childcare and an after-school program that enables women to work or go to school; three thrift shops; and a community food pantry.

Service learning project details

Each course engaged in a different service learning project with the single community partner. Because this study incorporates several courses/projects, positive growth in academics and critical thinking skills may suggest that the effect of service learning on students is consistent across projects. Participating courses were: sociology, accounting, massage therapy, health and nutrition, and art/drawing. Service learning projects were not mandatory for students enrolled in each course.

Criminal Justice: Corrections and Sentencing

Participants enrolled in a criminal justice course about corrections and sentencing. For this project, participants, met with the mothers from Hour Children to explore their experiences of the correctional process. The mothers also had an opportunity to express changes they believed should be addressed within the correctional system, and with regard to systemic, regulatory and legal barriers faced by people coming home from prisons and jails in New York City.

Service learning literature supports the premise that service learning aids students in gaining knowledge of criminal justice. Penn (2003) found that partnering with community organizations within the justice system continuum exposed students to concrete and tangible criminal justice issues assisting them with comprehension of course material. Moreover, Bordt and Lawler (2005) found that service learning aided criminal justice students to think critically about the justice system and its larger impact on society.

Art/Drawing

While the other projects worked with mothers from Hour Children, students enrolled in the art/drawing course took part in a project designed to support their children. This project was intended to bolster the self-esteem and confidence of the children by having the students create empowering portraits that could help the children envision a brighter future.

In a study of children with incarcerated parents that utilized the Children’s Hope Scale, developed by Snyder et al. (1994), researchers (Hagen, Myers, & Mackintosh, 2005) noted that:

Hopeful children feel empowered to face and overcome challenges. They have ideas about which pathways to try. Conversely, children who feel hopeless have no confidence in their capacities and no clue where to begin in facing their problems. Consequently, they may not even try to tackle these stressors and hence, are at risk for developing even greater levels of internalizing and externalizing problems. (p. 13)

This service learning project was designed to foster hope in children who had suffered separation from their mothers due to incarceration, and who were currently living in supportive housing. The project provided an opportunity for the children to experience the college setting, to begin to see college as a path to a rewarding life, and to see themselves in a positive and confident stance through portraiture.

For this project, children from the community partner came to the college campus on multiple occasions to be drawn by the college students. At the end of the project, the students presented their child models with large color prints of their portraits, which had been rolled up and tied with a ribbon to suggest a college graduation for the children. They also presented the children with keepsake boxes that held a smaller version of their portraits and were intended to hold keepsakes and mementos.

Massage Therapy

The massage therapy students were enrolled in an advanced capstone course that students are required to take during their final semester before graduation. Students in the course apply program knowledge in the biological sciences and pathology to create treatment plans and guide clients in developing a self-care program that will enable them to live a healthier lifestyle. For this research project, students worked to address the physical, mental and emotional stress that the mothers from Hour Children may have accumulated during their incarceration and the stresses they most likely encountered upon their reentry to society.

Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute, University of Miami, School of Medicine summarized recent empirical research on “touch deprivation, touch aversion, emotions that can be conveyed by touch, the importance of touch for interpersonal relationships and how friendly touch affects compliance in different situations.” Field also documented findings regarding the physiological and biomechanical effects of touch, “including decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol and increased oxytocin.” Field also reported findings of similar changes “with moderate pressure massage to be mediated by the stimulation of pressure receptors and increased vagal activity.” Her review also includes findings of “positive shifts in frontal EEG that accompanied moderate pressure massage along with increased attentiveness, decreased depression and enhanced immune function . . . making massage therapy one of the most effective forms of touch” (2011).

In addition to therapeutic massage, the students instructed the mothers in self-care through deep breathing exercises, stress reduction techniques, stretching and correct postural alignment.

Business

Students from an intermediate business class presented critical concepts in financial planning and literacy to mothers at the community partner. The students discussed specific financial procedures, how to make a budget, and how to locate work. In total, the students made four presentations to the mothers from Hour Children. Students presented on the importance of a budget, with examples of the types of income and expenses to include; the benefits of opening a bank account and documenting payments; and how to reconcile an account. In the final and most relevant presentation for the women, a student gave a presentation detailing how the women could gain employment and become financially stable.

Health of the Nation

Students enrolled in a health and nutrition course examined scientific literature regarding lifestyle choices promoting optimal health and functioning. Behaviors regarding self-protection, disease prevention, and health promotion were compared to recommendations emerging from the most recent scientific literature. This course examined concepts and techniques for organizing partnerships for health improvement at the community level. Students learned about major models and methods of practice, analytical skills, and roles of partnership and coalition building in improving health outcomes. Through readings, case studies, and a community-based project, students developed a community health intervention.  The course also helped students develop the skills needed to apply knowledge and theory of health disparities and determinants of health in designing health services and interventions.

These students were split into groups to create educational interventions and activities for the mothers on several topics, including HIV prevention and education, healthy eating on a budget, and diabetes and heart disease prevention.

Sample

Students participating in service learning came from five courses at an urban community college. A total of 33 students participated in the service learning project across all classes.   Twenty-nine of the 33 students completed surveys at both pre- and post-time points. Survey data reported in the results section only contain data for students who responded to both pre and post surveys. Course grade and retention data is reported for all thirty-three participants.

Methods       

Students who participated in the service learning project took a survey before and after their project to gauge whether the experience impacted their academic, personal, growth, or civic engagement. The pre-survey was administered after students reviewed academic material in class, but before the service learning project. Post-service learning surveys were administered after the completion of the service learning project.

Survey. Both pre- and post- surveys consisted of three sections: academic learning, personal growth, and civic engagement. The number of questions in the academic section varied by course, consisting of four to eight multiple choice or open response questions. The academic sections of each survey were tailored to the academic content of each course. The questions assessed academic knowledge students would employ during their service learning projects. Academic questions could either be multiple choice or open response. Students also rated their confidence with each answer in the academic section on a five-point scale ranging from “Not at all confident” to “Extremely Confident.”

The personal growth and civic engagement sections each contained three open response questions collectively written by the faculty in the project. These questions were aligned with goals for students’ personal growth and civic knowledge growth, fostering reflection about students’ personal and civic connections to the issues of the service learning partner. The table below contains the questions as they appeared on the pre-service learning survey. The questions remained largely the same on the post-survey, with only slight changes to the questions to reflect the past tense.

 

Table 1. Questions from personal and civic sections of survey

Section Question Code Question
Personal Personal -Knowledge What do you know about the formerly incarcerated individuals and their families you will be working with during your service learning project?
Personal Personal – Perceptions What are some of your perceptions or beliefs about the formerly incarcerated individuals and their families you will be working with during your service learning project?
Personal Personal – Actions What can you do to improve the situation of the formerly incarcerated individuals and their families that you will be working with during your service learning project?
Civic Civic – Society What do you know about the effects of incarceration on the incarcerated individual and society?
Civic Civic –Partner How you think your course can have an effect on the people served by [community partner]?
Civic Civic – Skills What skills from your class do you think you can bring to address the particular problems faced by the individuals at [community partner]?

Scales. Students received up to two points for each correct academic question. Students received partial credit for open response questions. Personal and Civic questions were scored using the DEAL critical reflection rubric. All courses worked towards the same personal and civic goals.

Each question in the personal and civic learning sections received a score for all subscales of the DEAL critical thinking rubric. The subscales were: breadth, depth, logic, significance, and fairness. (Ash & Clayton, 2009). Scores were on a four-point scale ranging from one to four, with one representing “completely lacking,” two representing “under-developed,” three representing “good,” and four representing “excellent.”

Scoring Process. Scorers were trained on the DEAL rubric before the beginning of the project. Scorers were faculty whose students participated in the service learning project. Faculty scorers only rated responses from classes that were not their own. For academic questions, scorers assigned a rating to student responses based on how closely the response matched the corresponding benchmark answer for their course. To assess academic content learning, a score was calculated based on the number of points a student earned on those questions.

For questions in the personal growth and civic engagement sections of the survey, each question received a score for all subscales in the DEAL rubric. Responses in the personal and civic learning sections received scores based on their alignment with the DEAL rubric. Two different professors scored each section of the survey. An average of the two responses was taken to create an aggregate score for each student.

For each question, the ratings for each DEAL rubric subscale were then aggregated to create a single score for each question. This aggregate score represented overall performance on the question. Each subscale was then aggregated across the three questions in the section to create a score for each section and subscale. Thus, within each section, an individual student would have an aggregate score for each of the three questions and an aggregate score for each DEAL subscale. Each aggregate score was the number of points earned on a rating divided by the number of potential points available.

To determine whether students displayed academic growth from before to after service learning, the percentage of points earned on the academic section before service learning was compared to the percentage of points earned on the academic section of the survey after service learning. For the personal and civic sections, average ratings for each question and subscale were compared from pre to post.

Retention and Grades. Information about student retention and course grades was provided by the college’s Office of Institutional Research.   Retention was defined as a student returning to the institution the following semester. These projects took place in the spring semester. If a student remained enrolled in the college the following fall, they were considered retained. Course grades were also collected for students who participated in the service learning project. Comparison grades were also available from students in other sections of the same courses who were not exposed to service learning.

 Results

Students showed positive growth on the academic learning sections of the survey after the service learning project. On average, participants earned a greater percentage of points on the post-survey (66%) when compared to the pre-survey (47%). This represents a 40% growth from pre survey to post survey.

Personal and Civic Growth by Question. Respondents showed positive growth in their responses to all six questions in the personal and civic growth sections across all rubric subscales.   The data in the table 2 indicates that a greater percentage of points was earned across all respondents for each question in the personal and civic questions.

 

Table 2. Percentage of points earned on personal growth and civic engagement

Question Pre points earned Post points earned Percent change
Personal –Knowledge 54% 63% 16%
Personal – Perceptions 52% 70% 35%
Personal – Actions 57% 74% 30%
Civic – Society 55% 79% 45%
Civic – Partner 58% 73% 27%
Civic – Skills 63% 79% 26%

 

Table 3 contains the average ratings students received on each question and subscale in the personal growth section of the survey. On the pre-survey, average respondent scores tended to cluster around two, which represents “under-developed” on the DEAL Critical Reflection Rubric. After service learning, average respondent scores increased on all questions and subscales. Additionally, a large percentage of students saw their average scores increase from pre survey to post survey.

 

Table 3. Average ratings in personal section of survey by question and subscale.

Question/ Subscale N Pre average Post average Percentage of students with positive change
Personal –Knowledge 19 2.25 2.60 63%
Personal – Perceptions 19 2.12 3.73 100%
Personal – Actions 20 2.15 3.74 95%
Depth 15 2.19 3.35 100%
Breadth 15 2.16 3.35 100%
Logic 15 2.37 3.29 93%
Significance 14 2.25 3.35 100%
Fairness 15 2.52 3.35 93%

 

Table 4 contains the average ratings students received on each question and subscale in the personal learning section of the survey. While student responses on the pre-survey tended to range between “under-developed” and “good” on the DEAL Critical Reflection Rubric, student responses on the post-survey were well above the threshold for “good.” Every student who completed both a pre and post survey showed positive growth in each subscale of the DEAL Rubric.

 

Table 4. Average ratings in civic section of survey by question and subscale.

Question/Subscale N Pre average Post average Percentage of students with Positive Change
Question 1 23 2.36 3.50 87%
Question 2 19 2.18 3.76 95%
Question 3 18 2.51 3.54 83%
Depth 16 2.43 3.59 100%
Breadth 16 2.36 3.54 100%
Logic 16 2.47 3.59 100%
Significance 16 2.42 3.59 100%
Fairness 16 2.39 3.59 100%

 Retention and Course Grades. Students who participated in the service learning project returned to the college at a high rate. Of the 33 students who engaged in the service learning project in the spring, 29 (88%) returned the following fall or graduated.

Grades for service learning participants were compared to non-service learning students in another section of the same course. While the sample size is small, 97% of service learning participants earned a grade of C or better in the course. Eighty-five percent of service learning participants earned an A or A- in the course. Students in different sections of the same course did not achieve at this higher level. Eighty-eight percent of non-service learning students earned a C or higher and only 65% earned an A or A-.

 

Table 5: Distribution of grades for service learning students and comparison group.

Course Grade Non-Service learning (N=99) Service Learning (N=33)
A – A- 55 (56%) 28 (85%)
B+ – B- 28 (28%) 3 (9%)
C+ – C- 10 (10%) 1 (3%)
D+ – D 4 (4%) 1 (3%)
F 2 (2%) 0 (0%)
Total 99 33

 

Discussion

Students who participated in service learning showed an increased knowledge of academic content after the service learning project. Students were more likely to correctly answer questions about academic content after the content was reinforced during a service learning project. Students enrolled in the service learning course were more likely to receive a grade of A or A- in their course compared to students who did not participate in service learning. These findings suggest that service learning may have a positive impact on students’ acquisition of academic content knowledge. Because students applied the academic content to their service learning project, it is possible that this practical experience strengthened the students’ knowledge and boosted their confidence in their answers.

Students also displayed positive growth in their critical reflection skills, when applied to personal growth and civic engagement. Student responses to each question about personal/civic project goals exhibited greater degrees of critical thinking as defined by the DEAL Critical Thinking Rubric. It appears that students also displayed growth in both personal and civic learning. Students’ responses to all three questions in each section improved significantly from pre to post survey. Students’ answers on the post- survey showed greater levels of depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness in both the personal learning and civic learning sections of the survey.   These results suggest students may think about issues more critically after a service learning project.

These results suggest that a structured critical reflection activity may be effective at measuring student growth over the course of the service learning project. Students who participated in service learning met the explicit learning objectives for their projects. Additionally, they displayed deeper levels of critical thinking after their participation in a service learning project. These results align with Ash and Clayton’s (2009) description of outcomes from a quality critical reflection activity.

Additionally, this study demonstrates the efficacy of assessing multiple service learning projects using the same survey instrument. Although a small sample size does not allow for specific analysis by course type, aggregate results from all classes indicate that the effects of service learning projects manifest themselves across academic disciplines. Future studies with a larger sample should investigate differences in course content and project types.

Limitations. This research was conducted using a sample of community college students and may not be generalizable to other samples. Additionally, the size of the sample is limited and further studies should be conducted with larger samples to determine if these results can be replicated. Additionally, this research did not employ a control or comparison group for the survey tool. Without a control group, we cannot rule out the possibility that growth displayed by students here was not the result of typical learning patterns, natural maturation processes, or other factors not related to service learning. Additionally, changes in the students’ critical thinking may result from the fact that they had more time to work on topics related to the learning objectives, rather than to service learning. Although raters were trained and no professor rated their own classes, rater bias may still affect the results discussed in the sections above.   For grade comparison data, the sample sizes differ significantly.

 

Conclusions

Participating in a service learning program may have positive impacts on students’ academic content knowledge. Students who participated in service learning projects in this study showed an increased knowledge of academic content. Additionally students may apply deeper critical thinking skills to their personal growth and civic engagement than before the service learning projects. These findings appear to be consistent across multiple academic disciplines. These findings would be strengthened by a larger sample size and a control group.


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About the authors:

Michael Bradley

Michael Bradley currently works as an evaluation and research analyst for iMentor, a nonprofit organization that builds mentoring relationships to empower students from low-income communities to graduate high school, succeed in college, and achieve their ambitions. He earned his BA in psychology from Binghamton University. Bradley studied applied psychology, data analysis, and education while working on his MA in Human Development and Social Intervention at New York University. He worked with the coauthors during his studies. Bradley has also worked at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York and Achievement First charter schools.

Isabella Lizzul

Isabella Lizzul is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Physical Education and Dance at Queensborough Community College where she is also the Coordinator of the Massage Therapy Healing Arts Program and Supervisor of the Massage Therapy Clinic. Isabella Lizzul holds a Clinical Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Mercy College. She also holds a BS in Health and Physical Education, and is certified and licensed as an Athletic Trainer. She is also certified in Craniosacral Therapy I, Reiki I & II and Sports Massage. She has taught Pathology, Foundations of Massage Therapy, Practicum I & II, Professional Issues, Myology, and Sports Massage, and is the clinical supervisor the QCC massage clinic. As a practicing massage therapist, certified athletic trainer and Doctor of Physical Therapy, she has worked in physical medicine and rehabilitation, medical support, and sports medicine. Professor Lizzul is a long time practitioner of high-impact practices such as Service-Learning, Global Diversity and Learning and has participated in the Student Wiki Interdisciplinary group (SWIG), Moving Ahead with ePortfolio and the Common Read.

Liz Di Giorgio

Liz Di Giorgio received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and a Master of Arts degree from Hunter College of the City University of New York. Her paintings have been shown in solo exhibitions in New York, Philadelphia and Kansas City, Missouri. She is a recipient of two Pollock-Krasner Foundation awards. As an Assistant Professor at Queensborough Community College, she teaches Painting and Drawing, incorporating Service-Learning and Global and Diversity Learning in her drawing courses. She currently also serves as a United Nations NGO Representative for the Women’s Caucus for Art.

Rose Marie Äikäs

Rose Marie Äikäs received her PhD from Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice in 2012 under the tutelage of Dr. Bonnie Veysey. Ms. Äikäs has international and domestic prison research experience, a professional background as a criminal justice and social work practitioner, and as a teacher at four year and two your college levels. Ms. Äikäs has taught courses including Introduction to Criminal Justice, Criminology, Corrections and Sentencing, Criminality and Mental Illness, Gender Crime and Justice, Foucault and Madness, Social Work Research Theory and Methods III, Social Welfare Policies through 1930s, and Substance Abuse Policy and Services. She taught at University of Helsinki -School of Law in 2003 as a Visiting Scholar. Ms. Äikäs is also an adjunct professor at Smith College – Graduate School of Social Work .Ms. Aikas is currently a full-time Assistant Professor at Queensborough Community College where she teaches undergraduate criminal justice courses in addition to being the coordinator of the criminal justice program in partnership with John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Ms. Äikäs’ doctoral dissertation looked at correctional philosophies and their impact on inmates with psychiatric disorders in Finnish and American prisons. Her goal thus is to develop comparative understanding of the roles of correctional philosophies in the treatment, management and supervision of inmates who are mentally ill.

Sebastian Murolo

Sebastian Murolo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Accounting and Information Systems from Queens College of the City University of New York. He is a Certified Public Accountant and earned an MBA from New York Institute of Technology. Since August 2009 he has been an Assistant Professor at Queensborough Community College. He is an active practitioner of Service Learning at the College, and created and continues to provide students with financial analysis techniques relevant to the entertainment business through hands-on work with the Queensborough Performing Arts Center (QPAC). In addition Sebastian speaks at local venues to support the College community, providing financial literacy to all. Most recently he presented at the Frank Egan Memorial Lecture Series at Queensborough Community College to enhance the financial knowledge of students’ embarking on new business ventures.

Lana Zinger

Lana Zinger received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Human Nutrition – Dietetics from New York University. She received her Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She completed her Doctoral Degree from Columbia University in Health and Behavioral Studies. Since 1996, Dr. Zinger has provided nutrition and exercise consulting to patients on topics including Diabetes, Weight Management, Sports Nutrition, Prenatal and Maternal Nutrition, Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer and HIV/AIDS. Dr. Zinger has been invited to present her research for organizations such as AAHPERD, ADA, and NYMAPS. She has authored articles on such topics as Service Learning for Health Professionals; Veterans and PTSD; and Adherence to HIV medications.