Service-Learning: Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences

Featured Instructors: 

Christine Catney, M.A., Pharm.D., clinical assistant professor of pharmacy

Hazel Hilton Seaba, Pharm.M.S., associate dean of pharmacy

Jim Peterson, M.A., Rotary Club of Iowa City A.M. - District 6000 (Iowa, USA)


Use service-learning to help students synthesize and apply academic knowledge.


  • Promotes critical thinking and reflection
  • Encourages student confidence and teamwork skills
  • Motivates student interest through application of academic knowledge


Christine Catney and Hazel Hilton Seaba describe how they broaden students’ learning through participation in a long-standing international interdisciplinary service-learning course, International Perspectives: Xicotepec. Service-learning is premised upon an equal partnership that benefits both students and the community. Through service-learning, students apply and synthesize knowledge and make meaningful connections between academic content and professional experience. The international aspect of the course helps students to appreciate global diversity, to experience being an outsider, and to better understand their own communities. 


Service-Learning: Details & Examples

International Perspectives: Xicotepec is a three semester-hour service-learning course. All enrolled students meet together with faculty from several participating disciplines to explore the history and culture of Mexico and the complexities of doing service-learning that is genuinely beneficial to both the students and to the community. Students are required to work in teams to plan and carry out community-based service-learning projects in the city of Xicotepec, Puebla, Mexico during Spring Break. 

Faculty have found that service-learning experiences benefit their students in a variety of ways: 

  • The opportunity for students to take control of their learning improves their motivation and develops valuable leadership skills. 
  • Working on a project-based course allows faculty to establish a stronger relationship with the students.
  • Group projects help students learn team-work, and service-learning forges powerful connections between students and communities. 
  • Service-learning not only reinforces foundational knowledge but also forces students to synthesize and apply that knowledge in new ways.

For this course, University of Iowa faculty members partner with members of the service organization Rotary International. The Xicotepec Project began in 2001 when members of the Rotary Club of Xicotepec and Rotary District 6000 of Iowa began planning a long-term, collaborative partnership to carry out community projects in Xicotepec. In 2007 service-learning students from the University of Iowa joined the project. Rotary’s global membership makes it possible for UI students to work with both local Rotarians in Iowa City and with Mexican Rotarians from Xicotepec (see this link via Google Translate). In addition to collaborating with a community partner who can direct them to projects that will expand students’ learning, students also get valuable experience working with a large, international nonprofit.   

Each group of students from a particular discipline coordinates a project that has a meaningful relationship to the discipline. During the week in Xicotepec, the students are required to engage in rigorous self-reflection and nightly debriefings with the faculty about the ways they are putting their learning into practice and how they are working with local community partners. For example: 

  • Pharmacy students provide deworming treatments to Xicotepec primary and pre-school students and invite local student nurses to work with them in the deworming clinics. 
  • Dental students provide basic dental education and fluoride treatments to Xicotepec schoolchildren.
  • Theatre design students create puppet performances to help with dental education and work with community members to design masks for a community event and also create public murals. 
  • Engineering, Urban and Regional Planning, and Public Health students install drinking water purification systems and conduct community needs surveys requested by local citizens. 
  • Writing and Journalism students assist the community with projects including publicity about healthcare clinics. 

The original course was developed by Craig Just (Engineering), Hazel Hilton Seaba (Pharmacy), Jim Peterson (Rotary), and Jean Florman (Center for Teaching). Chris Catney (Pharmacy) observed the class, traveled with the team, worked in the deworming project in 2007, and has had a course planning role since. Other instructors have included:

  • Jerry Anthony, Ph.D., associate professor of urban and regional planning
  • Loyce Arthur, M.F.A, associate professor, director of undergraduate studies in theatre arts
  • Steven M. Levy, D.D.S., M.P.H., professor of research, preventive and community dentistry
  • Julie C. Reynolds, D.D.S., assistant professor of preventive and community dentistry
  • Stacy Narcotta-Welp, M.A., director of Career Leadership Academy
  • Mary Noonan, Ph.D., associate professor, director of undergraduate studies in sociology
  • Michael Zmolek, Ph.D., lecturer in world history
  • Connie DeBoef, M.A., B.S.N., assistant professor emeritus in nursing
  • Jennifer Schmidt-McCormack, lecturer in chemistry and education

Many students were encouraged by Karmen Berger to apply to join the course. 

The Rotary Xicotepec Project began more than a dozen years ago, and the partnership with the University of Iowa began a few years later in 2006. As of 2015, there have been a total of 850 visits by U.S. participants. Partnered with local Xicotepec Rotarians and other community members, the project has helped with the installation of 18 water purification systems, more than a 1,000 screenings for diabetes and cervical cancer, and more than 20,000 deworming treatments. In addition, the project has helped to initiate dental prevention programs in the schools and the community and provided thousands of fluoride varnish applications. 

Service-Learning: Best Practices

In service-learning, students not only learn to serve but also serve to learn.   Service-learning courses respond to real community needs and incorporate community engagement into rigorous academic coursework. Service-learning is a deliberate, adaptable, interdisciplinary pedagogy.  As Associate Dean Ken Brown has noted, service-learning courses require the three “Rs”:  Reciprocity, Reflection, and academic Rigor. 

A number of excellent guides exist for designing and facilitating a service-learning course, including these "Ten Principles of Good Practice in Service Learning Curriculum and Pedagogy" from the Center for Teaching.  Please contact the Center for Teaching for recommendations specific to your course.  The following represent some broad suggestions gleaned from the Xicotepec course: 

  • The faculty of International Perspectives: Xicotepec introduce the course to students with a basic definition of service-learning that defines the community partner as a teammate who is providing a benefit to the students.  The pharmacy students’ deworming project, for example, provided students with valuable experience in medication management, including drug choice, dosage and administration, procurement, transportation, and medication administration documentation. 
  • The goal of service-learning is not “voluntourism.”  Professors Seaba and Catney structure the course with the goal of helping students understand that they are cultivating a real partnership with – and often at the behest of – community partners. Empathetic learning and relationship building are crucial to the success of the course. 
  • The long-term success of the Xicotepec course demonstrates that it is crucial to spend ample time building a relationship with the community partner in order to ensure that communities or projects are not simply abandoned after the students complete the course.  
  • The Xicotepec course has worked well for all partners because the student projects were developed in collaboration with the community.  The pharmacy students’ project, for example, was chosen in part because deworming was identified by the Xicotepec community as something that was needed, especially for preschool and elementary school children. 
  • Professors Seaba and Catney have found that timid students with limited travel experience can benefit from being assigned to leadership roles during the service-learning project.  Students who have had substantial leadership and travel experience also learn a great deal from participating as a cooperative team member and sharing the leadership role. 
  • During and after the week in Mexico, the students reflect on their experiences, relating their coursework to their service-learning experience and articulating the significance of their learning.  This allows students to move beyond simply recalling their service-learning experiences and whether or not they liked it to understanding how service-learning was integral to their personal and professional growth.

Service-Learning: Bibliography & Related Content


Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2004) The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Reflection and Assessment. Innovative Higher Education, 29(2), 137-54. 

Florman, J. C., Just, C., Naka, T., Peterson, J. Seaba, H. H. (2009) Bridging the Distance: Service-learning in International Perspective. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 118, 71-84.

Seider, S. C., Hillman, A. (2011) Challenging Privileged College Students’ Othering Language in Community Service-learning. Journal of College and Character, 12(3). 

The University of Iowa Office of the Provost. (2015?) Report: Task Force on Public Outreach and Civic Engagement. The University of Iowa. Retrieved from [old link] [new link, still outdated]

The Xicotepec Project. (2016) The Xicotepec Project. Retrieved from

The Xicotepec Project Facebook Page. (2016) The Xicotepec Project. Retrieved from

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