Service-learning, by definition, is a method of teaching and learning that integrates student participation in organized service activities into credit-bearing courses. More often than not, the lessons learned have a far-reaching impact beyond the course description.
Such is the case with Dr. George Labanick’s Biology 507 – Developmental Biology course. Working with community partner Gwyn Spearman and the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research (FPWR), students not only gained appreciation for the role service-learning plays in developing an understanding of the impact of developmental deviations on the human condition, but they also had an opportunity to contribute to improving the communication about this genetic disorder.
Occurring in approximately one out of every 15,000 births, Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) is a genetic disorder that affects appetite, growth, metabolism, cognitive function and behavior. According to the PWS Association, this rare disorder is due to the loss of genetic material on the 15th chromosome with the hallmark characteristics being chronic feelings of insatiable hunger and a slowed metabolism which can lead to excessive eating and life-threatening obesity.
“Students had a meeting with Gwyn (Spearman) where she explained causes and effects of PWS,” said Labanick, a professor of biology. “The students also met with three local families with PWS children, learning their individual stories.”
The class formed two groups, each responsible for creating their own social media awareness campaigns, goals and fund-raising projects.
“Additionally, each group of students evaluates a scientific article about PWS and makes a formal presentation about the article to the class, as well as develops a “blog-post” type of explanation of the article that is suitable for general audiences which could potentially be used by FPWR,” noted Labanick.
Students maintained a journal documenting what they learned and accomplished in their service-learning experience, he added.
“Developmental Biology examines the basis of development of animals, including genetic and environmental effects, examining the cellular and molecular bases of development,” said Labanick. “Our service-learning experience is a window into just one variation in development (of PWS) with the goal of understanding not only the biological mechanisms, but also possible treatments and the effects of this variation on individuals and their families. I want the students to also apply their biology knowledge to understanding research on PWS and communicating this information both in a scientific and “general public” sense.”
Of this service-learning course, Labanick noted that one of the most rewarding aspects is seeing a student connect their abstract knowledge to real people and gain a personal understanding of the impact of PWS on both people with the disorder and their families.
For more information about the Foundation for Prader-Willi Research, visit https://www.fpwr.org.