Learning Outside Four Walls: Service-Learning Offers Students an Opportunity to Work, Learn in the Community

March 29, 2016 at 2:06 pm
USC Upstate Rachel Snow Service Learning Class Art Museum 2016

USC Upstate student Adam Rollins, left, works with SAM Curator of Collections Mat Duncan.

Service-learning allows students to link their classroom knowledge to real life experiences. It’s the hope of one professor that her students will gain a lifelong appreciation not only art, but for museums as viable institutions within the community.

Students in Rachel Snow’s Special Topics in Art History class at the University of South Carolina Upstate are spending the semester at the Spartanburg Art Museum (SAM), where they are learning about non-profit arts administration and creating and facilitating programs of interest to the community.

“Being on site and talking to museum professionals helps students gain a life-long appreciation of art museums, not as static containers of historical relics, but as lively and ever-evolving institutions that serve the public,” Snow said.

The work is something that Snow said will help the museum to achieve its mission of community outreach and development through the arts. Students are working on three different tracks as they research and write about works housed in the museum’s collection, develop curriculum for the summer camp program and support the museum in promoting upcoming exhibitions.

Adam Rollins has spent hours researching an untitled abstract oil painting by Jean McWhorter that is part of the museum’s permanent collection. He’s been working to find out more about the artist and about the artwork, with the end result having his findings published on the SAM’s website.

“I thought this sounded like an interesting class and an opportunity to go somewhere and to learn something new and in a different way,” Rollins said. “It sort of reminded me of the opportunities I had in high school to attend vocational classes off-site and to learn skills outside of a traditional class.”

Snow said that working within the museum setting that students will begin to understand real-world problems and what it takes to keep the museum’s doors open and the community engaged.

“Being out in the community is an amazing experience and makes teaching and hopefully learning much more exciting and spontaneous and more connected to real life situations,” Snow said. “I love that we can learn outside of the four walls of the classroom.”

Students also will learn about leadership, goal-setting and develop communication skills that will go far beyond the classroom.

Rollins said that he has learned more about research and communication through this project than he ever imagined.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time working with Mat Duncan, the curator of Collections and community development coordinator,” Rollins said. “It’s helped me to learn how to approach researchers at other institutions and how to talk to curators at other museums.”

Rollins said it’s work that he feels good about and knows that it is important to the museum and to the community. It’s also work that requires time, money and people, a luxury that the museum just doesn’t have.

Elizabeth Goddard, executive director of SAM, said museum staff have worked to try and help students dive into their personal interests. In addition to research and writing, summer camp planning and art education programming, Goddard said Professor Snow and her students have not only invested their time, but themselves in the museum.

“From covering a shift on the front desk to helping an artist install her work, they have volunteered their time,” Goddard said. “On top of that, they have become members of the museum under our student rate.”

Goddard said that she has enjoyed presenting in classes and working with students. She said the relationship has been a win-win for the museum and one that she will now think about how to refine and develop better processes for in the future. She said she wants students to leave with a well-rounded experience and transferable skills.

For one USC Upstate student, it already rings true.

“I’m so glad to be a part of this project,” Rollins said. “When I think about service-learning classes, I’ll look back at this experience and I’ll remember how it changed me. It’s made me better at my research and it has made me more comfortable in asking questions.”