Service-learning, aka learning through service, is a way students enrolled in dietetics classes can apply what they are/have learned to real-life situations as they work to meet the needs of a community agency/organization. By linking academic learning to community service, service learning promotes civic engagement. In nutrition education, civic engagement in the community can thoroughly expose students to important public health issues like evidence-based practice, advocacy, cultural aptitude, insurance, community policies, and aspects that distinguish service-learning from other forms of volunteer experience. When used effectively, service-learning provides the experiential, reflective, and problem-based inquiries that have been shown to facilitate students’ sustained learning. Service-learning meets the public’s expectation for increased accountability from institutions of higher education to document that students are actively learning and being prepared for their chosen career in nutrition.
Service-learning is a mutually beneficial experience.
The effectiveness relies on the partnership of academic-based and community-based practitioners to guide students in processing information through continuous reflection and critical thinking. Guided reflections reinforce students’ intellectual sense-of-self and facilitate their understanding of the contribution they can make through their chosen profession to the immediate and global community.
Service-learning is an opportunity for students to gain dietetics-related experience.
The ways in which students in dietetics and the community-at-large can benefit from service-learning through increased understanding of nutrition programs, food systems, and group/client interactions is clear. Although the intent of service-learning for the student is to instill a value of civic engagement and enhance learning, an additional benefit of service-learning experience can assist them in developing dietetics-related skills that would result in strengthening their DI applications, and increasing their potential for becoming effective interns.
The demand for DIs has increased drastically since 2003. However, the supply of internships has not kept up with demand, so currently the rate of acceptance into Dis is approximately 50%. Many well-qualified students do not get matched to an internship because of the shortage of internships. In fact, ACEND now provides data on internship availability relative to positions available on the AND website so students in DPDs are informed of this situation.
The AND is addressing the internship shortage with a new route for obtaining supervised practice experience- the Individualized Supervised Practice Pathway (ISPPs). The ISPPs are offered by accredited DPDs (Didactic Program in Dietetics), DIs (Dietetic Internships), and Coordinated Programs that choose to offer ISPPs. Students who are not matched with an internship through the regular application process, those who hold a doctoral degree and overseas RDs are eligible to apply for ISPPs.
How service-learning can be incorporated into courses.
One way to provide students with dietetics-related experience in actual practice settings without burdening RDs is to provide students with service-learning opportunities in undergraduate courses. Many universities have offices and personnel with service-learning expertise dedicated to assisting faculty in implementing service-learning. Service-learning can be integrated into semester-long courses as a requirement or offered as an added component to a course for which participating students receive additional academic credit.
It is important to remember that the purpose of service-learning experience is to instill a sense of civic duty in students and making them aware of the inherent value of their contribution to the community. This way they can enrich their classroom-learning experience. Service-learning experiences are intended to be mutually beneficial rather than “mini-internships” that provide training to students. As students complete their service-learning experience with an understanding of the importance of service and the realization of how providing service enriches their lives, they also will be well-prepared for success in their DIs and professional careers.