From the Inside: Thoughts on Place-Based Education at Community Colleges


I am a community college educator who has been working on weaving place-based education into my classes for the past 13 years. I say “working on” because I haven’t always been successful, and I haven’t always lived up to service-learning’s best practices. I have engaged students, engaged myself, and broken out of my computer discipline’s silo by interacting with all kinds of departments across my college. But I’ve also dealt with faculty disinterest, budgeting constraints, and management’s lack of interest. Of course it would be easier to teach by the book and not venture out, but what fun would that be?

Despite or because of it all, I have a great passion for place-based education and believe it can make a huge difference at community colleges — as we work with a unique population of students; faculty that are free to teach without the pressure for getting tenure, conducting research, and getting published; schools that have a large portion of career technical classes, etc.

My path to this passion started when I was hired as a full-time instructor after working five years as a part-time adjunct. I was issued this challenge by my soon-to-be Dean of Instruction: During my three-year probationary period, I would have to make a difference in my classes, discipline, campus, and the community. Talk about pressure! I suddenly saw NOT making it through probation as a distinct possibility. How on earth was I going to do all that — in three years — let alone at all?

I started by working on making my specific courses the best they could be. Honestly, that’s all I knew how to do at that point. I had no clue how to make a difference in the other three areas. Well-meaning staff suggested committees I could serve on to check off the need to make a difference on my campus. But none of them interested me. Financial aid, campus life, the faculty senate just weren’t my passion. I didn’t want to spend my time on a committee where I was just filling a chair.

I started thinking back to the one time in my part-time teaching career when my students had been really engaged. It happened in an Intro to Computers class that I taught several times. The curriculum for this class included a unit on eCycling (recycling antiquated computer hardware). Each time I taught this class, I invited Free Geek, a local eCycling non-profit, to speak to my class. And each time, my students rallied around the idea of responsibly recycling the computer hardware that was sitting in their garages, and those of friends and families. Each term, students arranged for carloads of their collections to be taken to Free Geek after the next class meeting. I never proposed or coordinated this collection; it always happened organically among my students.

Responsibly eCycling is a solution to social justice and environmental issues. If single classes of students rallied each term to address these issues, how much more could a campus full of students do? I read an article in a local newspaper about a new start-up eCycling company in the area, and I called the owner. Six months later we were leading a team of students who were coordinating all aspects of a Saturday campus collection event open to the community. Over the next nine years, hundreds of students have used a variety of their class skills to help with our efforts and now eCycling is an expected, permanent service the college offers to its staff, students, and the neighboring community. Along the way, I HAD made a difference in my discipline, campus, and community — and found my passion for integrating community service into curriculum.

My successful eCycling service-learning projects didn’t happen in a perfect world or a perfect school — but they did lead me to work mentoring other faculty as they try to integrate service into their classes. I come across new ideas, barriers, and solutions as I work in a community college setting. I hope to share these experiences and have on-going conversations with you — with the hopes of us all growing in our understanding, implementation, and passion for engaged, community-based learning. I hope you’ll join me along the way.

Diane Shingledecker is the District Service-Learning Faculty Coordinator specializing in Career Technical Education, as well as, a Computer Applications Instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. She is an enthusiastic alumni of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer WEST Institute on Service-Learning. She has been incorporating service-learning into her classes for the past 13 years and helping other faculty do this for the past 3 years. She will join Portland State University’s Graduate Certificate Program in Service-Learning this September.

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Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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