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Service-Learning Courses at Lingnan University: Innovation in Teaching and Community Engagement

By Julia Berrebi


How can students change their community and the world beyond that? Lingnan University’s Office of Service-Learning (OSL) offers several courses that use innovative teaching methods and student-led community engagement projects to train students to become interdisciplinary and creative problem-solvers. This gives them the opportunity to make a sustainable impact on communities in Hong Kong, and beyond.


Joint Humanitarian Entrepreneurship Summer Academy


The 2019 Summer Academy consisted of 40 students and began with two weeks of training on a range of technological, interpersonal, and research skills on gauging community needs and designing solutions collaboratively with community members to address prevalent problems, such as poverty alleviation and lack of development aid.


During the next two weeks of the Academy, students ventured to Kazakhstan, Uganda, Cambodia, and Nepal to engage with community members and create partnerships with non-governmental organizations and community liaisons. They visited schools, farms, and workers’ collectives to talk to different stakeholders to identify problems and design potential solutions.


Uganda and Nepal


After the third week of the Academy and the first week of research in the field, the students began to create preliminary ideas for their projects. In Uganda, they had learned that community members have to walk for hours to get fresh water. In response, they designed a system using a plastic tarp to collect water during the rainy season for later use. In Nepal, students focused on indoor farming. At times, there were deviations from the plan or expected course of action as the work progressed through trial and error. Nonetheless, keeping their sights on the potential benefits for the community, students threw themselves into these projects.


The various turns and departures within these journeys and the deeply-connected community approach illustrates the prime difference between simple volunteering and the work of the Summer Academy. While volunteering often involves a one-off engagement with a community partner, the Summer Academy’s approach ensures that the work being done addresses long-term community needs. This approach demands more flexibility but encourages more responsible and humane engagement.


CLA9021: Ensuring the long-term sustainability of global impact projects

Ocean worksho

The purpose of CLA9021: Innovation and Entrepreneurship for Global Grand Challenges is to get the Summer Academy ideas ready for successful application in the next field visits during Winter 2020 and Summer 2020, when a new batch of students with fresh perspectives will go to the same project sites as before. The course model relies on group work and team-teaching by professors from a variety of disciplines.


While groups of students continued to discuss and refine projects initiated during the summer, lectures kept them informed on sustainable development and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For instance, on the topic of renewable energy, Dr. Jasper Van Holsteijn explains: “A guest speaker came and worked with the students to set up a very simple solar panel system so they can work with it and see how it works. The goal is to help people realize that we often don’t need very sophisticated technology:... the technology we have now can already be implemented.”


CLA9021 approach to Service-Learning is about being open to changing ideas and sensitive to community needs and transformations, making the course more of a project-driven learning process instead of a test-or-grade-driven experience.


SLP1101: Identifying and Addressing Community Needs in Hong Kong

Student attending a workshop

Alongside the creativity and experimentation of this semester’s CLA9021 was another outstanding OSL course aimed at real community impact, namely, SLP 1101: Community Engagement through Service-Learning, taught by Dr. Zoe Xiao. Dr. Xiao redesigned the course for the fall semester of 2019, committing to an organic farm as the community partner for the Service-Learning project. The course uses practical methods and techniques to accurately assess community needs.


The educational goal behind the class is to nurture students to become interdisciplinary problem-solvers. According to Dr. Xiao, “Identification of social issues, such as poverty reduction, is a very important component of the course because that is the first step of problem-solving. You have to know what the problem is in order to know how to solve it.”


In line with this approach, students identified problems at the organic farm such as technical issues and insufficient government support for accessing critical resources and then spent the semester developing solutions. By assessing community strengths, limits, and identifying what support was needed, students actualized many of the same practices found in CLA902. Prototyped solutions included automated greenhouse systems, online marketing to increase local vegetable sales, and applications for agricultural funding. Dr. Xiao also encouraged her students to test and scale up their projects beyond the boundaries of the classroom - three students went on to compete at the 2020 Hong Kong Techathon for technology-driven business solutions, successfully showcasing revised versions of their prototypes.


Within the classroom, Dr. Xiao brought her social science background to the floor. All students had to conduct literature reviews on the specific framework and phenomenon they were interested in. They also collected qualitative data through their observations and interviews during the field visits.


However, at the end of the day, SLP 1101 is not really about conducting research, but rather about knowing how to constructively engage with different communities. That students should feel comfortable utilizing these methods in daily life is what is most important.


Looking Ahead

OSL continues to strive for innovative and team-oriented approaches to Service-Learning, from its fieldwork to its in-classroom lectures in the classroom. Students and mentors joining the Winter Academy 2020 will undoubtedly return from the field with many more lessons to share and stories to tell.