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Service-Learning Delivers a New Perspective to Students

United States

Service-Learning Delivers a New Perspective to Students

Operation Smile's Interactive Learning Center has partnered with local schools to bring service-learning into the curriculum.

The state of the world’s education system is changing rapidly as technology advances and alters the way we live our lives. These conditions call for students to fill different roles in our society, which may mean that students are exposed to STEM careers at an earlier age and may consider following the path of science far earlier than generations before. However, in recent years, the advent of artificial intelligence and the overwhelming dependence on technology has highlighted the need to reconnect humanity. Operation Smile’s Anthony L. and Hideko S. Burgess Interactive Learning Center (ILC) merges these dueling interests. Located at Operation Smile’s headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the Interactive Learning Center presents students with an immersive walk-through experience that serves as a “window to the world” of the lives of Operation Smile patients who are affected by cleft conditions as they seek safe surgery and comprehensive care provided by generous volunteer health care providers.

The Interactive Learning Center opened in the summer of 2021 and has caught the attention of community organizations, other local nonprofits and, of course, elementary, middle and high schools that often visit the ILC on field trips. Since its opening, the ILC has hosted community events and summer camps and has even developed substantial community partnerships. One of these partnerships was initiated by work-based learning specialist Aaron Arnold, who went on a tour of the ILC with the intention of integrating service-learning and work-based learning into the curriculum at Virginia Beach City Public Schools. After the tour, Aaron was inspired to bring the knowledge and compassion he gained at the Interactive Learning Center to the classrooms of local high schools. To facilitate this partnership, Aaron met with Melany Bishop, program manager at the Interactive Learning Center, and the pair developed a template for a service-learning curriculum and decided to implement the pilot program at Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach.

“Service learning really actualizes a lot of what students are learning not just in one specific context but across all of the subjects they may be studying in high school,” said Aaron. In a modern world, real-life simulations are requisite to an efficacious education system, and, by incorporating service-learning and hands-on experiences in the classroom, Aaron and the organizers at the ILC hope to help fill this role and expand the educational offerings at local high schools.

“I went to the school, and I did a presentation, I did our empathy workshop, shared our patients’ journey with the students and then presented them with a set of problem statements and ways that they could help Operation Smile,” said Melany. “I gave them a balance of local and global problems that they could realistically tackle within the constraints of the classroom.”

Melany worked with a 10th grade English class at Tallwood to workshop the service-learning side of the ILC curriculum and brainstorm answers to proposed problem statements. Tallwood’s assistant principal, Shaheen Sorani, insisted upon escalating this program and wanted to bring students on a field trip to the Interactive Learning Center. For this portion of the curriculum, students of Tallwood’s Biology 200 class traveled to Operation Smile global headquarters in Virginia Beach over the span of three days to walk through the immersive experience, learn about Operation Smile’s International Family Study (a global research project on the origins of cleft conditions) and work on a few service projects, including writing letters to future Operation Smile patients and packing Smile Bags, which are care packages given to patients at Operation Smile surgical programs and centers all around the world.

The goal of involving students in service projects and touring the Interactive Learning Center is to teach empathy and compassion in the classroom. “They become passionate; they become invested; they become empathetic of a cause based on their unique circumstances in their lives, and we really bring that to life with service-learning,” said Shaheen, after witnessing students tour the ILC and participate in service projects. “Service learning is for every student. It is something that should be accessible. It should be something that we embed in standard curriculum because not everybody has the means or the resources or the time outside the school to accomplish a lot of these goals and help move these causes forward.”

When reflecting on the lessons they learned during the ILC curriculum, students were overwhelmed with the global impact Operation Smile makes in communities that lack access to proper health care. “It makes me see how people struggle. There’s a lot of stuff that I learned today, like how lucky we are to have what we have,” said Derek, a student at Tallwood High School. “It felt like you were learning because you wanted to and not because you had to.”

Melany’s visit to the school and the whole service-learning curriculum inspired students at Tallwood to get more involved with Operation Smile by joining the school’s Operation Smile club, attending community and fundraising events, and even using their social media accounts to encourage their friends and followers to volunteer and donate. With the closing of a successful pilot program, Melany and the organizers at the Interactive Learning Center hope to expand this curriculum to other school districts and to continue service learning and collaboration with Virginia Beach City Public Schools next year.

For all of those who were involved with implementing the ILC service-learning curriculum at Tallwood High School, the students’ warm reception to the idea of giving back and helping others was a heartwarming experience. There is hope that with the integration of service learning in school curricula Operation Smile and Virginia Beach City Public Schools can play a part in ushering in a generation of empathetic and mindful human beings.

“Obviously, Operation Smile is one of our landmark organizations here in Virginia Beach and in the region, so students have an unparalleled opportunity to see this global perspective, this wide-ranging footprint of programming, and that gives them access to meaningful experiences and personal development,” said Aaron. “At the same time, given that we are a large school division, we can lend some of that student enthusiasm, some of their skill to support for this organization, and at that scale, there’s really a huge potential for impact.”

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