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Community classrooms – students meet local needs while learning

17 August 2016

Students embark on an opportunity to work with Aboriginal communities on a range of critical projects.

An ambitious new program delivers on commitments to serve the Australian community, provide innovative learning and teaching, connect classrooms to real-world challenges and embed cultural competence across the University.

The University of Sydney is expanding its service learning program with a new initiative in the Northern Territory and New South Wales. Through the program, local community leaders inform the University of the issues that they would like support in managing. Students are then engaged on working on these issues with the communities.

An unprecedented initiative in Australian universities, the program responds to the University’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan and commitment to embed cultural competence as a graduate quality and learning outcome in every degree.

Service learning hubs have been negotiated with Aboriginal communities in three regions: Kakadu, far west New South Wales and the Tiwi Islands. An additional hub is under consideration in western Sydney for early 2017.

Photo of two University of Sydney students with senior Mirrar woman.

James Endean, foreground, (science postgraduate studying Masters of Sustainability) and Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i (student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences) with May Nango, a senior Mirarr woman showing the students sites where Mirrar have been grinding bones, food and grain for thousands of years. 

This week, a delegation from the University will travel to Kakadu as faculty staff and students begin working within the community. During the trip, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Pip Pattison will meet with the local community, visit cultural sites and observe the work being undertaken.

On Friday 19 August the delegation will travel to the Tiwi Islands and Dr Spence will sign a memorandum of understanding with the Tiwi Islands Regional Council for future projects there.

Dr Spence said the University’s service learning program will provide students with opportunities to work productively, collaboratively and openly in diverse groups and across cultural boundaries, while addressing real needs in the community.

“We are tremendously proud and excited to offer this unprecedented opportunity to our students, knowing the program will support the development of vital skills, and can also make a genuine difference to the communities we’re working with,” he said.

“We are delighted to be working with communities to tackle the issues they have identified as important to them,” he added.

What is service learning?

Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience.

A defining feature is the reciprocal and balanced emphasis on both students’ learning and addressing real needs in the community.

“Utmost care has been taken at every stage to work with the communities to identify suitable projects and their relative priority,” said Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Services and Strategy) Professor Shane Houston.

“This level of care will continue throughout the life of each project and beyond. We’re not interested in ‘educational tourism’. This program is about working with communities on real-world problems to develop joint solutions and to learn from each other in the process.”

Deputy-Vice Chancellor (Education), Professor Pip Pattison, explained how service learning would be incorporated into the University of Sydney’s curriculum.

“We’ve embraced cultural competence as one of six core graduate qualities we’re determined to develop in all our graduates,” Professor Pattison said.

“Service learning opportunities are an essential part of achieving this aim. Offered as a unit of study, the projects will contribute to existing degree programs as well as our new four-year combined degree programs with the Bachelor of Advanced Studies from 2018. These new learning opportunities will help us to nurture the leaders of the future.”  

Follow the students’ experience

Rachel Fergus

Media and PR Adviser
We’re not interested in ‘educational tourism’. This program is about working with communities on real-world problems, to develop joint solutions and to learn from each other in the process.
Professor Shane Houston, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Services and Strategy)