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Service Learning in the Project Management Course: Experiences and Lessons Learned

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Steven T. Breslawski

School of Business

College at Brockport, State University of New York

350 New Campus Drive


We describe our experience incorporating a service learning project into a business school project management course.  Using this pedagogical approach within the project management course provides a number of opportunities to help students develop many of the “soft skills” that stakeholders value in undergraduate business students.  These include communication skills, technology skills, teamwork skills, problem solving skills, and decision making skills.  It has also provided us with an opportunity to continue to develop the students’ sense of philanthropy and community support.  We describe our approach to, and our experiences with, two service learning projects and share some lessons learned.  Key Words: Project Management, Service Learning, Business Education, Pedagogy, Teaching.


Service learning refers to an experience-based learning approach “through which citizenship, academic subjects, skills, and values are taught.  It involves active learning – drawing lessons from the experience of performing service work” [10].  It is a cross-disciplinary, internationally applied pedagogy that has been employed throughout many academic disciplines, including tertiary education.  

In the post-Enron era, business schools have been challenged to extend the scope of the curriculum beyond basic principles and methods of business administration.  Greater emphasis is being placed on issues of ethics and social responsibility.  Employers have also asked business schools to provide more opportunities for students to develop “soft-skills” such as the ability to work effectively in cross-functional teams.  As discussed within, service learning can provide an outstanding platform with which to address these concerns.

This paper contributes to a growing body of literature in which authors describe their experiences and outcomes in myriad service learning contexts.  In particular, we describe our experience incorporating a service learning project into a business school project management course.  We begin with a brief review of the service-learning literature.  We then explain the context in which we utilize service learning in the business school project management course.  We continue by describing the implementation of the service learning project, including the roles of the instructor, the students, and other stakeholders.  Finally, we consider the effectiveness of the approach, the challenges encountered, and the lessons learned through the experience.


Proponents of service learning argue that benefits are reciprocal and accrue to the community partner, the student, the instructor, and the educational institution [1] [11]. Service learning facilitates the development of skilled, socially aware, life-long learners [32], consistent with the mission of many tertiary educational institutions. Service learning appeals to many learning styles and, as such, students are likely to be responsive to service-learning activities [16].  Students become more productive and thoughtful citizens and gain a broad understanding of social, political and economic concerns [2] [32].  Students can apply that which is learned in the classroom to real-world problems [13].  There is an opportunity to allow students to practice the concepts taught in class and to provide students with practical work skills [5] [9] [13] [23].

Others have demonstrated positive impacts on students’ general problem-solving capabilities [8] and sense of responsibility [4].  Participation results in students developing self-motivation to learn, enhanced concern for fellow humans, improved concept of self and usefulness, greater task competence, and a sense of responsibility to community [10]. Others [4] [12] argue that service learning contributes to heightened moral awareness, increased openness to new experiences, and promotion of democratic values and citizenship.  Service learners develop a greater sense of self-efficacy [19] [25].  Similar benefits are delineated by [12] [14] [23] [21] [20] [25].  

A number of the arguments in support of service learning have been made in the context of undergraduate business education [13] [17] [26] [27] [30] [32]. For example, service learning was perceived to be a value added experience by business student participants, sponsoring organizations, and recruiters that hire business majors [16], provide business majors with opportunities to become active learners [30], and provides business educators with an opportunity to foster the development of students’ ethical awareness [32].  

Opportunities for business majors to develop soft-skills have been described [10] [30] [32].  These include communication and interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, flexibility, team skills, and interpersonal skills including multicultural sensitivity. Problem solving skills are also developed, including the ability to solve novel, underspecified problems where data and task ambiguities exist. Other authors discuss the benefits of students being able to apply what they are learning in their courses (business and non-business courses alike) in actual organizational settings [3] [7] [9] [15] [18] [24] [27] [29]. For example, students may become more cognizant of the external and community environments in which organizations operate [31].

Implementations often require the involvement of universities in their neighboring communities. For example, students in a college humanities course might deliver meals to elderly or terminally ill people and then write essays on what life is like for people in different stages of life [28].  Service-learning projects sometimes require students to interact with people having special needs or different racial, ethnic, religious, socio-economic, or educational backgrounds than their own.  Interactions of this nature can be of great benefit but also represent a significant risk, e.., offending someone if adequate professional or cultural sensitivity training not provided.  

To summarize, the literature on service learning is overwhelmingly positive.  We have integrated a service learning component into our project management course with some success.  We describe our approach in the next section.


Students in the project management course learn project management theory, concepts, techniques, and software.  Our project management course is an elective in our Business Administration degree.  There are typically 28-33 students in the class.



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