Service Learning:
Designing across the Life Span

 Kimber L. Abair, Central Michigan University
B. Jeanneane Wood, CMU faculty

Jamie Schramski, CMU 2001 Graduate


This service learning project helped students in the Human Environmental Studies program at Central Michigan University to learn across the curriculum. as a result of this real life project, students helped prepare themselves for the working world and future community service projects.


            As we move into the 21st century, new ways of learning continue to emerge in colleges across the country. Once such educational method is service learning, which has seen substantial growth within college communities during the last decade (Gray, 2000; Paulins, 1999). service learning is becoming a critical component of many students' undergraduate college experiences.
            Service learning is defined as: 
. . . a course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. (Bringle & Hatcher, 2000)
According to Payne and Bennett, 1999, service learning is “one example of how the functions of teaching, research, and service can be combined to invigorate undergraduate education.” Service learning as a part of the curriculum provides enhancement not only for students, but also for professors and universities as a whole.
            Recent studies in the field of service learning have shown that the experiences gained from service learning are redefining the purpose of undergraduate education. National efforts like Learn and Serve America and AmeriCorps have worked to encourage college students to become involved in their community. In many cases, this has been achieved with the help of institutions who integrate service learning into the curriculum. One study investigated the involvement of students after participating in a service-learning project. They found that 90% of the students in this study had plans to become involved with service learning at a later date (Payne et al. 1999).
            Other strengths of service learning include the interdisciplinary and collaborative learning that occurs, thus allowing students to learn across the curriculum. Individual outcomes as a result of service learning frequently include boosted critical-thinking skills and improved abilities to integrate theory and practice. Also, students may be able to clarify their career goals and work on developing the skills they need to succeed in the workplace (CMU, 2000; Ehrlich, 1999; Gray, 1999).
            Although numerous benefits exist, service learning experiences are often set up differently depending on the university, the project, desired outcomes, and the people involved (Melchior, 2000). Some people may see service learning and volunteerism as the same thing. However, “One of the characteristics of service-learning that distinguishes it from volunteerism is its balance between the act of community service by participants and reflection on that act, in order for both to provide better service and to enhance the participants’ own learning” (Gray, 1999). Students who apply their knowledge in a service situation often provide a meaningful contribution to the community. 

            This type of active learning is highly effective in teaching real life skills to students. To this end, CMU students enrolled in an interior design course collaborated with faculty/students from the Human Environmental Studies department to develop an intergenerational center for campus. The project provided students with a first-hand opportunity to integrate service learning as a solution-based strategy in the learning process within their curriculum. This experience also provided the opportunity to integrate cross specialization across disciplines.


            The participants in this project were enrolled in the Interior Design Class, HEV 339: Studio III-Special User Groups, a required course on the Interior Design major. Nine students participated in this project. Six were juniors and three were seniors. After it was decided to develop plans for a campus-based intergenerational day center, they enlisted the help of clients Dr. Eileen MaloneBeach (Gerontology faculty), Kimber Abair (Gerontology student), Helen Hagens and Cheryl Priest (Child Development faculty) to help develop the project data. Together they provided the parameters for what would be needed for the children, older adults, and caregivers in this project.

Project Description

            The intergenerational center incorporated new approaches set forth for a day care center involving young children, and dependent seniors. In this center, seniors are not responsible for the children, as caregivers. Instead, they are present as clients themselves and may participate in separate and controlled shared activities with the children. This facility provides social interaction between individuals, as well as educational opportunities and enhancements in each individual’s motor skills. Each individual has a chance to make new friends and foster new relationships while emphasizing how both seniors and children grow together.
            This facility was designed adjacent to the current child laboratory in order to facilitate easy access between the new and existing space by HEV faculty for research/service learning and to facilitate increased student interactions and observations. This space itself will provide support through interactive programs that benefit individuals, area families, students, faculty and the community-at-large and will provide a unique opportunity for all to look at family units from diverse perspectives. This center will provide interdisciplinary opportunities to work with individuals across the lifespan and to build bridges that connect the generations.
            The design of this facility incorporates space for approximately 295 people, which includes 208 equivalent full-time children, 22 seniors, and 66 staff members. In addition, the unique combination of providing care services to the community, in conjunction with the facilities’ location within the university community, requires an increased need for observation spaces and conferencing spaces. A two-story facility was planned, with participant care services being provided on the first floor and most administrative offices being provided on the second floor.      
Design Objectives
            There were many design objectives incorporated in the design of this facility which include:
  •    Utilizing soft neutral colors with bold patterns to provide a contrasting, yet stimulating environment.
  •    Developing an atmosphere where adults and children are comfortable and feel safe within any given space of the center.
  •    Incorporating many areas designed for interaction among seniors and children.
  •    Creating a large atrium for movement within the indoors and outdoors which allows for fitness and a sense of relaxation and comfort within an unfamiliar space.
  •    Promoting the Eden Alternative of providing plants and animals within the facility to promote better health for all clients at the center.
  •    Orienting storage space into the walls with fixtures set at a lower eye level so people who are wheelchair bound and children can have access.
  •    Organizing furniture layouts that promote interaction, as well as conversations between seniors, children and staff.
  •    Creating a residential quality throughout the building through the use of windows and wood for a more natural ambiance and to promote the concept of “caring for individuals in their home away from home.”
  •    Providing wall space for showcasing artwork, plants and personal messages to help each individual feel ownership of a piece of space.
  •    Designing a professional, yet comfortable staff area that will accommodate both professional conferencing needs, while at the same time providing staff with a space in which to getaway to nurture their own souls.
  •    Scaling spaces and furniture to fit the needs of children and adults, so that all people are comfortable within the space.
  •    Designing a centrally located second - floor for office use only so staff can work freely, without distractions.


            Several benefits of this project may be promoted. For example, Interior design students were able to present a new model for service learning while tying the needs of their curriculum to the needs of the community. Another important goal of this project was to empower students and faculty from the university community. This was accomplished by providing opportunities for cross-curriculum learning, specifically between the Interior Design, Gerontology and Child Development programs. The importance of allowing Interior Design students to learn about the needs of these diverse populations cannot be underestimated.

Empowering Community

            In addition to the hands-on experience that students gained from this project, the ultimate goal is always to also empower the community. In this case that community consists of the individuals within Wightman Hall, our Human Environmental Studies building on campus. Meaningful contributions were made in the following ways:
  •    By providing opportunities for cross-curriculum learning, specifically between the Interior Design, Gerontology and Child Development areas.
  •       By sharing the final results with faculty and staff in the Gerontology Program, as well as those students within the Interior Design Program.
  •       By allowing opportunities for Gerontology students and Interior Design students to learn from each other
One student summarized her experience by saying, “I feel the client benefited by learning more about their own design needs, and the solutions that were available to them.” This can help them in the future.

Empowering Students

            This service learning opportunity:
  •     provided interior design students with the opportunity to present a new model for service learning through development of an adjacent building which will house 295 people. This project also ties in the needs of curriculum and community services.
  •     increased student knowledge with relation to special user groups, seniors and at-risk children, low-income children, parents and seniors, and aged individuals with Alzheimer’s, all of whom might not be able to afford or seek such services individually.
  •     provided students the opportunity to design a working environment that involves critical thinking and collaboration to design a center that allows the integration of service learning with students’ academic learning.
  •     provided CMU students the opportunity to display their design skills, and knowledge of design across the age continuum.
When asked to reflect on this project, one student replied, 
It exposed me to what working with real clients in an actual project would be like. I also think that it exposed us to more ‘real’ information. I think that we really learned more from the Gerontology professors and used their expertise and Gerontology information to better understand the needs of elderly people. We could not have gotten the kind of beneficial feedback from a book or a hypothetical project. Because of their information, we could better design a space that was oriented toward the end users: the children and elderly.
Another student stated this opportunity made him feel better prepared on the job, 
When I go to meetings or talk on the phone with clients, I feel more comfortable doing it. I know what to ask and I’m now used to people changing their minds all the time.
Another positive outcome of this experience was that all students felt that they would participate in future community service activities/projects.


Bringle, R. G. & Hatcher, J. A. (2000).   Institutionalization of service learning in higher education.  The Journal of Higher Education, 71 (3), 273-290.
Central Michigan University. (2000). Service Learning Pamphlet.
Gray, M. J., Onjaatje, E. H., & Ricker, R. D.   (2000).   Assessing service-learning:   Results from a survey of "Learn and serve America, higher education."  Change, 32 (2), 30-39.   

Melchior, A. (2000).   Service learning at your service. The Education Digest, 26 (2), 26-32.

Payne, C. A., & Bennett, E. B. (1999).  Service-learning and changes in involvement preferences among undergraduates.  NASPA Journal, 37 (1), 337-348. 


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