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As part of VTPP 452 Fetal and Embryo Physiology, I offer students who wish to participate the opportunity to enroll in a service-learning project. Although largely associated with liberal arts, service-learning is a high-impact practice beneficial to students in all disciplines.  Service-learning is an experiential based learning tool in which students engage in activities addressing community needs, while simultaneously providing structured opportunities for student learning and development.  In my program, students from my course are paired with students from the Special Education department, and sent to the local autism clinic to volunteer their time in completing four mini-projects.  Here, the students work in interdisciplinary teams to complete projects that are of both educational value to the students while at the same time support the overall mission of the autism clinic.

Students in Biomedical Sciences program (BIMS) receive training on the medical and physiological aspects of developmental disorders, but seldom are provided with the opportunity to engage in experiences relating to the clinical relevance of the course material. This is especially true when considering central nervous dysfunction.  For the past three years, students in my course VTPP 452- Fetal and Embryo Physiology, have engaged in service learning to deepen their understanding of neurological dysfunction, especially as it relates to the clinical and sociological dimensions childhood disabilities. In a cross-disciplinary collaboration with students in Educational Psychology, my students explore current methods for diagnosing, teaching, and supporting individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism.  As part of the service learning experience, students are grouped into teams consisting of an equal paring of Biomedical and Educational Psychology students, volunteer their time at a local autism clinic and complete five mini-projects designed to foster collaboration between students in these two majors. Student time at the clinic is contributory and serves to further the mission of the autism clinic. As the students progress through the five distinct assignment modules, they gain a deeper appreciation the sociological aspects of developmental disorders, as well as the developmental basis for the disabilities these children exhibit.

The 2014 Service-Learning Group

2014 Service-Learning Group

This service learning opportunity has encouraged students to address personal bias and misconceptions associated with autism and develop novel perspectives and critical thinking skills that otherwise may not have developed in a more traditional approach to a course in the Biomedical Sciences program.  This is especially true of their ability to work and communicate with people from other disciplines.  One of the more common comments I hear students make is “I never realized how much jargon we use…”.  A second benefit is that service learning prompts students to give considerable thought and time to real-world aspects of our particular area of study and appreciate numerous confounding variables that make many issues in life “grey”.  This deeper understanding enhances the student’s ability to apply biomedical science to the practice of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.