Connecting theory & practice

By incorporating appropriate service experiences into our coursework, we seek to better understand how we can serve God in our chosen professions. ABSL courses are offered in a variety of disciplines from computer science to English to economics.

  • Purpose

    Why incorporate ABSL into classes?

    We see ABSL as a strategy that will enrich faculty teaching and enhance a student’s learning. It is not a replacement for traditional modes of classroom teaching, and it is not, of course, appropriate for every course and every professor. Nonetheless, ABSL is one more strategy to make a course more effective. Service-learning provides concrete experiences related to the themes and aims of a course along with opportunities for reflection and discussion. Students' thinking, as well as their lives, can be transformed. And all of this is intricately woven into the understanding of the Christian life that informs the mission of Calvin.

    Academically-based service-learning takes into consideration a variety of learning styles. It appeals especially to students who are more experientially oriented, but those students with an analytical bent also benefit from opportunities to test theories via active experimentation and reflection. Thus ABSL is another vehicle for attending to diverse gifts and approaches to learning. Furthermore, ABSL gets beyond the walls of the classroom and outside the comfort zone of our campus and our community.

  • History

    History of ABSL at Calvin

    In 1991 Calvin University joined Campus Compact, a national coalition of colleges and universities which also has a strong state organization: Michigan Campus Compact. The purpose of Campus Compact is to increase student involvement in community service, to increase public, federal, and foundation support for student involvement, and to promote the value of civic responsibility by people and institutions. Calvin University joined the Campus Compact with the particular interest of exploring with other colleges and universities how to integrate service into traditional academic curricula. It seemed to some faculty members and to the academic administration that building a more direct link between theory and practice through service had potential as a pedagogical tool. A statement by President Byker regarding the University’s participation with Michigan Campus Compact highlights this history.

    In January, 1992, an ad hoc committee, appointed by the university President upon the advice of the Provost, began studying the theory and practice of linking service and academic study. The committee looked carefully at several documents which expressed the aim and goals of the university and its curriculum, including Christian Liberal Arts Education (CLAE), Professional Education in a Christian Liberal Arts College (PECLAC), the 1989 “Final Report of the Core Curriculum Study Committee” and the “Expanded Statement of the Mission of Calvin University.”

    In July, 1992, a team from Calvin University, at the invitation of the Campus Compact, spent a week with 14 other college and university teams studying the current thinking and practice of integrating service with academic study. The team was comprised of three of the committee members, George Monsma, Henry Hoeks, and Rhonda Berg, along with Frank Roberts and Ken Bratt. The goal of the team was to learn from institutions such as Cornell, Stanford, and Brown Universities and Consortium of Christian College and Universities (CCCU) schools such as Messiah College and Azusa Pacific University how to make more and better use of service activities in achieving our educational goals. In the course of this intensive week, with many opportunities to look at the issues from a variety of perspectives. The team drafted a report. That report serves as a wonderful record of the way academically-based service-learning made its way into the consciousness of Calvin University.

    Since 1993, when the Faculty Senate adopted the recommendations of this committee and endorsed Academically-Based Service as a promising pedagogy, the Service-Learning Center has assisted dozens of faculty members as they have woven service-learning into their existing courses. Nearly every department on campus has had some involvement with service-learning. A collection of essays written by Calvin faculty and alumni was published in 2002 under the title, “Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Education.” For this and other publications, please see our publications page.

    In 2014, the Service-Learning Center marked fifty years of God’s faithfulness to Calvin University and the community. We began the festivities with stories shared online, we fulfilled it with stories shared in person at a June anniversary event. May these stories inspire another fifty years of service-learning. Check out the 50th Anniversary page to learn more about this celebration.

    In 2015, in effort to actively pursue Calvin’s mission to equip students to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world, the Office of Community Engagement, the Off-campus programs office, and the Service-Learning Center became one entity in order to strengthen the work of this mission in a local and global context. This change included the movement of the service-learning center from the Student Life division to the academic division, however, the hope is that this transition encouraged partnerships and collaborations across different areas of the university and the community in which it resides.

    Key dates

    • 1964

      KIDS (kindling intellectual desire in students) program founded

    • 1980

      KIDS becomes SVS (student volunteer services)

    • 1985

      Campus Compact begins at Georgetown, Cornell, and Brown Universities

    • 1991

      Calvin University joins Campus Compact

    • 1992

      Faculty/staff team attends Campus Compact workshop and proposes “Academically-Based Service” to the Faculty Senate

    • 1993

      SVS becomes the Service-Learning Center

    • 1998

      Calvin Environmental Assessment Program begins; Calvin University hosts national conference on service-learning at Christian colleges.

    • 2001–2004

      Calvin University awarded $400,000 Community Outreach Partnerships Center grant for multi-disciplinary service-learning in Burton Heights neighborhood

    • 2002

      Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Education is published, edited by Calvin faculty members Claudia DeVries Beversluis and Gail Gunst Heffner

    • 2004

      Calvin Nursing Department establishes community-based curriculum, embedding community-based participatory research programs in collaboration with community health workers in three of Grand Rapids’ urban neighborhoods

    • 2006–2007

      Calvin University participates in a $100,000 Teagle grant exploring the topic of “Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity.”

    • 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011

      Calvin University Service-Learning Center named to list of top Service-Learning programs in US News annual report

    • 2011

      International service-learning efforts piloted in Ghana and Hungary off-campus study programs

    • 2014

      The Service-Learning Center celebrates its 50 year anniversary.

    • 2015

      The Service-Learning Center moves to the academic division and unites with the office of community engagement and the off-campus programs office.

  • Implementation

    How can faculty implement ABSL?

    After you have thought about the major goals of your course and considered some of the ways service-learning might enhance your course, contact us.

    Here is how the S-LC can assist in the implementation
    • Matching your course needs with the appropriate community service agencies
    • Helping orient your students to the work
    • Keeping records and evaluating the results
    • Making available books, professional journals and sample syllabi
    • Providing literature on how to handle student assessment and structured reflection

    You will need to be very clear about the role of the service-learning project when your course meets on the first day of the semester. As the course progresses you will want to be especially insistent on integrating the classroom content with the service project. This necessary student reflection will only occur via your own modeling of service-learning.

    Option A: Required service-learning (recommended)
    • ABSL experiences are directly linked to the curriculum. Students are expected to do certain things in the service-learning experience to fulfill course requirements.
    • The agency partner representative is normally invited into dialogue with faculty member in planning the service-learning activity, facilitating conversation in class, as well as assessment.
    Option B: Optional service-learning
    • ABSL is an option offered to fulfill a syllabus component.
    • Student assessment is completed using a variety of strategies including in-class discussions, presentations, extended research, or journal/essay writing.
  • Calvin Environmental Assessment Program

    Calvin Environmental Assessment Program

    The Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP) was developed to incorporate academically based service-learning into the natural sciences. Since 1996 Calvin faculty and students have been accumulating a longitudinal body of data monitoring the environmental health of various aspects of Calvin's campus and the surrounding watershed.

    Each semester, the Service-Learning Center helps to coordinate the CEAP Poster Session: an opportunity for courses who have participated in CEAP to present their findings.

    To learn more visit Calvin's CEAP webpage

  • International

    International service-learning

    Beginning in 2011, we now record students' service-learning hours completed while on Calvin semesters abroad. To date we have established formal partnerships in Ghana and Hungary. We hope that these two experiential pedagogies, study abroad and service-learning, can complement each other, “around the corner and across the globe.” In 2011 there were 38 students placed in either Ghana or Hungary that completed 4,605 hours of service-learning, averaging 121 hours per person.

    Learn more about International Service-Learning

  • Contact

    ABSL student coordinator contacts

    To contact a student coordinator, email with "ATTN: [student's name]" in the subject line.

    • ABSL, Generalist: Sarah Jackson
    • ABSL, Education: Elisabeth Stevens