September 2011

Studying science while serving others

Course puts biochemistry students in real-world situations,
teaching lessons they won't find in textbooks or the lab.


When students enroll in Jonathan Dattelbaum's biochemistry course at the University of Richmond, they expect to learn about the basics of the field. But Dattelbaum's course is about the unexpected, and that's on purpose. Community-based learning extends the learning experience for students outside the classroom through interactions with the public. Here, Dattelbaum, an associate professor of chemistry and co-director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Richmond, reflects on how sending students out into the world has proved to be a valuable teaching pedagogy.  


Biochemistry students, from left, Caroline O'Rourke, Tran Doan and Miles Johnson participated in the community-based learning module established by University of Richmond associate professor Jonathan Dattelbaum.


Community-based learning experiences take many forms, including bringing in speakers from the community, producing documentaries, teaching course materials in primary and secondary schools, or conducting field work. I chose service learning, because it provides an excellent umbrella for student exploration of the connections between textbook concepts and real-world applications, particularly for medical and biotechnological fields.

Many science faculty members believe that science is learned by doing. Refining what it means to be actively engaged in teaching science is important for our students as they move through the curriculum and into the workforce.

In the sciences, one of the most common formats for active teaching is the lab-based science class, in which students learn important hands-on skills and applications. More recently, many schools have invested in undergraduate research programs that enhance experiential collaborations between students and faculty. While learning laboratory skills is an important part of science education, many science majors will not become research laboratory scientists. I believe that finding ways to develop life skills, such as studying the application of science in society, learning more about community and working with different population sectors, requires creating learning opportunities outside of traditional laboratory-based courses.

Building the course

The process for developing a community-based learning experience began as part of a biochemistry laboratory section I was teaching as a first-year faculty member. The goal was to provide a complementary learning experience for students and not to replace specific laboratory material.

This teaching module was developed in consultation with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. I wanted to challenge the biochemistry lab students to take part in community-based service where biochemistry plays a role. The pilot project asked students to complete at least three hours of service in the Richmond community at one of four selected organizations: the American Lung Association of Virginia, the CrossOver Clinic, the March of Dimes' Central Virginia Division and the National Kidney Foundation of the Virginias.

While the students participated in a variety of activities depending on the needs of the organizations, the connecting force was the interaction students had with clients at each site, allowing for personal observations of diseases, conditions and situations.

Assessing impact

Student evaluations consistently showed that about two-thirds of students were serving in the community for the first time and that many students worked more hours than the course required. About two-thirds also said that they learned more in the course because of the community-based project.

By the numbers


Fall 2008: 24 students
Spring 2009: 21 students
Fall 2009: 15 students
Spring 2010: 26 students

86 students x 15 hours =
1,290 hours total

For their efforts, students received the equivalent of one problem set toward the laboratory grade in the course. To assess this activity, I designed a report sheet that asked each student to provide a short paragraph describing his or her experience and to reflect on how biochemistry was involved.

This lab module became a pilot project that ran for three semesters.

Evolution of the course

I later expanded the community-based learning experience into the lecture component to show students how the course material relates to society. The number of topics covered in lecture is greater, which allows the inclusion of more community organizations in the program. In the end, more than 40 students participated per year in the CBL project.

My students chose from selected sites in the Richmond community and worked for a minimum of 15 hours. While the selected sites were preferred because of the network of contacts I developed at them, students were allowed to work at different locations with prior approval. They also were required to keep well-written blog journals summarizing their activities within 24 hours of each visit.

Here's one excerpt from an entry:

"I have come to learn that some days are better than others in the nursing home, both for the patients and the staff. The patient I visit was congested and had to get a chest X-ray but turned out to be fine and returned to the nursing home the next day. Since, she has been much less talkative (compared to the minimal amount she did). It is hard assessing how someone is doing/feeling when you can't really communicate with them, and incredibly frustrating on both ends, whether patient or nurse."

And here's another:

"A student working at a local facility to transition drug addicts back into society observed the detoxification process and connected this with some of what we know about the biochemical processes in the brain that favor addiction and bring about pain during withdrawal."

"I am TB negative! My skin test had a bump that was 1mm off of unacceptable size for being in a hospital setting. They injected me with tuberculosis antigen, (and) the size of my inflammatory response is dictated by the amount of TB antibodies I have. A person who has been exposed to TB in the past (and thus has a large AB count) will have a larger inflammatory response, hence a larger bump. If I had failed the size test, they would then have taken an X-ray to check for nodules in my lungs."

Student reflections and evaluations

At the end of the term, each student wrote a literature-based paper with a reflective component focused on some biochemical aspect related to the mission of his or her work site and experiences working with individuals there.

The students also completed an evaluation form that provided some quantitative feedback. After the first year of this project, the most important critique I received was that the service hours felt like extra work that was not really a part of the course. I, therefore, turned my attention to integrating the experience throughout the entire semester. I did this by explaining on the first day of class why I thought this project has value for learning biochemistry.

Additionally, I used class time every other week to let students present information about their experiences and explain how those experiences related to biochemistry.

For example, a student who volunteered with a local rescue squad described the treatment of a 19-year-old girl experiencing a possible sleeping pill or heroin overdose. Narcan, a potent narcotic antagonist that works by blocking opiate receptors, was administered, and a violent reaction ensued, suggesting heroin overdose. The student presented this example in the context of a recent lecture on protein-ligand binding. Additionally, the age of the patient helped students see the significance of the concept of small-molecule binding and affinity, which is a difficult topic for some students.

A second student working at a local facility to transition drug addicts back into society observed the detoxification process and connected this with some of what we know about the biochemical processes in the brain that favor addiction and bring about pain during withdrawal. Additionally, she went even further to describe the socioeconomic diversity present in the facility, which was something this student had not expected to find.

University of Richmond student Heather Hollis's community-based learning site was the Fan Free Clinic in Richmond, Va.

The student presentations provided the most significant change in student attitudes toward the project. The number of students reporting that they were able to see how biochemistry subject material related to society rose from 67 percent in the first year to 92 percent in the second year. As a result of bringing the student presentations into the lecture, the learning was no longer isolated to individual students who went out into the Richmond community alone and wrote term papers that only I read. This became a powerful mechanism to share learning experiences in the classroom, where connections could be illustrated by students and not just by me.


There are a few barriers to making the most of community-based learning experiences.

One important factor to consider is that, as the course instructor, you must give up a certain level of control over the amount of learning that occurs at the sites. Some will be better than others, and that must be accepted and communicated to students in advance. Developing relationships with volunteer coordinators is invaluable for finding projects that align well with course objectives. However, such organizations have high turnover and require constant re-evaluation. This extra time is an important factor to consider at the onset.

There is also a risk that not all students will be interested in participating for any number of reasons, and issues are likely to arise, including problems with transportation, with nonresponsive organizations and with extra time for the assignment. Student frustration comes out in course evaluations. If one has unsupportive departmental or administrative colleagues, this may be a particular concern for untenured faculty.

A teacher's reflections 

Over the four semesters that I taught this community-based learning course, my students contributed more than 1,290 hours of service to the Richmond community. As research scientists, we can have a very positive impact on the training of a small number of laboratory students, but, as teachers providing opportunities like this one, there can be a multiplier effect in that our students take ownership of their learning to enhance the community in a meaningful way.

community_learning_jonathan_dattelbaumJonathan Dattelbaum ( is an associate professor of chemistry and co-director of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Interdisciplinary Program at the University of Richmond.

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