September 2011

Studying science while serving others

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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Nice piece- Univ of Richmond is a great university



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