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6 Tips for Adding Value to Service-Learning Projects

Fernando Parra, PhD, shares how Service-Learning projects help his accounting students connect course objectives to community welfare.

Fernando Parra, PhD, shares how Service-Learning projects help his accounting students connect course objectives to community welfare.

Fernando Parra, PhD


Assistant Professor of Accountancy and Director of the Institute for Family Business ,
California State University, Fresno

PhD in International Business (Accounting & Information Systems), MS in Information Technol-ogy, BS in Business Administration

What do accountants do all day? A common response from new accounting students might be, “Look at ledgers.” According to Fernando Parra, PhD, assistant professor at California State University, Fresno, that is also a common misconception—one that he seeks to dispel immediately in his Cost Accounting class.

“Everything in a business has a revenue and/or cost component—including decisions that involve ethical dilemmas and business-planning practices—and accountants are the ones in charge of overseeing those components,” Parra explains. “For example, if an accountant overstates a publicly traded company’s assets on its financial statement, they may be affecting millions of retirees who have invested in this company. I want my students to have a sense of their ethical responsibilities and the potential impact of their actions before they take their places as business leaders in the community.”

Parra feels that nothing is as powerful as spending time in a real-world business, as he once did in his parents’ operation, which produced restaurant desserts. As a result, Parra has added an interesting component to his cost-accounting coursework: Service-Learning projects. These allow business-minded students to put course material to use in local non-profit, community-based organizations.

“If a student has exposure to community-minded projects, they tend to have more empathy and compassion for the world we live in,” he says. “So, by offering Service-Learning projects, you’re not just creating business people, you’re creating human beings who will do well and do good for their community.”

Here, Parra shares his top tips for integrating a Service-Learning project into a college course.

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“Cost Accounting is a perfect course to introduce the concept of Service Learning because most community-based organizations will be faced with a cost-benefit analysis question, whether it’s about expanding their operation or incurring additional expenses to carry out their current mission. Our students can benefit a lot from these engagements, and so can our community partners!”
-Fernando Parra, PhD

Course: ACCT 132 Cost Accounting

Course description: This intermediate-level course educates students on industrial cost accounting, focusing on general product costing, standard costing, differential costing, master budgeting, variance analysis, decision-support tools, department joint-cost allocations, and quality control issues.

Parra’s tips for creating an effective Service-Learning project

He requires participating students to have at least 20 hours of contact with a community-based organization (CBO); up to five of those hours may be devoted to volunteer work that is not specifically related to the project. The students’ ultimate goal is to analyze a proposed operational or fundraising idea by applying their cost-accounting knowledge.

At Fresno State, a university-wide committee must approve the curriculum of Service-Learning courses that derive more than 15% of their course requirements from mandatory Service-Learning. Although the Service-Learning activities of Parra’s course fall below this threshold and remain optional, Parra says that roughly 80% of his students opt for this assignment. (The alternative assignment is reading Goldratt’s “The Goal” and providing hypothetical improvement recommendations to Unico, the book’s manufacturing company. These recommendations must be based on realistic cost-benefit analyses. Here’s one student video presentation:

Here, Parra breaks down his top tips.

1. Begin by providing instruction on Service Learning itself

Though the course is on cost accounting, Parra provides students with readings about Service Learning to ensure they understand the expectations of this type of project. (It is new to many of them.) Specifically, he recommends the work of Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray who have compiled an excellent annotated bibliography of the several benefits of Service Learning. Educators can have a focused discussion on some of these benefits by integrating summaries of the cited articles from this bibliography. (Service-Learning139.https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/slcehighered/139)

He also holds in-class group discussions to cover broader questions and meets with students one-on-one outside of class, as needed. For example, a student may visit during office hours to ask for help finding certain financial information on their business partner.

2.“Calendarize” the main milestones of the project

Parra suggests that educators “calendarize” the milestones of the project, detailing what needs to happen and when. Milestones include such actions as selecting a community-based organization, submitting a project proposal and subsequent reports, and completing the final presentation. There are many factors, so students need help staying organized, says Parra. “You need to schedule regular check-ins with students to review progress and project milestones,” he adds.

That said, Parra cautions that things will not always go to plan. “My advice is to go with the flow,” he says. “Ninety percent of the time, students and the CBOs will pave the way to successful projects.”

3. Make it easy for students to connect with local organizations

Parra’s university hosts a “fair day” in the first week of the semester where community-based organizations set up tables and introduce their missions (and potential projects) to students. Once student groups have selected the CBO they want to help, they will meet with its representatives to find out what the organization actually needs. This incredibly useful component can be developed jointly with your university if it has a campus center dedicated to civic engagement. Educators could also collaborate at the college or department level, and host a virtual event with organizations that have agreed to collaborate with students.

If these events are not organized collectively at certain schools, Parra recommends that educators guide their students to directly activate their own network or connect with CBOs that align with their interests. “While instructors will still need to do some vetting and risk management of the CBO, you may be pleasantly surprised at how resourceful students are and how extensive your reach can be with a collective approach,” he says.

4. Require a proposal that meets client needs and course objec-tives

Parra reviews the proposed solutions that the students are offering before students finalize them, so he can make sure they will be providing value to the CBO. The catch: Every project proposal must also relate to any of the core topics covered in class, including budgeting and expansion of services. (He provides students with these course objectives in the syllabus and project assignment.) Parra notes that the first draft is often missing some crucial data, so he offers feedback and requests a revision. Once Parra approves the proposal, the group can begin work with the CBO.

5. Have students capture their reflections in journals and on YouTube

Parra says that providing written self-reflections and brief progress reports are the most crucial part of the Service-Learning project, since they provide an opportunity for students to use critical thinking skills to review and analyze their learning, personal growth, and understanding of the community. To that end, he has each student keep an individual journal, which they submit at the project start, midpoint, and end (entries may be a paragraph and anecdotal). Project reports are longer and must detail the work being done while also explaining how it relates to the learning objectives. He further asks them to prepare a video presentation and publish it on YouTube. Here is an example of a presentation from one of the groups in 2019, titled The Discovery Center.

6. Ask for feedback from organizations to maintain positive relationships

Upon project completion, the student groups must provide feedback to each organization and suggest adjustments and improvements for the future. In turn, Parra asks for feedback from the CBOs to ensure that students provided value and to learn how to make the experience better next time. “As the professor, you want to develop relationships with the organizations your students chose,” Parra says. “That way, you can direct future students to the best organizations for their Service-Learning projects and keep the cycle going and improving.”

The majority of feedback coming from the CBOs has been very positive. “I have found that CBOs are willing to continue with the project and even expand their engagements with our students from other disciplines. They truly love making that connection with students, knowing that this experience is going to better prepare them for their future careers,” Parra adds. “Very often, students receive employment offers from the CBOs and that, to me, is the ultimate compliment you can pay any one of my students!”

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