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The Chronicle of Higher Ed: Health Professor, Honored for Civic Work, Developed a Metric for Service Learning
Author: Ryan Brown, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Posted: August 31, 2011

When Sherril B. Gelmon was designing her first course at the University of Toronto medical school in the mid-1980s, she had never heard of service learning. But the most effective way for her health-management students to understand public health, she knew, was to learn from the community around them. So for her new course, on evaluating health programs, she sent her students into the city to measure the effectiveness of local health projects.

That was only the beginning of a career that has straddled scholarship and service. The breadth of Ms. Gelmon's work impressed the judges for the 2011 Thomas Ehrlich Civically Engaged Faculty Award, who chose her. The award, sponsored by Campus Compact, which promotes community service in higher education, recognizes one senior faculty member each year.

Ms. Gelmon, now a professor of public health at Portland State University, has long taught courses that stitch community service into classroom work. In her research, she has developed a widely used methodology for measuring the effectiveness of service-learning programs at colleges across the country, and she has mentored dozens of junior faculty and doctoral students who want to make community engagement a part of their own scholarship.

"All of my career, my work has been characterized by doing things that are meaningful to me but also provide a service to others," Ms. Gelmon says.

Her focus on service comes partly from her unusual path into the professoriate. Before earning her doctorate in health policy at the University of Michigan, Ms. Gelmon worked as a physical therapist in Canada. She found it rewarding, she says, because it was hands-on in the most literal way, and had an obvious benefit for her patients. When she switched to a scholarly career, she continued to look beyond bylines in journals for her rewards.

Not surprisingly, she was one of the first faculty members at Portland State to be granted tenure under new guidelines in the mid-1990s that allow faculty to earn the rank through "engaged scholarship."

Among Ms. Gelmon's biggest contributions to service learning, says Maureen F. Curley, president of Campus Compact, are the models she developed for assessing the impact of community-based learning in college courses.

She went to Portland State in 1994 at a time when "service learning" was a buzzword, but there was little consensus on what made a service course or program successful. And scholarly study of the trend was sparse.

"Evaluation and assessment weren't really being done," she says. "I really wanted to create rigorous methods that would stand up to scholarly scrutiny, that test or observe what was happening through all of this community-engaged learning."

At the time, most of the little existing research on service learning focused narrowly on how it affected students, says Sarena Seifer, executive director of Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, a group that has worked closely with Ms. Gel­mon since the mid-1990s. One of Ms. Gelmon's biggest innovations, Ms. Seifer says, was to evaluate the stake that community organizations had in service-learning partnerships and the benefits they received.

"We discovered that our community partners really wanted to be teachers," Ms. Seifer says. "It was a big investment for them to take in students, especially at first, when those students didn't have many tangible skills. But they told us the benefit was worth the burden to develop partnerships with universities and have their expertise recognized."

Ms. Gelmon published her set of guidelines in Assessing Service-Learning and Civic Engagement: Principles and Techniques, a 2001 book for Campus Compact of which she was lead author.

She has occasionally taken her assessment work abroad. In 2001 she spent three months on sabbatical in South Africa, developing strategies to evaluate post-apartheid service-learning projects at several universities. And during her most recent sabbatical, in 2008, she traveled across Australia to study administrative oversight for community-service programs at universities there.

At Portland State, Ms. Gelmon deals with the intersections of service and scholarship on a more personal scale. Each year she teaches a graduate course in the public-health school called "Program Evaluations in Health," in which students team up with community-health organizations to design assessment methods for one of the organization's programs. Those evaluations frequently help the community groups secure grants to pay for their operations, she says. And although her students often tell her the class involves much more work than their other courses, Ms. Gelmon says, they also find it far more valuable.

"Sometimes you have to push your students," she says. "They say the course is a lot of work, and I say, Well, this is the real world, and these are real and difficult issues that take a lot of work to solve."