​This article is excerpted and edited with permission from the newsletter of the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning (Fall 2011).

"I definitely think there’s a place for service learning in business school,” says Alyssa Westring, assistant professor, Department of Management. “Our MBA program puts a strong focus on ethics and socially responsible behavior, and the service-learning experience builds on that.”

In 2010, Westring added service learning as a component in a required course in the full-time MBA program, “Managing for Effective and Ethical Organizational Behavior.” The enhanced course teaches students how to apply business skills in real-world nonprofit community organizations delivering much-needed services despite a scarcity of resources.

Seven nonprofits in Chicago participated in the pilot class: Passages Alternative Living Programs, La Casa Norte, Arts of Life, Telpochcalli Community Education Project, Rumble Arts Center, Josephinum Catholic School, and Project SYNCERE (Supporting Youths' Needs with Core Engineering Research Experiments).

While working in one of these, the students gathered and analyzed data focused on a specific issue; at the end of the class, they presented their findings to the hosting organization. For example, a student development team working at the Rumble Arts Center, an all-ages multicultural community center in Humboldt Park, used a variety of tools — including interviews, observation, and surveys — to assess the organization’s needs.

“We learned that, because of the way staff was scheduled, employ¬ees were overlapping only one day a week,” says Lesley DeMaio (MBA ’12). “There were times when staff members thought another person was doing something that really wasn’t getting done.” In the end, students provided the Center with new job descriptions that not only specified staff responsibilities but can also serve as a tool for evaluating employees’ performance. The students also suggested improvements to the volunteer application process.

Bree Johnson, program coordinator for the Rumble Arts Center, says that the DePaul students did their homework and came up with a useful framework for improvement: “The information [they generated] was organized in a way that maxi¬mized its usefulness … In the end, the data reflected what we knew were problems. The students as¬sessed these problems clearly, which was helpful because, like many groups, we sometimes fall victim to being too busy and don’t always have time to reflect on our needs and habits.”

Collaboration was a recurring “lesson learned” in the class, as Jason Kiper (MBA ’12) notes: “Everyone brought something different to the table. That’s the big benefit of working in a group. One person may have strong com¬munications skills, while another has more knowledge of information technology, and so on. We worked basically as consultants to the organiza¬tions; that’s a challenging job. You have to be careful and positive, while wondering how [the staff in the organizations] do their jobs. I was excited to take this class; this was real learning in the world of work.”

Because of success of the class, the service-learning component of the course is being included for all students entering the full-time MBA program this year.