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Volume II, No. 5; February 7, 2005

Learning Goals and Service Learning:
Lessons from “Saliva Safaris”

Ruth E. Ballard, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biological Sciences
California State University, Sacramento

Submitted to CSU Impact, 1/16/05

“The Great Way is easy for those who have no expectations.” -Hsing Hsing Min1

As the faculty member in charge of assessment for my department, I have long recognized the utility of student learning goals. Learning goals are broad statements that identify the general educational outcomes students should be able to display upon completing a course,2 and an increasing number of professors are including them in their syllabi. The main argument in favor of learning goals is that they make it much easier to assess whether your students are learning what you want them to know. By setting goals, the learning process also becomes more transparent, for both the students and the instructor. In Fundamentals of Service Learning Course Construction, Kerrissa Heffernan includes “course goals and objectives” as one of the main components of an effective service-learning syllabus.3 Thus, when I first began developing service-learning syllabi, I thought carefully about them and used these goals – and their related objectives (concrete measures by which the goals will be realized4) - as the basis for assessing my students’ community-based learning.

My experiences in teaching service-learning courses over the past five years, however, have caused me to re-examine this practice. While I still find learning goals useful in my classroom-based courses, I have largely abandoned them when I send students into the community. I continue to provide students with my rationale for including a service-learning component in the course, and I still require that they reflect on their experiences in the community and tie these experiences to course content. But I have discovered that when I adopt the world as a co-educator, I must also relinquish a certain amount of control over what my students learn.

The last time I formally defined learning goals for my service-learning courses was in 2003. During that summer, I took some of my BIO 199A (Special Problems) students to Africa with the following learning goals: (1) Become proficient at collecting and storing saliva samples in the field, (2) Gain competence in extracting DNA from saliva in the lab, and (3) Through these activities, help Tanzania build a population DNA database for use in forensics, paternity testing, and disaster relief.”5 However, it became clear within days of arriving in the country that Tanzania had a different set of learning goals for my students altogether.

Our home base was a house on the Indian Ocean just north of Tanzania’s capital city, Dar es Salaam. It was located on Americana Road, ten minutes by scooter from one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and forty-five minutes by stinking, overcrowded bus to the city itself, a sprawling collection of dilapidated buildings and swarming humanity that the locals call “Bongo” (“brains” in Swahili) because of the cunning it takes to survive there. We arrived at the house in early June, and discovered that it was part of a compound of three houses, all owned by John N., a local businessman who was rich beyond dreams compared to most of his neighbors. John’s first wife, with whom he had several grown children, had long fled, but his current wives occupied the other two houses. Margreth, who lived behind us with her five-year-old daughter, was an orphan John had married and then completely deprived of freedom. She lived in absolute luxury by Tanzanian standards, but had to get permission from John whenever she wanted to leave the house. Moreover, because her only son with John had died two years previously, John had taken a third wife to give him sons. The third wife lived next door to us and couldn’t have been more than twenty. Her belly swelled during our visit, but she spent most of her time alone since Margreth refused to talk to her and John was busy with a new lover, a young lady he kept in comfort in an apartment nearby. “Wow! I’ve learned polygamy is legal here,” wrote one of my students in her journal at the end of the first week, and other students agreed. “The most important thing I learned this week is that you can still have more than one wife in Tanzania, but you can only afford it if you’re rich.”

In mid-June, we left Dar es Salaam for the Masai Steppe. Our driver and guide, Solomon, navigated the huge safari vehicle across unmarked dirt roads to one of the few remaining areas of the inhabited world that still lacks electricity and water. This vast savannah, still dotted with the occasional hyena and dik-dik, is a dusty desert in the dry season but a sea of mud the rest of the year. Evidence of washouts was everywhere, and how Solomon managed to stay on course was impossible for us to discern. Armed with permits from the Internal Review Board at Muhimbili University College of Health Sciences and from COSTECH, the agency overseeing foreign research in Tanzania, we arrived in Orkesumet, the governmental center of the Masai district, on June 20th. It had taken me nearly 18 months of bureaucratic mountain climbing to negotiate these permits, as well as several hundred dollars in research fees. However, I had jumped through all the necessary hoops (or so it seemed) and I knew that our “saliva safari” was fully approved and legal.

The government official in charge of the region was a short, sexist man in a green uniform. Despite my credentials, permits, and letters of introduction, he refused to call me “Dr. Ballard,” addressing me instead as “Missus.” Flies buzzed lazily at the broken window behind him as he rested his feet on the table. The hole in one of his shoes framed a patch of naked skin beneath, and he began a slow reading of all my documents, interjecting a snort here and there. In the end, he announced that he would need to “examine the documents more carefully” and “get further approval by fax from the Big Boss in Arusha,” adding that final approval might take several days. My naiveté was shattered later that evening, when Solomon revealed the real reason for the delay: “He wants an unofficial fee, doctor. I would offer him 50,000 shillings” (about 50 US dollars). My students seemed to find this particularly interesting, and their journals began to fill with comments about “government corruption,” “the law of the bush,” and “bribing our way through the country.”

We spent the remainder of June among the Masai, gathering saliva samples and trying to explain, with Solomon as interpreter, that we were not medical doctors. Every day, we saw advanced cases of scabies, syphilis, malaria, and acute ear infections. On one memorable morning, an elderly Masai man hobbled from his hut with a goiter hanging to below his knees, and, through Solomon, asked us whether we thought it would “drop off on its own.” Although we worked long hours and gathered more than 200 samples, none of the students wrote a word about our labors in their journals. “Osiana lost her baby to malaria last night,” wrote one of the students. “I learned that some of the Masai children play with razor blades in heaps of goat dung,” wrote another.

We returned to the house on Americana Road in early July and spent the next three weeks extracting DNA from our samples. On the weekends, we hired a boat to take us out to a nearby island, where we swam and snorkeled in tropical turquoise waters. The students discovered the kanga shop across the street and learned how to navigate down side roads and around donkey carts to the nearby internet café, with its painfully slow connections and abundant conversation. They started to use Swahili words, discussed witch doctors and other local belief systems with our superstitious cook, and frequented the local bars. “The people here are so friendly and so happy with so little,” observed one of my students in his final journal entry of the month. “Here people are satisfied just getting their needs met, whereas in the U.S. our life is all about wants. The thing about needs is that they’re finite, so you actually have a chance of being happy. But wants are endless and you can never reach the end of them.” And another student wrote, “I guess the most important thing I’ve learned this summer is that constant unmet expectations is what makes people in the West so dissatisfied. Money only brings happiness to the point that you have food, shelter, and health. After that, it doesn’t work anymore.”

When I read these last journal entries, sitting in a chair on the verandah that overlooked Americana Road, I thought about my own expectations and how my original learning goals for the students had been so rapidly and thoroughly eclipsed. They had undoubtedly learned some genetics along the way, but the lessons they identified as most important to them had nothing to do with science. Yet, they were extremely potent. I had grossly underestimated the power of my co-educator, with its hidden agenda and powerful pedagogical tools. On the other hand, I couldn’t really be disappointed in the outcome. Service learning, after all, is designed to blur the lines, expose the gray beneath the black-and-white, and challenge our paradigms. As professors, we are accustomed to being in control of our classrooms and our students’ learning experience. But service learning requires that we loosen this grip, and much of its efficacy lies in its power to surprise.


  1. Quote attributed to the Third Zen Patriarch.

  2. Woodcock, Michael. Constructing a Syllabus: A Handbook for Faculty, Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows, Second Edition. Providence, RI: Brown University, 1997.

  3. Heffernan, Kerrissa. Fundamentals of Service Learning Course Construction, Providence, RI: Campus Compact, 2001.

  4. Ibid, 2.

  5. Ballard, Ruth. BIO 199 Syllabus: Summer 2003, CSU, Sacramento.
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