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
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
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
- Quote attributed to the Third Zen Patriarch.
- Woodcock, Michael. Constructing a Syllabus: A Handbook
for Faculty, Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows, Second
Edition. Providence, RI: Brown University, 1997.
- Heffernan, Kerrissa. Fundamentals of Service Learning
Course Construction, Providence, RI: Campus Compact, 2001.
- Ibid, 2.
- Ballard, Ruth. BIO 199 Syllabus: Summer 2003, CSU, Sacramento.