Volunteer experiences cement classroom learning
One of the goals of “Introduction to Life Span Developmental Psychology” is to give students the opportunity and encouragement to develop skills and values that build community at a local, national and global level.
In a normal year, that means that students in Associate Professor Virginia Tompkins’ honors section fan out into the community to apply what they are learning in the classroom to what they find in volunteer positions. Due to the limitations placed on volunteer work due to COVID-19, she gave this year’s class the option to do a research paper instead. Tompkins was delighted when two of her students didn’t take her up on the offer. They took up the challenge to find a volunteer spot.
“I was impressed that the two students chose the volunteer work and made it work – one volunteered with kids doing equestrian therapy and the other helped with a virtual Girl Scout troop with mainly minority low-income girls,” Tompkins said.
Virtual Girl Scout Troop Leader
Once upon a time, Camryn Weihrauch was a Girl Scout so when it came time to choose a volunteer outlet, she didn’t have to look far.
Weihrauch’s assigned troop was a school-based group with girls from kindergarten through fifth grade. Fortuitously, that is the age group her lifespan class was covering when she began volunteering.
“It was really great to be able to take what I was learning in class and directly implement it into our curriculum. I was also able to take more complex topics and break them down, so the girls were able to understand them,” Weihrauch said. “I felt like I was better able to understand what we were covering because I had examples that I was witnessing as they were being covered.”
After an orientation and some training, Weihrauch’s first big task was creating kits for the girls to use as they worked through projects online. The curriculum was focused on improving self-esteem, social interactions and promoting self-efficacy and advocacy.
“Learning experiences in Girl Scouts tend to be hands-on, so it was really important to choose age-appropriate activities that could be meaningful,” Weihrauch said.
The structure of the virtual troop activities gave Weihrach a lot of feedback. Pre-activity conversations helped gauge the understanding level and guide the level of information and activity in each meeting. The post-session discussions revealed how successful the learning had been.
The session on anxiety felt the most effective to Weihrauch. The troop built “Happy Boxes” meant to house items to hold onto when they felt anxious.
“We also discussed other methods of relieving stress and anxiety, such as going for a walk,” Weihrauch said. “The post-session discussion was much livelier, and the girls were excitedly telling one another about what they like to do to calm themselves.”
Weihrauch plans to maintain her association with Girl Scouts while pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology. While she’s in grad school, she may have to switch troops, but intends to return to the area and her home troop in the future.
“Going forward, I think I will often reflect on my experiences with the troop. They reminded me that young girls are so impressionable, and teaching them kindness is empowering for both them and myself.”
Equestrian Therapy and ADHD
Gabby Boley had always enjoyed the one-on-one aspect of volunteering at the Equestrian Therapy Program near Cridersville. Seeing how the principles of her psychology course played out in that volunteer experience enriched her time with the program.
“I really gained experience on a more hands-on approach to science learning. I was able to observe and make connections from what I was seeing and what I was reading and learning in the classroom,” Boley said.
In her role as a horse leader, Boley focused on the link between equestrian therapy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. She watched one of her riders improve his concentration, ability to follow directions, and skill at directing the horse.
“While doing my research on this area, it really allowed me to think back on my experience of volunteering and everything I learned and witnessed during the experience,” Boley said. “I was able to better understand attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and read the research articles and compare those with what we learned about in class and what we read from the textbook.”
As helpful as it was to apply classroom knowledge to real-world experiences and vice versa, Boley took away something else that will help her as she takes her dual majors of psychology and biology forward into the medical fields.
“This only solidified what I want out of my career, to be able to help people and witness improvements in another person’s health, no matter how small, is something truly incredible and astonishing to witness firsthand,” Boley said.