Service Learning in Action: Real life lessons from a School of Public Health Grants Class

The Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington is doing something new to teach grant writing to their students.  “We’re teaching them grant writing in the field, said Dr. Beth Meyerson, Assistant Professor of Health Policy & Management.

Grant Class

This past fall Meyerson taught H695: Acquiring and Managing Grants for Health & Human Services as a service learning course. Meyerson, who joined the faculty last year after almost two decades of public health practice, knew this was an important element of an MPH student’s education.It is one thing to learn how to put a grant together in theory, and quite another to do so in a busy organizational environment with competing priorities,said Meyerson.

Twenty-two students worked on five grant teams; each paired with an Indiana organization to develop a funding proposal for submission in the next twelve months. Funders range the spectrum from a small rural cooperative to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Organizations include Jubilee Health Care in Paoli, Indiana Youth Group, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Indiana Minority Health Coalition and Positive Link. "Herein lies the service component of the learning," says Meyerson. "Students learn how to develop a grant in the field, and the outcome is a service to the organization. These organizations will have a stronger chance to receive funding for needed services." 

The participating organizations agree. "It's always with some trepidation that I enter into an important project with students," says Mary Byrne, Executive Director of the Indiana Youth Group, a statewide organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and their families. "My experience with these grant writing students has been wonderful.  We had conference calls once a week, they sent me their questions and list of materials that they are going to need, and what I’ve gotten back so far has really been right on target. I’m very excited! Indiana Youth Group is a small agency and we just do not have the time to write grants…especially for programs that we dream of doing.  This group of students is helping our dream of expanding our services and programming come true.”

Meyerson indicated the bonus of resume worthy work. Through this experience, students gain valuable work related experience. "This is critical in our economic times when graduates look for work in a down market," Meyerson says. "Grant writing is always needed, and our graduates will be competitive because of this experience."

Rachel Dowty, a Public Health Administration student agrees. Her team wrote a grant to pilot an additional nurse practitioner for the rural clinic Jubilee Health Care in Paoli, Indiana. "This course unites our academic and professional worlds and adds an opportunity to serve the community. We are getting the chance to experience in real time what public health organizations are faced with when seeking funds in the real world. This has definitely made it more challenging to write the grant proposal elements, but it's great preparation for the future. I think the skills and knowledge gained in H695 will be an advantage after graduation, whether we hope to write grant proposals or not," Dowty said.  

Balancing the classroom and organizational expectations are challenging, Christiana von Hippel, a Behavioral, Social and Community Health student assigned to the Planned Parenthood of Indian and Kentucky group agrees. "My learning in this collaborative and service-oriented course extended far beyond the boundaries of the classroom into the fields of nonprofit development and sexual health education. It is difficult at times to balance the roles of both a student with syllabus-based deadlines and a grant developer with organization-based responsibilities. But as an applied graduate degree candidate in public health, learning to manage this balancing act could not be more essential. I am glad to be experiencing this rewarding growth now while I am still a student rather than later as a new public health professional," says von Hippel.  

Developing a class like this takes a lot of work. "There are a lot of moving pieces, from the pedagogical to the organic experiential,” says Meyerson. The effort, Meyerson says, "is worth every minute of preparation. The MPH degree is a practice degree, and therefore we need to prepare students for grant writing in the field," Meyerson said. "It's a little like learning how to build a plane while flying," she says with a smile. "But that's what public health is all about. The application of knowledge in a dynamic environment."