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Service-learning project aids exotic wildlife sanctuary

Seniors in a research methods course for the Professional Writing and Rhetoric concentration helped revamp tours for the Conservators’ Center.

From left: Elon University seniors Jack Dodson, Kristin Pinder, Kasey Thornton, Anna Becker, Katie Kenney and James Shaver


A half dozen seniors who graduate from Elon University this spring leave campus having contributed to the revamping of tour programs and fundraising messages for a North Carolina wildlife sanctuary.

Led by Assistant Professor Rebecca Pope-Ruark, the students in a fall semester “Writing as Inquiry” research methods course worked closely with the Mebane, N.C.-based Conservators’ Center to measure responses to guided tours, assess the way guests were informed of ways to support the Center, and offer suggestions for improving the overall experience for those who visit.

“My goal with service-learning is to show students that service isn’t just about picking up trash on the side of the road,” Pope-Ruark said. “Service-learning should be about using the skills you do have to benefit our community.”

The fall course was part of the Professional Writing and Rhetoric concentration offered through the Department of English. It extended a relationship Pope-Ruark had already established with the Center three years earlier, when students from another class published a children’s book and a coffee table book featuring animals from the exotic wildlife sanctuary about a half hour from the university.

Because their contact at the Center, Director of Outreach Julia Matson-Wagner, recognized that no formal mechanism existed for collecting feedback or even tracking how people first learn about the Center, Pope-Ruark’s most recent class convened focus groups, created questionnaires for visitors and observed multiple tours at the Center to develop those mechanisms.

After conducting their research, the Elon students suggested the Center create “tiered” tours to give visitors a reason to return, as well as a tour for children under the age of 12. Students also recommended the Center install boxes on the property for visitors to write and submit suggestions as well as give on-the-spot donations to specific projects.

Another recommendation from the Elon class was for the Center’s volunteer tour guides to wear standard T-shirts that included subtle fundraising messages. The Elon students noted the inconsistency of the messages visitors received regarding ways that visitors can financially help the Center with the lions, tigers, foxes and leopards who reside there, among many other species.

A Community Partnership Initiative Grant of $1,100 from the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement assisted the students with their project. For their efforts, the Center awarded the student “Members of the Pride” status for one year.

“It changed the way I think about research,” said senior Kristin Pinder, an English major from Nassau, Bahamas. “I was intimidated before and didn’t consider it a practical thing.”

One of Pinder’s classmates said he agreed.

“This was the first time I’d delved into five or six methodologies for research,” said Jack Dodson, a senior English major from Brunswick, Maine. “It’s what Professional Writing and Rhetoric is all about. It’s taking complex ideas about language, and putting them into practice.”

Eric Townsend,
5/17/2012 5:00 PM