Betty Meredith, a reference librarian turned volunteer for a day, spent last Thursday hanging out with a bunch of youngsters at the Nanjemoy Community Center. First they played a rousing game of kickball, then they made nifty-looking bead bracelets and, in the late afternoon, everyone ate a healthy snack of cantaloupe and grapes.

But for Meredith, 51, the day was about more than doing a good deed. First and foremost, she was there to learn.

Meredith is participating in a new service learning program at Charles County Community College that makes volunteer work part of the regular course work. So far, in 18 months, the program has involved more than 350 students and 20 professors in fields from sociology and geography to biology and speech communication. Each student completes up to 10 hours of community service, working at any of 77 local organizations -- nursing homes, hospitals, public schools and more.

Service learning, increasingly popular at schools across the country, is an instructional technique that takes students beyond the traditional classroom and puts them into the community where they can practice their skills in real-life settings.

This combination of academic instruction and community service is good for everyone involved, participants say. The organizations get an extra pair of hands so they can better serve those in need, while the students gain a better understanding of the abstract theories they're learning in the classroom.

"I really got a lot out of it," said Meredith, a Marbury resident who is enrolled in a CCCC course called "Introduction to Interpersonal Communication." To fulfill an assignment, she spent an entire day at the Nanjemoy center, working with 15 children, ages 6 to 12, who were attending a summer enrichment program run by the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee.

Throughout the day, Meredith jotted notes in her journal; later she'd have to write a paper describing what the Nanjemoy youngsters taught her about interpersonal communication.

Among other things, she noted that their communication was "easy, flowing." She wrote that the "staff gave firm but positive feedback to the children." And the four girls in her class may have been outnumbered by the boys -- 11 in all -- but nevertheless, Meredith noted, they "were holding their own" -- something she found surprising given the prevailing notion that boys often dominate a classroom environment.

Shirlee Levin, Meredith's professor and the college's faculty coordinator for the service learning program, said these out-of-class experiences offer another benefit to students. "It's the best way to teach about diversity," she said, pointing out that students have worked with everyone from Alzheimer's patients to impoverished children.

Levin spearheaded the effort to bring service learning to CCCC. In January 1998, the college won a $15,000-a-year grant under the federal AmeriCorps program. The grant provides for four AmeriCorps members to work part time on service learning. The AmeriCorps members, who are usually CCCC students, help professors incorporate service learning into their classes and find community organizations with which students can complete their volunteer work.

Tara Calton, 20, who just graduated from CCCC, has served as an AmeriCorps member since the first day of the service learning program. She worked about 20 hours a week, receiving a nominal stipend and a $2,365 education grant, which she'll put to use next fall when she starts at Western Maryland College.

"It really makes me feel good when you look at all the students we've had volunteer and all the work they've done and what they've learned from it," she said.

CAPTION: Betty Meredith, right, works with Sam Cobey, 10, at Nanjemoy Community Center in the service learning portion of her communication course.