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Service Learning- Why not in Math, Science, and STEM?

I recently attended a conference aptly named Forging New Links in Columbus, Ohio. While going through several sessions, I started to notice a trend........Almost everyone that presented or shared taught History, Language Arts, or was involved with a school service group such as student council. I remember in the middle of the second session, thinking to myself- "Where are the Math and Science people!?"

At a certain point, we broke off into subgroups and shared the details of our projects. When people found out that I was using service learning with STEM students, I was actually asked "How do you do SL and STEM at the same time?" Honestly, I was surprised at the question as I didn't see integrating SL into STEM any more difficult than integrating it into a Language Arts or Social Studies lesson. I'm a Science teacher. It's what I have always done. Just because the Maths and Sciences haven't hit full stride yet when it comes to SL, doesn't mean that we cant or shouldn't. Why try Service Learning?
  • One- As an educator, I like the fact that my Service Learning projects are interactive and tangible. Kids aren't sitting around bored asking "Why are we learning this? "Where am I going to use this in my life?"
  • Two- Although I want to avoid being "preachy," I think it's important that we try to instill some aspects of social responsibility in our young people. Maybe if they notice that they have made a difference through their efforts, they will continue to do so on their own at certain points throughout their lives.
  • Three- As a teacher with limited funding, YOU CAN GET FREE STUFF. I spent 3 hours planning and writing a grant through Cleveland State University. It enabled me to attend a conference all expenses paid (sub, hotel, registration, etc). I was able to purchase a $2,000 thermal imaging camera and 3- $100 digital cameras. This grant has also paid for my students to go a couple of field trips. Not to mention the professional development that my entire staff is going to receive.
All that for 3 hours of my time. Hard to believe that it can be that easy.....

For more information either of my projects that my STEM class has/is working on this year, please feel free to refer to a previous blog and follow up postings on MSP2 or my school homepage. While the main points are there, if you have any questions on any of the particulars please let me know.

Part 2

Other than trying to encourage others to tackle service learning, I thought that I might also make this blog a resource by posting possible common Service Learning projects along with ways to integrate Math, Engineering, and Science.

I'll use a project that I'm doing next year as the first example: A class creates a "Victory Garden" and all of the food that is grown is donated to the local food pantry.

Below are possible common ways in which this topic may have been used-

  • In Social Studies/History- One could learn about life on the "homefront" during World War II. Rationing. Supply vs. Demand, etc.
  • In Language Arts- One could read through and discuss the journals of the different "players." Students could also assume the identity of one of those "players" and compose their own entry.

So how about for STEM? (The following are just a handful off the top of my head)

  • Engineering- You actually plan a garden, whereas things are placed so they don't interfere with another plants growth. Create an irrigation system for the garden using PVC. Try to improve the "Topsy Turvy."
  • Science- How do plants grow? What is the soil made of? What other mediums can plant grow in? How do those mediums compare? How does the body process food? What are the effects of hunger/starvation on the body?
  • Math- Measurement in so many ways. What are the growth rates of the different vegetables? How does the angle of the sun effect growth rate? What is the total area of the food bank? How a many boxes of rice can fit on a 12 ft by 2 shelf. Proportions, Ratios, Fractions, etc

I know that there are people much more creative than myself out there. So if I can do it- I know that you can to.......Please feel free to share some of your ideas. Thanks

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Comment by Mary Henton on April 21, 2010 at 10:55am
Oh....and to your example of gardening, here are some ideas that come to my mind:
- nutrition, caloric intake
- fertilizers: synthetic or natural?
- monoculture, polyculture, permaculture: What's the difference? Why should we care?
- xeriscape

By the way....local organic farmers and sustainability experts are increasingly eager to connect with schools and help to educate the community on these matters.

And that takes me to two other sustainability issues that are great for service learning (and that I'm passionate about!):

- Rainwater catchment and rain gardens. Why should we care? Why should we do it?
- Composting and recycling: More than just a way to dispose of "waste"
Comment by Mary Henton on April 21, 2010 at 10:48am
Thanks for raising this up, Tom. Yes...STEM and service learning can and DO go together!

A recent NMSA Middle Ground article, "Weaving STEM, Exploration and Community Service" describes the Earth Force and a federally-funded project through Learn and Serve America that enabled Earth Force to train teachers in 3 school districts. But beyond this, Earth Force offers other training and resources for teachers.

Citizen Science activities also lend themselves to service learning. Check out Jessica Fries-Gaither's article, "Citizen Science Projects: Everyone's a Scientist" in the October 2009 Middle Ground.
Comment by Todd Williamson on April 15, 2010 at 8:43pm
I've had my students complete service projects for the past 3 years now. In their reflection, I ask that they relate their learning back to any of the subjects they are studying. During this time, my teams have completed over 3500 hours of service to our community. We've had students organize a Jeans 4 Teens drive that collected over 400 pairs of blue jeans to donate to local less-fortunate teenagers. Another student collected 300+ children's books and built a bookshelf at our local hospital for children in the waiting room. Just this year, I had a student who completed over 200 hours working as a manager for our sports teams at school. These projects have been completed with little outside effort on my part to this point. I present the project within the first few weeks of school and ask that 8 hours be completed before the end of the 3rd nine weeks. The goal as you stated Tom, is for me to help my students recognize their increasing role as members of our local community. Our young adolescents can, and should, be given opportunities to participate in meaningful ways that can relate back to curricular topics. I encourage any and all middle school teachers to find a way to incorporate service learning into your classes!

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