Each generation faces its own societal challenges. Two prominent issues—the climate crisis and America’s political divide—are heavy burdens for today’s youth. Without explicit focus in schools, it is hard to imagine how children will learn to work across differences and collaborate with others to solve complex environmental problems. Youth are very capable people, and school comes alive when they feel agency and see how their efforts matter in the community. Service-learning can help teachers make instruction feel relevant and teach skills that lead to civic engagement as youth learn to design, implement, and evaluate solutions to problems that are important to them. In this interview blog, the Connect Science project team explains how they developed curriculum and professional development to support teachers to engage their students in service-learning experiences.
Can you tell us about Connect Science and what it looks like in action?
Fueled by an IES Development and Innovation grant, our team developed and evaluated a science-based service-learning approach for the upper-elementary school years. In doing so, we answered a need that teachers and schools face as they strive to create engaging experiences aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Connect Science is a 12-week project-based learning unit for upper elementary students. Early on, teachers and students explore topics of energy and natural resources using lessons aligned with the NGSS. Teachers guide student learning on what it means to be an engaged citizen and on the social and collaborative skills needed to take action in the community. To prepare, teachers receive five days of professional development and follow-up coaching. Teachers also receive a Connect Science manual, related books, and science materials.
But what does Connect Science actually look like in action? Imagine fourth graders engaged in a science unit on renewable and non-renewable resources. The students learn about different energy sources and then discuss pros and cons of each source. They become aware that non-renewable energy resources are rapidly diminishing and would not always be available to generate electricity. The awareness of this problem energizes them to promote energy conservation. Toward that goal, the students decide to educate other students and families at their school about energy use. At the next open house night, they turn their cafeteria into an energy fair where they share important information. For example, one group of students teaches about what types of energy sources were used in their state to produce electricity and another group teaches ways that people can save energy in their home. Before and after the energy fair, the students administer a pre- and post-survey on energy facts to size up what their visitors learned.
How did the IES grant support the development and pilot testing of Connect Science?
In the first two years of this grant, we developed and tested materials with teachers. In the third year, we conducted a randomized controlled trial of Connect Science involving 41 classrooms with 20 in Connect Science and 21 in a waitlist comparison group, resulting in a student sample of 868 students (423 students participated in the intervention).
We found that Connect Science impacted teacher practices and student outcomes. Teachers in the Connect Science group were more effective at engaging in the two NGSS practices that we measured: eliciting and building on prior knowledge and creating opportunities for student critique, explanation, and argument. Further, we saw higher science achievement and energy attitudes and behaviors in the intervention than control condition. The social skill results hinged on the fidelity of implementation. When teachers used more Connect Science practices, students showed improved communication and social competence. As a result of these findings, Connect Science is designated as a Promising Program by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).
What are the implications of your findings?
Too few projects integrate academic and social learning in schools. Often, high-quality NGSS materials are developed with little thought about the social skills students need to engage in that instruction. Likewise, social and emotional learning is often taught separately from academic content. Service-learning is a framework that bridges these two areas and allows students to engage in authentic, science-based work. Given our experiences, we have a few recommendations for educators eager to use service-learning.
- Teach social, emotional, and collaborative skills with intention before launching into group work. In the elementary schools, children thrive from being in supportive caring classrooms and they respond well to lessons on active listening, respectful communication, and understanding people with multiple perspectives.
- Leverage the existing curriculum and build in service-learning experiences. Rather than adding one more new topic, look at existing curricular topics and use service-learning to facilitate deep learning on content areas that already part of the curriculum.
- Amplify youth voice. Teachers need to work with students to identify a relevant community problem and generate solutions to that problem. We carefully developed the Connect Science materials to be more teacher-directed toward the beginning of the unit and more student-directed toward the end. This approach was based both on theoretical and empirical work supporting the importance of student autonomy.
Sara Rimm-Kaufman is the Commonwealth Professor of Education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. Her recent book for teachers, SEL from the Start, is based on the Connect Science work.
Eileen Merritt is a Research Scientist in the College of Natural Resources and the Environment at Virginia Tech. Her research and teaching focus on environmental and sustainability education.
Tracy Harkins is the owner of Harkins Consulting, LLC in Maine. Her focus is providing professional development and resources to engage and motivate student learners through service-learning. She will be offering an upcoming Connect Science Institute in Summer 2022.
For questions about this project, please contact Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov, NCER program officer.