Are You Ready for an Expedition?

Integrating service-learning with the study of science inspires students to explore.

Real-world learning transforms passive observation into well-planned, deliberate action. By studying the environment, students identify connections that inspire questions: What issues affect our environment today? How can collective actions change trends caused by everyday habits? How can classroom learning transfer to real world situations? How can I solve problems I care about in my community?

Service-learning, a research-based teaching methodology, stimulates curiosity and depth of knowledge as learning is applied to authentic needs. Integrating service-learning with the study of science inspires opportunities for students to explore their neighborhoods, communities, and the larger world. When students meet rigorous science standards through authentic application, this is Science with a capital S.

EarthEcho Expeditions: Into the Dead Zone

EarthEcho International ( is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire young people worldwide to work toward a sustainable future. EarthEcho Expedition, a program of EarthEcho, combines standards-aligned adventure, audio/video content, inquiry-based science lessons, action guides, and interactive opportunities with leading science and engineering professionals to inspire students to identify important issues in their communities and beyond, learn about them and, by applying the five stages of service-learning, take action.

For example, EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone features an exploration of one of the world’s largest aquatic dead zones located in the Chesapeake Bay. From investigating the depths of urban storm drains to scuba diving in the heart of the dead zone, a team of scientists, policymakers, and community advocates immerse students in one of the most extensive restoration and conservation efforts in the United States. While challenges facing our oceans are numerous, perhaps none are more acute than the formation of dead zones.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describes a dead zone as having little oxygen dissolved in the water which results in most aquatic life either dying or, if mobile like fish, moving away. This triggers a biological cascade with broad ecological, economic, and cultural impacts. Dead zones once filled with vibrant, diverse plants and animals resemble a watery desert.

While dead zones do happen naturally, they are exacerbated by human activity. Indeed, human activity causes larger and larger swaths of ocean, lakes, and bays to be devoid of life. The good news is our students can be part of the solution while they meet and exceed academic expectations.

EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone educational materials examine scientific concepts and guide students to explore their communities and conduct scientific analysis of their environment. All Expedition materials are developed to provide teachers with tools to meet Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards. Recorded content and supplemental materials remain available year-round through EarthEcho’s website.

Oyster Reef Ecology

Educators can download lessons on a range of topics. For example, the Expedition video What Is a Dead Zone? introduces students to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, exploring how the bay supports diverse wildlife—from bald eagles to blue crabs. More than 2,700 plant and animal species call this estuary “home.”

One unassuming critical creature that defines this area is Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster. The habitat created by oysters provides shelter for numerous inhabitants by acting as an ecological niche.

Two measures that scientists use to analyze habitats are species richness—a measure of how many different species live within the boundaries of a given habitat or ecosystem—and species abundance—how many individuals of each species are present within the same area. High species richness diversifies the food web and allows for greater stability during natural disasters or disease. Without an abundance of species, ecosystems can suffer from resource limitations and reduced resilience.

Even if your school is not located near oyster reefs, this lesson provides transferable skills. Students:

  • Understand relationships between aquatic animals and their abiotic environment, specifically sunlight, oxygen, and nutrients.
  • Develop models by generating and manipulating a basic food web from sample ecological data.
  • Define and calculate species richness and species abundance as ecological measures of diversity.
  • Appreciate the impact of humans on ecosystems like oyster reefs.
  • Construct explanations from data sets and communicate the effect of trends found in simple ecological measures.
  • Make predictions and engage in argument from evidence regarding the effect of dead zones on oyster reef ecosystems.

The complete lesson articulates the group work process as students create a food web, analyze charts and data, and, upon reflection, identify parallel roles and activities in other ecosystems.

Restoring Wetlands

Students decorate rain water barrels as they explore water conservation.

The Watershed Warriors at George Washington Middle School II in Alexandria, Virginia, initiated a program that is changing the landscape of their school and watershed. After measuring and tracking diminished water quality of the Hunting Creek and Four Mile Run, students used EarthEcho Expedition: Into the Dead Zone videos to launch their investigations and identify factors that contribute to reduced water quality. Students then understood how factors like increased temperature, increased sedimentation, and reduced vegetation affect the environment.

Teacher Mary Breslin says, “The videos hit almost every Standard of Learning I teach around this content. Essential terms are built into the videos. Since the students understand factors contributing to watershed issues, I can step back and put the responsibility and leadership on the kids to guide their projects.”

As a result the students developed a wetlands garden on campus where they grow plants to restore wetlands habitat and improve water quality in highly affected streams like Hunting Creek and Four Mile Run.

EarthEcho Action Guides

Educators also can download seven action guides on critical water-related issues, all in support of Next Generation Science Standards. One example is Rain Check: A Guide for Stormwater Action. (Note: the information provided here is an abbreviation of the complete online resource.)

The components of this 55-page resource adhere to the five stages of service-learning. Students:

  • Investigate why stormwater matters and develop an understanding of terms such as infiltration, percolation, groundwater recharge, and first flush. Students conduct a school audit, often using interactive Google maps functions, and interpret the audit to determine a course of action.
  • Prepare to take action around urbanized watersheds as they examine case studies featuring interviews with environmental protection specialists, and a high school student who installed a rain garden to minimize stormwater impact.
  • Develop action plans as they read what other youth are accomplishing through rain water harvesting, applying artistic storm drain stencils, and installing green roofs. By considering their own Rain Check School Stormwater Management Inventory—one of several planning tools provided—students develop an action plan to yield their proposed outcomes and prepare an “elevator pitch” to communicate their message to stakeholders.
  • Capture their reflections with the Four Square Reflection Tool provided in the action guide and in classroom discussions.
  • Demonstrate their learning through EarthEcho International’s website.

Rain Check has all the resources and teaching tools including student reading materials and organizers for students to complete each task.

Addressing Real-World Issues

Science connected to contemporary issues naturally leads to new questions, a desire to influence the issue, and ultimately action! Through a purposeful execution of applied knowledge, students gain transferable skills needed to be change-makers who connect day-to-day actions with consequences in their own backyard. More important, they comprehend the interrelated nature of their own backyard with other parts of world, extending their learning beyond academics to necessary understandings for learning and life.

Books to Promote Real World Learning

The Curse of Akkad: Climate Upheavals that Rocked Human History by Peter Christie (Annick Press, 2008) explores capricious climate shifts of the past. Nonfiction

Empty by Suzanne Weyn (Scholastic, 2010) a science-rich novel, takes place 10 years from now, when teens face uncertainty for our global fossil fuel supply almost on empty. Fiction

Eyes Wide Open: Going Beyond the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman (Candlewick Press, 2014) offers an informative account of environmental conditions with a science lens that integrates perspectives from politics, psychology, and history. Nonfiction

Going Blue: A Teen Guide to Protecting Our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers & Wetlands by Cathryn Berger Kaye and Philippe Cousteau (Free Spirit Publishing, 2010) presents facts and statistics about Earth’s oceans and waterways and issues surrounding our current water crisis. Nonfiction