Weaving STEM, Exploration, and Community Service

There is an epidemic plaguing our country. It’s creeping through our communities and into many of our schools. It’s not the flu. It’s the number of young people who are dropping out of school at alarming rates, walking away from an education that would improve their lives, their earning potential, and ultimately, their communities.

Because most youth don’t drop out until high school, people used to focus on dramatically changing schooling in grades 9–12 as a solution. But now, educators acknowledge that if they want to influence the choices of older teens, they must focus on dropout prevention before high school. Students step onto a path toward high school completion—or away from it—years before they reach ninth grade. Therefore, early adolescence is a crucial time for guiding students down the right path.

Students drop out for a variety of reasons, but typically the reasons revolve around three factors:

  1. Coursework is not challenging enough to maintain student interest without being far beyond a student’s grasp.
  2. Students do not consider school to be a welcoming environment where someone cares about them and would notice their absence.
  3. Teachers do not link rigorous course material to the things that matter in students’ everyday lives.

The good news is that middle grades educators can influence many of the factors driving the dropout crisis. For example, one way to address students’ disengagement and disconnect between what they are learning and what they are living is through service-learning. Service-learning gives students a chance to use the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom to address community problems they care about.

Linking STEM and Service-Learning

Unfortunately, not all students have equal opportunities to participate in service-learning activities; disadvantaged students have fewer opportunities than their more affluent peers. To address this inequality, the federal Learn and Serve America (LSA) program targets its K–12 service-learning grants to high-poverty areas.

LSA recently held grant competitions to encourage more middle grades science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers in high-needs schools to adopt service-learning. The reason: basic science and math literacy are more essential and relevant today than ever before. While it can be tough to bring STEM subjects to life, STEM content and skills are useful in addressing many of the issues students care about most, such as health, safety, and the environment.

In 2008, LSA awarded three grants to promote service-learning in STEM, including a grant to Earth Force, which is providing school districts across the country with environmental service-learning tools that will improve their STEM instruction and help save local watersheds.

With its LSA funding, Earth Force is training teachers in Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, and the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky, to engage their students in watershed projects that teach required STEM content and skills. To help this effort succeed, each community has engaged several partners to help provide mentors, expertise, equipment, and guidance as teachers and students venture out to local streams to investigate and improve water quality.

“I think our students had a lot of fun working on Earth Force, and I think they learned some stuff too,” says Tim Baker, sixth grade teacher at Meyzeek Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky. After his students evaluated a nearby stream, they were surprised to see that a section of that same stream near their school had been paved to become a concrete ditch.

Students collected data about water temperature, calculated pH and flow rates, and used math skills to determine the amount of runoff leaving their school campus. Students were again amazed when they discovered that a one-inch rain event means 100,000 gallons of water flow into local storm sewers.

These sixth graders transformed their new learning into projects focused on educating their peers. They used technology to produce a video and present it to the entire school, applied language arts skills to develop a pamphlet that went to all students, and incorporated engineering skills into designing a rain barrel that was given away to a student in a school-wide drawing.

Above and Beyond

Projects like this fuel students’ curiosity by inviting them to apply their STEM knowledge to real-world issues they can see, touch, and affect. The students identify and assess a local problem. They conduct scientific analysis of stream conditions, investigate land use in watersheds, talk to experts, develop their own project goals, research local policies, and study different points of view.

Through service-learning, students are driving their own learning and can see how to use it to solve important local problems.

Earth Force’s years of independent evaluation data (see www.earthforce.org) demonstrate that these kinds of learning experiences keep young people interested in school and excited about STEM disciplines.

Earth Force is using its LSA grant to go beyond supporting individual projects. A key goal of this program is to infuse service-learning into entire school districts—not just into one classroom or with one teacher.

The Earth Force evaluations show that for young people to really reap the benefits of service-learning, they must have multiple opportunities to participate. By reaching a majority of the middle grades STEM teachers in these three districts, Earth Force and LSA hope to demonstrate the power of education that is student-driven and applicable to the real world rather than theoretical and teacher-centered.

Teachers themselves are becoming advocates for the service-learning approach. Eighty-one percent of Earth Force educators surveyed said this kind of watershed investigation increases students’ interest in science, and 71% said it increases student interest in and enthusiasm for learning. Further, 82% of educators surveyed said that while this kind of teaching and learning is more work for them, it also increases their satisfaction with educating young people.

Learning, Service, and Motivation

For our schools to be places where students feel connected and cared about, our educators need to feel inspired by and satisfied with their work. Incorporating service-learning into classrooms is doing that.

In addition to boosting motivation and career awareness, STEM service-learning makes students more likely to understand and exercise their civic rights and responsibilities. Communities that foster the kinds of partnerships necessary to support young people’s genuine involvement in public work will be best situated to make sustainable decisions now and in the future.

The job of creating an informed and active citizenry starts in the schools. It begins with middle grades students and depends on our keeping them engaged, motivated, and excited about learning. When students know that staying in school means they will have opportunities like those in Mr. Baker’s classroom, they show up ready to learn and eager to use their new skills for the common good.

Published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2009

Alyssa Hawkins is the watershed education director for Earth Force. E-mail: ahawkins@earthforce.org

Scott Richardson is the K12 program coordinator for Learn and Serve America at the Corporation for National and Community Service. E-mail: srichardson@cns.gov