USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

July 15, 2013

Service Learning and Progressive Science Education

Filed under: JEP,Service Learning — Tags: , , — lecollin @ 11:10 am

The Joint Educational Program (JEP) is an organization that offers USC students the opportunity to become involved in the local community. This is done through several service learning programs such as the Readers Plus Program, the Literacy Project, and many more. One of JEP’s programs, known as mini teams, places college students in an elementary school setting to teach an adapted college class–we were part of this program.

We were assigned to teach an introductory course on Environmental Studies to a group of twenty five children from 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at Foshay Learning Center. Adapting an upper division college course for grade-school level instruction was difficult because the students lacked a strong scientific background; however, we were able to illustrate important topics (hydrologic cycle, soil, energy, etc.) using basic concepts and dynamic activities. Another challenge that we faced was the fact that our class was composed of English as a Second Language (ESL) students who were taking their first non-ESL class. Upon request from the teacher Ms. Fuentes, we incorporated a plethora of scientific vocabulary into our lessons in order to expand the students’ word base. In regards to this we made sure to take extra care in spelling the words and breaking them down for easier comprehension. During the final review of the course, it became clear that while the kids were able to understand and explain concepts, it was still a little hard for them to pronounce and spell the new words. The final lesson would have been an interesting spectacle for anyone: students shouting out all sorts of pronunciations, mangled word hybridizations, and us trying to manage the cacophony of vocabulary.

In our development of class activities we incorporated new methods of science education, of which many have been already used in California schools. This new approach emphasizes exposing grade-school students to science at earlier ages and developing argumentative skills. Carl Wieman (2012) in his paper on improving science education noted the importance of “strenuousness” in classroom activities. His claim is that passive listening and simple repetitive tasks produce little learning. An article written by Elizabeth Mitchell and William Sumrall (2013) coincides with Wieman’s thoughts when it claims that hands-on methods of inquiry encourage greater knowledge retention over time. These methods create a learning environment that develops students’ scientific curiosity and knowledge of their surroundings; an approach such as this one opposes traditional teaching methods that only focus on concept learning and problem-solving skills. Based on the principles of challenge and touch we did our best to develop activities that required creative, critical thinking, and included a hands-on element. One such activity was a demonstration on the hydrologic cycle in which students played the parts of the cycle’s different stages. Students were able to touch and feel the clouds (sponges), melting ice (candy), and see the hydrologic cycle in action. When asked about the cycle after the demonstration, students showed greater understanding in comparison to the lecture alone.

In our course planning we were advised to follow the Science Content Standards for California Public Schools. We opted to tailor things more to our class situation due to the “stiffness” of the standards’ protocol and the diversity of grade levels we had in our classroom. Upon examining the standards for kindergarten to grade 12, we observed that public school students are not formally exposed to environmental science until high school or college (Bruton et. al 2009). In our class some of the older kids had previous knowledge of a few environmental concepts, but in general the class was in need of a stronger scientific and environmental foundation. In order to introduce more science and environmental education in the public school system, the government of California has implemented the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), a curriculum made up 85 teaching units that integrates “science and history-social science to academic standards” (Education and the Environment Initiative 2011). The EEI curriculum offers a model to prepare grade-school students to become the nation’s future green scientists.  Early exposure to environmental studies/science and the development of an understanding of environmental concepts are vital in addressing future environmental problems. Therefore it is a necessity to incorporate environmental studies/science into the United States’ national school standards. As stipulated by the California Environmental Protection Agency, “[…] more can and should be done to understand our relationship with the environment, and we believe the best place to begin is in California’s classrooms” (Environmental and Educational Initiative 2011).

Our service learning experience with JEP was a proving ground for experimental science education methods. For us, this grand experiment proved tremendously successful. The tactile experiences and dynamic lectures resulted in a reinforcement of academic concepts, greater comprehension, increased interest, and improved knowledge retention. Creative thinking exercises added an extra dimension of thought to subject material requiring students to contemplate on what they learned and its application. We believe that the Environmental Studies JEP program is crucial for filling the science gap in public schools. It is our hope that by exposing students to science in a manner that is engaging and entertaining fosters an appreciation and love for it that may someday lead to deeper pursuits in the scientific realm. Both of us are thankful for the opportunity to give back to the community and we are eternally grateful for this experience

This post was authored by Kieran Bartholow and Beatriz Lopez

Work’s Cited

“California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts”. Education and the Environment Initiative.      California, 2011. < from Classroom-Based Research”. Science & Technology Education Library. 2007.

“Joint Educational Program”. University of Southern California. 2013. <>

NSTA Board of Directors. “Environmental Education: Introduction”. National Science Teacher    Association.  2003. <>v/education>

Ed. Bruton, Sheila, and Faye Ong. “Science Content Standards for California Public Schools:    Kindergarten through Grade 12”. California Department of Education. June 2009. <>

Ed. Erduran Sibel, and Maria Pilar Jimenez-Aleixandre. “Argumentation in Science Education:     Perspective from Classroom-Based Research”. Science & Technology Education Library. 2007. <>

Mitchell, Elizabeth, and William Sumrall. “Assessment Comparisons Between Lecture-Based or

Inquiry Emphasized Teaching: What Is Fair?” Journal of the Mississippi Academy of

Sciences 58.1 (2013): Mississippi Academy of Sciences, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.

Wieman, Carl. “Applying New Research to Improve Science Education.” Issues in Science and

Technology 29.1 (2012): 25-32. Issues in Science and Technology, 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.