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STEM in Action, Part 1: Citizen Scientists and Service-Learning

by Scott Richardson and Marilyn Weyer

This is part one of a two-part exploration of the connection between science, civic action, and service-learning from Learn and Serve America and the Virginia Department of Education.

The disaster in Japan brings many environmental questions to the forefront of public discussion. Is nuclear power a good alternative source of energy to fossil fuels? To what extent does human activity contribute to climate change, and how can we assess different viewpoints? When does human presence threaten the existence of key species, and how can we lessen our impact on fragile ecosystems?

Every day, the public issues facing our nation become more complex. To shape informed opinions, we need increasingly detailed knowledge and analytical skills that are more sophisticated than ever. These issues require us to analyze problems, judge evidence, and anticipate consequences – in short, to become “citizen scientists.”

Meanwhile, our schools are struggling to teach our youth to understand science and apply it to real-world problems. On an international science literacy test, high school students in the U.S. ranked 19th among students in 65 other developed countries. So at least we’re in the top third – but just barely.

Meeting 21st Century Challenges

How can we better prepare our youth to meet 21st century challenges? More and more, educators are using service-learning to blend science and civics instruction. Service-learning mobilizes students to use academic knowledge and skills to address community needs that the students themselves have identified. Teachers embed a set of community problem-solving steps in the curriculum, and students see tangible connections between the work they do in the classroom and the improvements they make in their communities.

When science meets civics, students look at social problems the way scientists do: they observe, research, hypothesize, test, and form conclusions. They might observe a social problem such as crime in their neighborhood, traffic jams on their streets, or inadequate health care in their community.

Then they conduct research, discussing the problem with neighbors and seeking out groups and decision-makers (e.g., elected officials and community leaders) who can address the problems. From such observations, these “citizen scientists” hypothesize about why things are as they are, test ideas for improvements in the real world, and rethink original ideas based on the results of the test. These are the steps for service-learning; students who follow this outline boost both scientific literacy and civic competence.

Science teachers count it as a great success when they see students using scientific ideas and methods outside of class. Civic educators beam when their students begin engaging in public discourse, examining social issues among themselves and confidently plotting how to address them. Such “transference” is most likely to happen through experience and practice.

Service-learning programs are a great way to provide that opportunity – to bridge academics and action. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at a community project that does just that.

Scott Richardson is the Program Coordinator for K-12 Initiatives at Learn and Serve America. Marilyn Weyer is the Mathematics and Science Grants Specialist at the Virginia Department of Education.

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