STEM Service Learning May Grow a Generation of Environmental Stewards


Joy of Gardening Flickr GreenEducationFoundationIn 2010, I had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with two members of the Cambridge Public School System, Lisa C. Lesser, the seventh-grade science teacher at The Kennedy Longfellow (K-Lo) Middle School, and Marianne Dunne, a science instructional coach. K-Lo had just received funding from The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to implement service-learning that connects to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subject areas and meets environmental needs. More specifically, Lisa was interested in making connections between the curriculum and the real world and increasing student engagement while expanding students’ understanding of biodiversity and ecosystems. The proposed project would engage all seventh grade students in exploring the role of native and invasive plants in local habitats, building a new garden of native plants near the school, and sharing the results of their work with the school and broader community.  In order to do this, Lisa and Marianne needed to identify community partners – the beginning of the Wheelock College Aspire and K-Lo partnership.

Through our collaborative efforts, we were able to combine biodiversity, invasive ecology, and service learning to engage students and hopefully develop the next generation of environmental stewards. 

In this project, students conducted a biodiversity assessment of their school yard and local habitat (Alewife Reservation) to raise their awareness and understanding of which organisms were currently living in these areas and the degree of biodiversity at each. Students then collaborated with a variety of scientists, environmentalists, advocates, and members of the school community in proposing solutions for increasing the biodiversity in these urban environments. To do this successfully, additional partners were identified, each of which played an integral role in the success of this project. For example, New England Wildflower Society held an identification workshop on invasive plant species; East End House (a local community center) provided afterschool programming which offered extensions outside of the classroom in the form of ecology and service-learning opportunities; Grow Native, Inc. (a local community organization focused on advocating for native plant species) helped students design native gardens; and City Sprouts (a community-garden group that was already working with K-Lo) was integral in establishing and maintaining the urban gardens at K-Lo.

Alewife Resevation from friensofalewifereservation.orgThrough our collaborative efforts, we were able to combine biodiversity, invasive ecology, and service learning to engage students and hopefully develop the next generation of environmental stewards. Students designed models of a schoolyard native garden that were presented to a panel of judges consisting of school administrators, teachers, and community members; the “winner” was then used for the blueprint for the new K-Lo Native Woodland Garden. The garden, home to 15 different species (3 tree, 5 shrub, and 7 ground-cover species), was planted by students and their families in the spring. The service-learning project culminated in an evening outreach event at the end of the school year at which over 75 people (staff, community members, families, and administrators) gathered to learn more about biodiversity and invasive species.

Opportunities for Reflection and Dissemination

After the first year of this project, we wondered whether this new approach was effective in student engagement and learning. To learn more about this, we asked students to reflect on their experiences in the classroom. The majority of student reflections indicated a high degree of engagement and a preference for the project over traditional class work. Students enjoyed creating brochures, working together in groups, building the models, making the native garden, and participating in the community outreach event. In response to the question “Do you think that this project will affect how you view ecosystems in terms of biodiversity?”, one student answered “Yes. Before this project or even this unit on biodiversity I had no idea that it was so important and that we relied so much on it, and I will continue to focus on trying to help it.” As teachers, we have also been able to reflect – Marianne Dunne stated:

“The aspect that I want to continue to pursue with students and with our science curriculum is the community service learning. This is very different than ‘community service.’ Reflecting with students about a problem in their community related to Biodiversity was key, because first we had to increase their understanding of the lack of biodiversity and this was the challenge. However, facilitating ideas for action that can be implemented and relevant for students was the most powerful learning for me.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlthough the funding has ended, we have been active in dissemination.  For example, we have co-authored a manuscript titled “Invading the Curriculum – incorporating service learning in the local community to enhance student engagement”. This article will appear in the March edition of Science Scope, a professional journal published by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for the teacher, principal, and supervisor concerned with the teaching of science at the middle school level. I must admit, working with Lisa and Marianne on the construction (and acceptance) of this manuscript was refreshing! Their insight and knowledge as current practitioners in the field added dimensions to the article that I, as a faculty member trained in science, would not have even thought of. In addition, as a direct result of this article, we have been asked to participate in the National Middle Level Science Teachers Association (NMLSTA) Share-A-Thon occurring in April as part of the national NSTA conference. I look forward to reconnecting with two wonderful collaborators. We hope to see you there!

Ellen Faszewski pic

Ellen Faszewski, Chair and Associate Professor of Biology at Wheelock College, is a cell and developmental biologist whose primary research interests are amphibian development and sponge immunology. She also has an interest in science education, including work with pre and in-service teachers as well as in curriculum development.

She is a Co-Pion an NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (S-STEM) Colleges of the Fenway STEM Scholars Grant. She was a Co-Pi on a grant received from NASA Opportunities for Visionary Academics (NOVA) to aid in the development of Wheelock’s Clear Sky Program, a Science for Teachers Pathway for students who wish to make science a core component of their elementary classrooms. She has also collaborated with the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) community to aid in the development of the Environmental Forum course, a cornerstone course for COF students interested in sustainability and the environment.

She is currently a Leadership Fellow and member of the SENCER New England Center for Innovation Leadership Council. In addition, as a recent director of the Colleges of the Fenway (COF) Environmental Science Program (now the COF Center for Sustainability and the Environment) and current member of the Steering Committee, she co-organizes annual events including the Muddy River Symposium and Muddy River clean-up.


Photos courtesy of Green Education Foundation and Persimmon Dreams under Flickr Creative Commons License and