Improving Teacher Capacity to Implement High Quality Service-Learning in Elementary Science Classrooms

Principal investigator

Eileen Merritt

Direct sponsor

U.S. Department of Education

Award start date


Award end date


Originating sponsor

University of Virginia

The challenge

Children today are aware of environmental problems in their communities and are often eager to help work toward solutions. Students get excited about science when they can solve real-world problems and see connections between the concepts they learn in school and the world around them. Yet most elementary curricula focus more on facts than problem-solving skills.

The approach

The research team — Eileen Merritt (ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College), Sara Rimm-Kaufman and Jamie DeCoster (both of University of Virginia), Tracy Harkins (Harkins Consulting LLC) and their graduate assistants — designed a comprehensive curriculum of lessons that are engaging and relevant to students, empowering them to take action on important issues.

Over the past two years, the researchers partnered with Harkins Consulting to augment and adapt Harkins’ existing service-learning materials. The team’s first effort, implemented in the 2016–17 school year, was a curriculum and professional development program called Connect Science. The curriculum allows fourth-grade students to understand how their use of electricity and gasoline affects the environment. Lessons incorporate social and emotional learning to provide students with skills they need to debate and collaborate with peers. Principles of effective service-learning were embedded throughout the curriculum, and teachers are provided with tools and examples for preparing their students to apply classroom learning to relevant community projects.

Teachers have played a critical role in Connect Science curriculum development through field testing and editing. During the 2017–18 school year, the team is collecting data to determine the effect of the Connect Science program on teacher practices and students’ social skills, civic engagement and science learning.

Findings and impact

Co-PI Merritt and Nicole Bowers, a Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College doctoral student, are analyzing results from the first year of program implementation to inform other research and curriculum development. The Next Generation Science Standards — a multistate effort based on work by the National Research Council — call for students to be able to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat and motion. Some fourth-grade students were able to do this in their models of power plants at the end of the unit, suggesting that electricity production is a relevant context for learning about evidence of energy. Other fourth-grade students were not yet clear in their understanding of energy transfer, often referring to producing or making energy rather than transforming energy to produce electricity. The research team modified the curriculum and professional development to be more explicit in teaching this concept after analyzing data from the first year.

Based on subsequent findings from data collection in the coming year, the researchers will finalize curriculum materials and professional development activities that will equip teachers to integrate service-learning into their science instruction. As the project completes, the team will make resources available to teachers, and publish results in peer-reviewed publications.