Service-Learning in a Science Methods Course

A Retrospective Case Study

By Barbara S. Spector, University of South Florida
Debbi Stone, The Florida Aquarium
Cyndy Leard, Sustainability Education


Previous research indicates that teaching science methods classes for prospective teachers in an Informal Science Education Institution (ISEI), e. g., an aquarium, helps to mitigate resistance to the paradigm shift from a didactic to a holistic teaching approach, the cornerstone of effective science teaching K-16. However, it is difficult for teachers to step out of the box they have known as school due to numerous restrictions and emphasis on standardized testing. Further complicating this issue is their college experience, driven by the extrinsic motivation of grades earned through the completion of assignments following a specific set of parameters.

Informal Science Education Institutions (ISEIs), also known as free-choice institutions, provide a novel setting for learning in which the paradigm shift happens naturally as attendees voluntarily engage in learning, because the available activities are attractive to them. An individual’s intrinsic motivation (desire, interest, curiosity) drives the learning. Giving prospective teachers the opportunity to learn in these settings helps them to broaden their perspective of effective science teaching and recognize that learning opportunities designed as those in free-choice settings can be tailored to a classroom setting (Spector, Burkett, & Leard 51-61).

Service-learning (S-L), a community engagement strategy, can be used by a university to partner with an ISEI to benefit both partners. Such S-L provides a novel setting, experiential learning, and adds authenticity to prospective teachers’ learning when applied in a science methods course. It furthers the mission of the ISEI partner and adds to its resources.

This case study demonstrates a service-learning model incorporated in a science methods class. The course focused on combining the previous research, in which prospective teachers learned in a novel setting, with the university’s desire to promote service learning.

The community partner in this study, The Florida Aquarium, was chosen because I, the class professor, and Debbi Stone, the Vice President of Education, have a personal relationship. Debbi was a previous student and a community partner in developing a graduate certificate program. We had common education values and vocabulary with which to communicate. I gave her a brief overview of the objectives in the methods course, thus providing insight to the assets I expected the students would develop and apply to the S-L task as the semester progressed.

The expectation was that prospective teachers learning to employ characteristics of free-choice venues would be willing and able to make school science more attractive to middle school youngsters, thus increasing youngsters’ interest, ownership, and learning success. The aquarium would benefit by adding new learning opportunities that preservice teachers would devise and help to forward its mission.

The initial S-L plan resulted from a university workshop I attended. In the S-L model I learned, the professor identified the community partner and the partner determined the problem to be mitigated. I committed to test this model, new to me, in the middle school science methods course for prospective teachers beginning two weeks after the workshop. Here is the S-L plan for the course syllabus approved by workshop leaders:

You will receive credit on your transcript for service-learning.

Step 1

The Vice-President of Education for The Florida Aquarium will be the guest presenter in one class session to share the aquarium’s mission, culture of the organization, and introduce options for involvement in newly developing projects. (One is a new shark-learning center. The other is developing a model for a middle school-scientist-aquarium partnership).

Step 2

The full class will explore the aquarium to ascertain onsite learning assets and the way they match middle school science education requirements. Specific procedures and tasks will be assigned to foster maximum benefit from the exploration.

Step 3

Methods students will interact with the decision-makers in the aquarium project(s) on site for a minimum of (# of hours TBA) and in class for a minimum of three hours. Additional contact time will be via other communications vehicles, such as Skype and email. (This is subject to modification based on students’ outside work schedules and the availability of aquarium personnel.)

Keep an ongoing log of impressions and interactions with aquarium personnel on and off the site. Post this log in your bi-weekly journal as appropriate.

Final project options:

  1. Create a scenario (script, paper, video, or other medium) describing an ideal continuum from formal to informal science education of a middle school youngster. The class will develop criteria for evaluation as a group based on your experience with the aquarium.
  2. Create a miniature-learning center for your future (or current) middle school science classroom based on your learning opportunity in the aquarium. The designs for miniature learning centers will be given to the aquarium for use as they see fit. The class and the aquarium personnel will develop criteria for evaluation as a group based on your experience in the aquarium.


    The aquarium acquires multiple perspectives and expertise from prospective and in-service teachers as input to their decision-making and building of two projects they are beginning to develop. … This expands their working development team.

    Students’ assets developed in this course useful to the aquarium include, but are not limited to, knowledge of

a) the national and state science education standards,
b) characteristics of middle school students,
c) ability to design age-appropriate learning experiences,
d) understanding scaffolding needed for specific knowledge in the projects, and
e) ability to create a continuum from formal to informal science learning.

They also serve as a critical public audience responding to ideas for the projects being designed for use by the public.

The service-learning project with the aquarium is intended to provide a sense of urgency to learn much of the fundamental material in this course. The course is front-loaded with input material in the Virtual Resource Center (VRC) on Canvas, a computer-based course management program. These materials will serve as references for decision-making with the aquarium team.

Students learn firsthand:

a) how decisions are made in this informal science education institution (ISEI), which exemplifies many other regional ISEIs;

b) ways to use the assets of an informal science education institution to attain scientific and technological literacy while teaching in a formal school setting and the thinking process to create hands-on, active learning environments in a classroom;

c) ways to work collaboratively with other professionals as a team developing learning opportunities (a skill essential in a middle school); and

d) to value the role of service-learning in a formal learning institution. (Spector 1-4)

Course Structure

This middle school methods course was structured as a flipped classroom (Perkins, et. al. 89-123) in which classroom time was devoted to discussion and new information was delivered via a class website containing a VRC with multiple materials. While students completed assignments including a service-learning project, they were expected to analyze and synthesize data from the VRC with in-class discussions and write open-ended journal entries bi-weekly describing their thought processes, how they were making sense of information, and conclusions in Canvas. Further, they kept ongoing logs of impressions and interactions with their service-learning partner and shared them via Canvas. They also responded to each other’s journals and log entries to establish a dialogue extending or revising their thinking as they attempted to implement the skills necessary to teach middle school science through project-based service-learning. Class members advised and coached each other in this community of practice during each class. At the end of each face-to-face session, students wrote a brief exit memo indicating their immediate reactions to that session.

Course Participants

Participants were prospective middle school science teachers. Thirteen learners were enrolled; six for undergraduate credit and seven for credit in a Masters of Arts in Science Teaching degree. They were either Biology or Chemistry majors. Three students had some previous experience teaching in a school. Participants ranged from those who had never been to The Florida Aquarium, to those who went as children, to one who frequented it to educate her own children.

Data Sources and Method

Ideas in this narrative are extracted from an in-depth case study (Spector, Stone, & Leard 1-35). The first author was the primary course designer and instructor, the second the community partner in S-L, and the third a critical friend analyzing and interpreting data. The retrospective emergent design qualitative case study was in the tradition of symbolic interaction (Jacobs, 1-50). Data sources included students’ reflective bi-weekly journals and responsive dialog, their service-learning logs, emails, in-class comments, and the authors’ participant observation.

Plan Meets Reality

Students introduced themselves during the opening class meeting, examined the syllabus, and did activities highlighting the paradigm shift. I surveyed students for available times they might work with aquarium staff. It became obvious students’ outside commitments would prohibit establishing a set number of hours and times to interact with aquarium staff.

Week two of class, Debbi provided an overview of the structure of The Florida Aquarium, its operations, its funding, its various programs, what she hoped for from the partnership with our class, and engaged learners in open-ended discussion. Week three, hurricane Irma came bearing down on Florida. Announcements of organizations’ closings and roads filled the airwaves. The plan again met reality and changed significantly. The thirteen intrepid class participants met me at the aquarium after it closed to the public. Students had only met once and did not have time to develop working relationships. I assigned work groups to encourage discussion as they began their exploration. Each group had a Chemistry and a Biology major and a person with experience teaching. Individuals were not required to stay with the initial group after the first half hour.

Specific tasks were assigned to foster maximum benefit from the exploration. For example, “Make notes about what’s visible in a particular exhibit that could provide clues to the diet of the organisms present. What anatomical structures provide insight to the niche each specimen fills in that habitat? How does the habitat in one exhibit differ from the habitat in the next exhibit? Be observant scientists, find patterns, etc.” They spent about three hours exploring the setting to ascertain the onsite learning assets, the way they matched middle school science education requirements, and asking questions of two staff people who accompanied them. We then retired to a room where the staff members identified areas of concern with which they hoped the class would assist by developing products for the aquarium’s use, such as evaluation and laboratory activities. Students were invited to explore the aquarium and talk with staff any time.

Students posted initial ideas for aquarium projects in Canvas to stimulate each other’s thinking. I intentionally did not indicate whether people were to work individually or in groups on the projects. I thought the process would let people identify common areas of interest, and then they could elect to work together or individually, which they did.

In class the following week, students were tasked with identifying several areas of the aquarium’s concerns that were of interest to them individually. Then small groups brainstormed ideas for projects they might do to assist the aquarium and shared those with the class. Students expressed concern because of lack of preset parameters for their projects, subsequently their grades. I told them they would collectively set the parameters for their own evaluation after they devised projects they thought would be useful to the aquarium. This did little to mitigate their concerns about their grades.

Before mid-semester, students sent their initial ideas to Debbi for her to choose the products she thought would work best. She responded with suggestions on which projects to expand via email. Students worked together in and out of class to further their projects. They presented their final projects to the full group for advice and refinement before submission to the aquarium two weeks before the semester’s end.

During the last class session, Debbi came to class and provided overall feedback. The class discussed the process we used, their reflections on it, and suggestions for how it might be enhanced. The students were delighted when Debbi committed to using all the products. The students indicated they wanted to list their projects on their vitas. Debbi agreed to send them acknowledgement letters to back up their vitas.


Two factors emerged influencing the course design. First, the S-L project drove most of the activity and all of the learning about how middle school students learn science for the entire course. Through the flipped classroom structure, the VRC materials were assigned weekly for journals and accessed “as needed” while learners’ solved the real-world problem of designing products for the aquarium’s use with its middle school audience. The VRC materials served as references for decision-making with the aquarium team.

Second, not surprisingly, time was a constraining factor. Time was the key to changes in the S-L plan: Time devoted by the aquarium personnel and students to prepare for hurricane Irma and its aftermath; time Debbi had to juggle to meet her vice-presidential obligations and STEM grant obligations; and lack of common times students had available beyond the established class meeting times. A late October deadline was necessary to submit a final project before classes end-ed in early November. The need for schedule modifications based on Irma and its aftermath compounded the problem of setting intermediate S-L progress deadlines. Due dates emerged based on the actual progress made by the class. Stu-dents perceived the emergent deadlines were stressful, even though they were established based on actual progress.

Additional findings are listed below as benefits to the partners, because reciprocity is key to success in service-learning. Considerations noted by the ISEI partner and the professor follow benefits.

Preservice teachers

Lack of expectations in the novel setting made it easier to shift paradigms and conduct an open-ended full inquiry resembling scientific inquiry conducted by science researchers. Lack of testing constraints enabled students to think out-of-the box and apply their imaginations to designing learning and evaluation activities. Because their products were to be used in the aquarium, a professional setting, they increased their confidence in their ability to plan learning opportunities and stimulated interest in use of other ISEIs for teaching and learning. They recognized the importance of and enhanced their abilities to interact with colleagues while functioning as a community of practice.


The professor gained insights into: sources of students’ motivation and discomfort with open-ended learning opportunities, the way grading hampers students’ productivity and creativity, and ways to help students embrace holistic learning approaches. In addition, the professor acquired a new service- learning strategy that helped the university reach its engaged scholarship goals.


The aquarium increased its capacity to fulfill its mission to entertain, educate, and inspire stewardship of the natural environment by spreading awareness of it as a learning resource for teachers and school children. The partnership contributed intellectual credibility validating the high quality of the aquarium’s multiple functions of education, scientific research, and behavioral change initiatives and its integral role in the education community of the region. It enhanced the capacity of the aquarium’s education department by providing more learning opportunities for middle school youngsters and enhancing staff’s ability to design effective learning opportunities.


In order for this partnership to be successful, the community partner identified some things to consider throughout the process. Initially be aware that students developing products for the aquarium have varied knowledge about the aquarium and supply them with enough information to help them be successful. Information about the collection and functioning of the organization can prime the pump for students to envision possibilities. The aquarium staff need to provide ongoing communication through a point person who is available to answer questions and maintain a delicate balance between conveying the aquarium’s real-world limitations to students while enthusiastically encouraging their imaginations to design products. Finally, the aquarium needs to be aware of the capabilities and limitations of schools in order to keep expectations reasonable.


Data indicated that incorporating a S-L project into a science methods course is an effective way to broaden prospective science teachers’ understanding of the holistic paradigm. Their firsthand experience working with this context increased self-efficacy and encouraged incorporating free-choice projects in their classrooms. All participants (the professor, the students, the community partner, and the university) benefitted from this model.