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Making the Connection

Service-learning links curriculum to the real world

By Cindy Long

In 1986, millions of people — many of them students — planned to form a human chain across the continental United States as a charity event. The much-hyped “Hands Across America” was supposed to raise money to fight homelessness and teach students something about civic action. Unfortunately, it fell short of its goal, and students who took part remember little more than having to give up part of their Sunday to join a confused jumble of people clasping hands.

Like “Hands Across America,” mandatory community service requirements of the 1980s and 90s sometimes fell short of their lofty goals. But times have changed. Today’s trend is service-learning, where teachers help students devise service projects that meet a community need as well as the requirements of the curriculum. A classroom lesson on the Vietnam War might be followed by a project that helps local disabled veterans, for example. With a little planning and imagination, service learning can have a profound impact on how students absorb course material. And by meeting the needs of their own towns or cities and interacting face-to-face with the people they’re helping, students witness how their actions can make a lasting difference, like these science students in Nevada and northern Virginia did.

Project: Star Party

Curriculum Tie-in: Native American heritage meets astronomy as students from McDermitt Combined School plot an economic revival.

The ranching and farming town of McDermitt sits on the Nevada-Oregon border. The state line runs right through the old White Horse Inn, where patrons used to order food on the Oregon side to avoid Nevada sales tax. Like many local businesses, the hotel and saloon have long been shuttered. When the mercury mine shut down about 15 years ago, the town’s already feeble economy collapsed and the jobless rate for residents — many from the Paiute-Shoshone Indian reservation — shot up to more than 50 percent, bringing crime and substance abuse with it. So the students of the McDermitt Combined School came up with a project that not only fulfills their state science standards, but also aims to get their town’s economy back on track.

“They don’t want to sit back and let us continue living in poverty,” says John Moddrell, principal of the K-12 school, which has about 156 students. “A lot of kids leave our community when they graduate, but [these students] want to make a difference.”

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Led by science teacher and service-learning coordinator Mary Baird, junior high and high school students surveyed members of the community to find out their hopes for the town. Residents overwhelmingly said they wanted a better job market and to attract the legions of tourists rolling across the West in campers and RVs. But they were against bringing more casinos to the area.

A flash of inspiration arrived a couple of weeks later when four powerful telescopes were delivered to the school through a science education grant. The students decided to hold a stargazing party where community members and visiting tourists could look at the stars and planets while they shared what they’d learned about the solar system in astronomy class. To weave in a piece of their culture, the students would also share Native American traditions and star myths, like the story of a clumsy coyote who tipped over a jar and scattered the stars into the constellations.

At the first star party held last fall, the telescopes were set up in the football field and pointed toward the vast nighttime sky. High school students designed exhibits about the solar system in the gym for visitors to pass through before gathering outside on the field. The older students also teamed up with elementary students to help the younger kids explain to visitors what they’d learned about the universe and to share Native American lore.

“The first party was so successful, we’re holding one each quarter, and the students have invited amateur astronomers from across Nevada to hear their presentations,” says Baird. “After that, they’ll publicize the event in nearby states.”

At the “star parties,” students also perform Native American dances wearing traditional attire. Junior Martica Crutcher performs the “Fancy Dance,” which represents the movements of a butterfly. Each part of her attire has significance, from the eagle feathers in her hair to the brightly colored buckskin she wears.

“When you dance, it’s like a prayer for your people,” she says. “I live on the ‘res,’ and not too many of our people there were doing the old dances or learning about our traditions. They learned a lot about their own culture at the star party, and it got them interested. Now more people are learning the traditional dances and performing them with us.”

Mary Baird says the star parties have not only brought the tribe closer to its culture, they’ve increased pride and empowered the community to build on the momentum created by the students. The tribe has voted to fund an RV park for visiting tourists, complete with teepees and RV hookups, and plans are underway to tap into the small hot springs scattered throughout the Quinn River Valley to create a local pool and park facility.

“The real strength of service-learning is in allowing the kids to develop and plan out their own ideas, and to build stronger ties to the community through their schoolwork,” says Baird. “The payoff is the growth you see in the kids. It’s incredible.”

Project: Computer Cleanup

Curriculum Tie-in: Taking their earth science education to heart, these students became environmental activists.

When a group of kids in an Arlington, Virginia, neighborhood hustled away from one house after another with armfuls of computers, printers, and TVs, residents didn’t call the police. Instead, they held their doors wide open for the H-B Woodlawn School students, who were removing unwanted household electronics as part of a curbside recycling drive they’d instituted.

The students hit on the idea during a field trip to a local stream where they were collecting water samples with their sixth grade science teacher, Kathy Molina. In order to fill their vials, they had to step around an accumulation of garbage—and not the beer bottle/fast-food container/odd tennis shoe kind of trash typically found in suburban creeks. The stream was littered with computers, VCRs, cell phones and batteries, the runoff of a 21st-century neighborhood that doesn’t know what to do with its obsolete electronics.

Arlington County has a facility for recycling or safely disposing of electronics and hazardous materials, but many people don’t know about it and materials must be dropped off at the site. “Realistically, most people aren’t going to do that,” says Molina. “It’s much easier to throw it away.”

Molina’s class was studying water quality as part of a lesson called “Protecting Our Watersheds,” developed by Earth Force, an environmental service-learning organization. The lesson plan takes students through a six-step analytical process to identify environmental problems or threats in their watershed. It then helps them select a problem to address, devise a solution, and take action.

The students agreed the technotrash was the most obvious problem, and th ey knew they could change peoples’ bad habits if they offered an easy, convenient solution. They also realized that, even if they educated people about the recycling facility, many wouldn’t take the time to drive to it. So they dubbed their civic action project, “We’ll Bring it To You.”

On a drizzly Saturday morning, they launched their efforts. Students set out with Molina, their parents, and volunteer teachers to load computer monitors, scanners, radios, and TVs from street curbs into pickup trucks. By the end of the day, they’d delivered 433 items to the recycling facility that might have otherwise wound up in a landfill.

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And they didn’t stop there. After learning that 85 percent of their survey respondents favored quarterly curbside electronics pickups, the students decided to take their case to the County Board. They attended two board meetings, presenting their findings and recommendations in a slideshow.

The board was supportive of the idea and promised to investigate the possibility, Molina says. In the meantime, the students learned about environmental activism, teamwork, problem solving, and decision making.

“We learned that even young people like us can do great things to help the environment,” says Elliot Grace, 12. “It’s kind of neat to think that one day you’ll see a computer and electronics recycling truck and think, ‘Hey, that’s because of us.’”

Please send comments on this story to Cindy Long at

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Sleeping with a Virgin

Sleeping with a Virgin
HIV/AIDS awareness meets the arts in an eye-opening play. Watch “"Sleep With A Virgin...A Perspective On AIDS" a play written by Rose McGee, ” with your students and get the discussion going.

HIV/AIDS awareness meets the arts in an eye-opening play. Watch “"Sleep With A Virgin...A Perspective On AIDS" a play written by Rose McGee, ” with your students and get the discussion going.

This video is a part of the National Youth Leadership Council's service-learning and HIV/AIDS prevention initiative, Y-RISE. For more information, visit (C) 2007 National Youth Leadership Council. All rights reserved.


Authentic Needs Assessment: Service learning projects should meet real community needs, and students must actively engage community members in identifying the needs.

Curriculum Integration: The intentional tying of service activities to learning objectives. The service experience enhances the learning of identified concepts, content, and skills. The learning strengthens and enhances the quality and value of the service experience.

Community partnership - Partnerships with community agencies are used to identify genuine needs, provide mentorship, and contribute assets towards completing a project. In a successful partnership, both sides will give to and benefit from the project. In order for this partnership to be successful, clear guides must be implemented as to how often a student engages in service to a particular community agency.

Reflection: The critical component of successful service-learning programs is "reflection," an opportunity for students to think, talk, and write about the service experience. The balance of reflection and action allows a student to be constantly aware of the impact of their work. It is often through reflection that the service activities and the learning objectives connect.

Service-Learning: A method of teaching that enriches learning by engaging students in meaningful service to their schools and communities, and integrating that service with established curricula or learning objectives.

Student Voice: Students being allowed to select, design, implement, and evaluate their service activity.

Contact Cindy Long if you would like a DVD copy of "Sleep with a Virgin...A Perspective on AIDS."