Colorado State University’s Service Learning Course “Micro Lessons: Macro Impact”

by Erica Suchman (Professor Colorado State University Service Learning Course)

Our plan

Project Micro biology - Macro Impact began in 2000 as a simple desire to provide college students at Colorado State University with opportunities to inspire younger students about science and learning. A microbiology professor at CSU, local teachers, and staff members of the school district volunteer program collaborated to create lesson plans that could be taught by college students which addressed the needs of students in elementary, middle, and high schools. The ideas were developed into a successful and sustainable service learning project with many tiers of teaching and learning. College senior microbiology students play leadership roles within the project and finish off their college careers with the completion of unique capstone theses. Younger college honor students enrolled in general microbiology are taught introductory microbiology techniques by the senior capstone students that are necessary to teach the K-12 students. All project members develop communication skills by working with teachers and students.

Service-based learning has rapidly become a mainstay in our communities, primarily at the University level. The idea is that finding innovative and creative ways to teach students (age demographic notwithstanding) something that an individual is passionate about is one of the best ways to learn and master this concept. In the field of science, many bright minds have realized that teaching through experimentation and other kinesthetic methods is an impressively efficient way of generating excitement and knowledge. As part of a service learning course in our microbiology department, we have set out to do just that. With the understanding that funding issues and instructor training for all-purpose teachers have led to unfortunate cutbacks in science education in elementary, middle, and high schools, we have tried to reestablish a foothold for science in the lives of students. Admittedly, not all students are aspiring scientists; but we believe that there are many that have the potential to be aspiring scientists and just don't know it yet.

What we did

With elementary and middle school general education teachers having very broad training in a number of subjects-focusing primarily on the liberal arts-we realize that many educators do not feel equipped to bring hands on science instruction to the table. To mitigate this, we have reached out to local schools via a program operated by the public school district called "Share it" in which teachers can post requests for suggestions and ideas to run and operate a number of different lessons. Then, we have a look at the ones that are science-related and offer our help to the schools in the form of knowledgeable and eager college students. We have covered a myriad of topics in science including general microbiology, microscopy, epidemiology, biology, genetics, food preparation, and general health practices. We gather the supplies we need and travel to the local schools to teach kids in a way in which they are actively involved. In short, these are lessons requested by local teachers and implemented by college students.

All of these activities are designed to generate an interest in science in these kids. By request of the teachers, the sessions generally involve a question and answer session where students ask us an array of questions about the lesson we just finished and an assortment of other things. These are often questions that can be difficult for general education teachers to field due to the superficial nature of their own science education; thus, it's nice for college students who specialize in these areas to shed light on students' curiosities. We also spend some time discussing what we do as microbiologists and our career goals to show them that normal, everyday people do science and that they can too.

The various visits during the semester ranged from teaching proper hand washing method, culturing bacteria from around the classroom, identifying mistakes in food prep leading to food borne illnesses, teaching the technique for Gram staining, epidemiology activity, microscopy, observing viral cytopathic effect under a microscope, parasitology, blood typing using immunology, and identifying an unknown bacterium through a series of tests. The majority of the visits occurred in the classrooms and various schools, but a few happened on the CSU campus. Each visit was led by a small group of undergrad students who guided the students through the activity while giving attention to all of the students present. We also all participated in the Colorado Science and Engineering fair as judges or volunteers. This event was in desperate need of volunteers and our participation helped make the science fair a successful and enjoyable experience for all of the student participants. In addition, we worked to incorporate the Five Colorado Model Content Standards, by drawing on Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth and Space Science components, as well as promoting scientific investigation, communication and critical thinking. In total, in the spring of 2013 17 students logged over 250 volunteer hours in 15 weeks and taught over 800 unique students, which is representative of the average amount of visits over the last 10 years. Before each visit, we would give the teachers an evaluation form to evaluate our program and the students running each visit to better improve the visits in the future or for future groups of volunteers. We also evaluated each other after every visit to improve the lesson plans and the visits so they would run more smoothly.

The support of the teachers made all the difference in gaining the attention of the kids. These teachers contacted our professor requesting certain demos and activities to teach their students specific topics in science. They even directed us on what they felt was necessary for the kids to learn and how to make sure they learn it: this included suggestions like coloring worksheets for younger students and a reflection statement for older students to look back on what they learned in each of the demos we did.

Our results

We were impressed to see the interest the students had in learning science through a hands-on activity. Some of us felt like we learned more from them. The idea of pursuing science is hard to swallow for kids who are only exposed to science by mandatory assignments and lectures that are mostly word-based. There is something about holding a plate culture of fungus and bacteria or seeing tapeworm larvae under a microscope that makes these students want to learn more about the world of science that they constantly interact with.

But the K-12 students were not the only ones who learned and got excited about learning science. We feel sharing some of our reflective feedback best summarizes the transformative effect it had on us as well.

Student Comments from Spring 2013

“I have always wanted to be a teacher, or should I say that teaching is something I have always wanted to do, not necessarily as a profession. When I heard of an opportunity to take a class where I would be teaching school age children about microbiology I knew I had to utilize this opportunity. …This class experience altered my perspectives in several ways. The first way was to show me that I had actually learned something in my experience as a student. Before we could go out into the world and teach children, we made sure that all of us were sure of our skill set. Helping the honors students fine tune their skills and learn from me and my fellow seniors enlightened me to the fact that I might know a little something about microbiology. One of the things inhibiting my ambition to teach was a lack of confidence that I was knowledgeable enough to facilitate others learning. In an environment where I am learning from seasoned professionals who are experts in the field it is easy to forget that I have also accumulated knowledge on the subject. Armed with confidence and book smarts, it was easy for me to step forward and help other people learn.”

“After having the opportunity to work, one of the greatest rewards was having the chance to witness their excitement in learning and being able to practice something new. Often, after each time, their questions were indicative of their interest and curiosity. While we will not directly see the end results of our interactions with the students, we still hope to inspire them to find their own passions, and perhaps even pursue careers that directly or indirectly handle matters of science. These students hold the key to the future; especially as science continually advances and new discoveries are made. A quote that I believe resonates with my personal experience states; “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” True education has been lost in the mess of today’s dilution of the American public school system. To change this, similar to idea of Dave Eggers, we must impact the lives of others on a personal level. And so I hope that this program is a success and continues on a path of growth for the future, in that, participants are able to connect with even more students. Society quietly craves innovators; those who think outside of the box. By focusing our lessons through interactive experiences, and breaking down walls of the traditional education system, we hope to contribute and to foster the new generation of learning reformation.”