Service-Learning: Climate Change to Neuroplasticity

Fifteen students from Professor O’Connell’s Oceans and Climate class visited Washington D.C. to meet with congressional staffers and other environmental policy experts.

Service Learning (SL) integrates experiences outside the classroom with an academic curriculum taught within the classroom. As one form of experiential education, service learning seeks to broaden students’ understanding of course content through activities which are, at the same time, of service to the campus and/or surrounding community.

In Fall 2017, two SL classes really exemplified experiential education. Professors Suzanne O’Connell’s and Janice Naegele’s classes brought students out of their own classrooms, and into the community to share what they have learned. I got a chance to hear from several students about their experiences. Most students told me they were not aware that they were SL courses when they registered, or rather they chose the classes based on interest in the subject matter, not the service-learning component. However, students overall reported positive experiences with the service-learning component, and said that they learned more by figuring out how to best teach others.

Professor Suzanne O’Connell is a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies. Her Oceans and Climate class did something a little bit unusual. Her students brought science-based seminars on climate change to Chester Village West, a retirement community in Chester, CT. “Up to now, many of our courses and the larger climate change educators’ community have focused on Kindergarten-through-12th grade audiences,” O’Connell said. “However, because we know that seniors are active public advocates in many other areas, and because of the urgency of this issue, we thought the time was right to reach out to older populations.”
The students I spoke to reported that their audiences at Chester Village were actively engaged and wanted to learn more about the topic. Many had fun with their presentations, and were glad to be a friendly and open-minded environment. Miles Brooks ’20 said “Many people came up to me afterwards and expressed their concern about the urgency of the issues. I felt like it was productive use of our time because we changed people’s mindset.” Likewise, Ryan Nelson ’20 learned that “individuals are often receptive to information about climate change.”
Students that I interviewed as well as students in an anonymous service-learning survey felt like they benefited from the experience, too. They had to learn how to translate complex ideas into accessible language for a wider community. Melissa Luna, a grad student, had fun with her presentation because it was a topic she is passionate about, but also “learned that it does take some time to articulate a way to pass that message in order for all (or most) to understand.” Eric Hagen ’18 said “my biggest take-away from the class was that presenting scientific information to a non-science audience can be very difficult. Things that seem simple to me and my friends who study this stuff is not necessarily simple to others who don’t study it.” While there were challenges, some also found a sense of camaraderie and personal growth in the class. Kelly Lam ’19 said “in preparation for it, I got to know my classmates and professor better and was allowed to explore class material in a way that interested me,” and also that presenting helped her feel connected to the broader community.

Professor Janice Naegele’s Neuroplasticity: How Experience Changes the Brain class brings students into high school classrooms. Naegele said “I teach a Service Learning component in my course because the experience of preparing a classroom unit on the subjects from the course helps the students learn how to communicate complex scientific concepts to people who do not have a strong science background. In addition, by providing high school students with exposure to college level biology, they help encourage the next generation of STEM leaders. Several of the units that my students taught had a component that emphasized how regular exercise and eating a healthy diet, low in fats and sugar has been shown to have positive effects on the brain and cognition.”
Julie Schwartz ’19, a student in Professor Naegele’s class, felt that the whole process of preparing a presentation and then teaching a class of engaged high schoolers about neuroplasticity (certainly not an easy topic) was very rewarding. From an essay she wrote about the experience: “I am now remembering this time when a graduate student came to my high school to talk to us about women in science, and how it affected me and encouraged me to pursue research. If my presentation has the same effect on even one of these students, I will have achieved my job!”

Learn more about Service-Learning courses you can take in spring 2018!