The Chemistry of Service Learning

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269849_service-learning-ven-diagram.jpgIn the spring of 2016 I started incorporating a semester long service learning project into my senior level medicinal chemistry course at Birmingham-Southern College. While service learning may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we consider active learning or flipped teaching in the classroom, it does involve similar core values that flipped teaching hopes to achieve: a student centered application of academic material to help promote deeper understanding and critical reflection. The only difference is that the product of service learning must in some way provide a meaningful benefit to a target community. As an educator who continues to study pedagogy, I have quickly recognized the powerful impact service learning can have on a student; but as a chemist, I found it extremely difficult to imagine how I could incorporate such a valuable practice into my own courses. Instead, I decided to let my students do the imagining for me. Each year at the start of the spring term, I place students in small 3-4 people groups and prompt them to reflect on and propose a project that they could complete within the term.

The prompt:

To provide a frame work for the project, students are provided with the following prompt:

Throughout the semester we will be developing, implementing and assessing a community service project. This project must:
  1. Emphasize initiatives to combat public misconceptions of pharmaceuticals and increase overall social scientific literacy in the Birmingham area.
  2. Increase opportunities for low-income families in the metro and/or surrounding areas to receive necessary medical care and educational support to properly take necessary medications and monitor their health.
  3. Be feasibly conducted by students in next year’s Medicinal Chemistry course over a 2-3 week period near the end of the term.
This project can incorporate support from existing community service programs but must expand or implement something new within the scope of that program. If you plan to utilize an existing program, you must approach a representative of that program with your proposal and summarize his or her feedback/support.
I expect this proposal to be NLT 5 pages typed, include sufficient detail on how the project can be implemented and managed, provide an explanation of the broader impacts of this project and how they align with this call for proposals. 

As described above, students are expected to produce a written proposal which is assessed with a proposal rubric(also provided at the start of the term). Additionally, each group is then given time to present (or pitch) their proposals in front of the class. After the pitch session, students then discuss if they prefer to remain in their smaller groups and each group complete their own proposed project, or if they would like to align aspects of the various proposals to make one larger project that the students work on as a class. Each time I have done this project, the class has decided to work as one larger organization, at which point I encourage the class to set up a means of communication (groupme works well for this), to develop a timeline and to assign specific roles to individual students. 

Assessment Strategy

Beyond trying to visualize how service learning can fit into an advanced level chemistry course (which I offloaded on to the students), determining a way to assess and measure impact on academic learning and thus provide a meaningful grade for the students was also a challenge for me. So again, I reached out to the students for help and together we crafted a plan:

Proposal (50 points): Already described above.
Journal (50 points): Throughout the experience, students are expected to maintain a journal in order to document their contributions, log time spent on the project, and reflect on the experience. A total of 10 journal entries (one per week) is expected. Each journal entry should include a date, log of time spent on the project, should be NLT a page long and should include not only descriptive features, but thoughtful reflection as well. Reflective prompts will be provided on the course moodle page to help orient you as you write.
Hours (25 points): Students are expected to spend NLT 30 hours on this project and the time spent should be documented within the notebook. This includes time spent in research, planning, journaling, preparation and implementation.
Products (50 points): Students will be evaluated on the products (paper materials, videos, interviews, events, presentation poster) of their projects. If there is no tangible product by which to evaluate, students will construct a research style poster explaining the project.
Community partner and peer evaluations (25 points): Each student will be evaluated by three peers and a community partner. The total score will be the average of each evaluation. Evaluations need to be justified, simply assigning a score without supporting evidence will not be acceptable

All together, the project was worth 200 points, or 20% of the total course grade, which aligns with the typical point distribution for the laboratory component of a lab based course. 

The journal is an essential component of the project, not only because it provides evidence of time spent, it also provides an avenue of critical self reflection to help students' align their own expectations and understanding with that they were learning throughout the process. This year,  it also gave me valuable feedback in what did or didn't work well in the implementation of project that I can use in the following year. To help illustrate my point, here are some of the students' comments from their own journals:
  • "It was nice to actually kind of use what we had been learning in a class in a way that I would not have originally through of."
  • "I've found that I like the classes when we talk about helping the community, or even in the larger sense than other classes."
  • "Beginning thinking about this project has encouraged me to become more aware of the struggles that so many less fortunate people face, as well as the responsibility that I have to positively impact these segments of the population... I am excited that this project will force me to get out of my comfort zone and engage with people with whom I may not normally interact".
  • "An especially important consideration I had today was how valuable different perspectives and opinions can be within a team"
  • "This project has already taught me that simply giving up out of exasperation is not an option."
  • "However, I think this project is teaching me to plan further ahead and to be more supportive of my peers' work."
  • "This project honestly  may be my favorite curriculum related work I have done during my tenure at BSC".
  • "During the progression of this service project, I hope to gain insight into new models of empathy."
  • "Overall, this has been a challenging yet rewarding task to complete. Really using my creativity is something I haven't had to use as a chemistry major/math minor/pre-med student. However, I do think it is incredibly important to exercise this part of your brain,, as it can be utilized in so many different ways regardless of career choice."

The product

This year, the students came up with a really clever and creative project: A youtube video series called "Vedicinal Chemistry" that features short 3-5 minute animated videos on common topics related to health and medicine. These videos are meant to be shared through social media and with local schools/institutions.. by why talk about it? Why not watch them?
I loved this project for a number of reason! First, it is something that the community can continue to use well beyond the single term in which the project was implemented, so it has a much more lasting impact. Second, it provided students a glimpse into my teaching style. A number of students remarked in their journals how surprisingly time consuming creating a simple, well-researched, 3-5 minute video can be. And third, it is something we can build on and easily expand upon in future classes at BSC. My plan now is to continue the Vedicinal Chemistry video series in next year's class and have each group of students responsible for proposing, developing and implementing a new video to share through social media and to our community partners who are already using the series. 

Interesting in implementing a service learning project in your own course? Have ideas you would like to chew on? Let me know and leave your comments below! Also, feel free to visit my instructional resources page to see my rubrics, reflection prompts and evaluations I developed or borrowed for this project. I'd love to hear your feedback! 
About the Author
As an educator, researcher, wife and mother, I am dedicated to developing and assessing innovations in chemistry education, medical diagnostics, and the biophysical characterization of non-helical DNA structures found in the non-coding regions of the genome. Website: