Connecting Labs with the Real World through Service Learning

teacher showing student rock crystalAs I go through my career as a Biology Instructor, I have been noticing more and more, the student focus on “getting through” laboratory experiences as quickly as possible without really thinking about the process. Sometimes, it seems like a race to see who can finish and get out of the laboratory quickest. Much to my dismay, I am also frequently asked by students: “Is this experiment going to take the whole class period?” I understand that students have many competing interests and priorities that can reduce their internal motivation to be scientific scholars, but I don’t think that their attitude is entirely their fault. I think that many students arrive at college, having only experienced laboratory exercises where there is one correct answer that can be achieved relatively quickly by following directions in a lab manual. Therefore, fewer and fewer students seem to be considering the learning objectives or real-world applications of experiential laboratory exercises.

Apparently, this is a phenomenon common to many disciplines in higher education. In fact, cognitive scientists have labeled this the “inert knowledge” problem, which is the tendency to acquire knowledge which cannot be accessed or applied outside the environment in which it was acquired. This principle means that once students complete your carefully designed laboratory exercise during your course, the only place it is applicable or remembered is the laboratory space where it was performed. I have been interested in implementing a pedagogical method that addresses this lack of “connectedness” between my course content and the “real world”, and I may have found the answer with service learning. Service learning is a pedagogy specifically designed to counter the isolation of learning from experience and the artificial division of subject matter into disconnected disciplines.

Service-Learning is defined as a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities (National Service-Learning Clearinghouse). Designing and implementing a service learning component to your Physiology or Biology course can be significantly challenging, but when implemented effectively, it can inspire students to deeper, more engaged learning, even in the sciences.One of the simplest types of service learning activities is educational outreach where students in your class help K-12 students understand important scientific concepts. In addition, several professional societies, like the American Physiological Society, provide a plethora of resources to assist faculty in integrating educational outreach experiences into the classroom or laboratory.

I am a Neuroscientist by training and I teach both introductory and advanced courses in Neuroscience and Endocrinology. In my current position at a small liberal arts college, I have found that science education outreach activities can be readily integrated into most of my courses. My most recent service learning project involved students from my Introduction to Neuroscience course. In this course, students were tasked with creating a stand-alone learning module in the form of a lesson plan that addressed one or more K-12 state and federal learning objectives. The students worked together to create learning goals, activities and desired outcomes before creating a poster and activity to take to an elementary school science night event. Many students were not accustomed to thinking about scientific concepts in this manner, and, to be honest, not all of the students were altogether enthused about the project initially. Interestingly, after participating in the event, even the most reluctant and unenthusiastic students were exuberant and thankful to have been a part of the event.

Working out the logistics for a successful service learning event or project can definitely be difficult and time consuming, but it’s worth the headache. Service learning can give introductory students an opportunity to see their newly learned biological concepts in action in the real world. Making the material tangible can be the difference between a major and a lifelong passion. Service learning can also provide a more comfortable learning environment for some students, especially when serving a diverse population is part of the mission of your institution.

While the integration of service learning can be its own reward, it can be so much more. Educational research indicates that students who engage in service learning experiences as part of their undergraduate education have increased leadership skills and awareness of social disparities in their communities. In addition, service learning experiences typically result in the transformation of student skills and attitudes as well as content knowledge. Therefore, service learning as a pedagogy in the sciences appears to be a student-centered, high impact practice that may give students new views on their field and excite the next generation of young scientists.

Keys to Success:

  1. Make sure that you are addressing a real community need, and not imposing on community members or institutions that may already be stretched to the limit.
  2. Start early, at least the semester prior to your anticipated service learning embedded course.
  3. Utilize your institution’s service learning center, if you have one. They can provide information on connections with community partners, experience with service learning and assessment.
  4. Start small, with a limited number of projects.
  5. Plan for assessment of learning goals, and remember to check to see if any assessment surveys need approval by the human subjects review board.



Erin Keen-Rhinehart is a reproductive neuroendocrinologist who received her PhD from the University of Florida, College of Medicine in Neuroscience. After getting her PhD, she received a postdoctoral fellowship to the FIRST (Fellows in Research and Scientific Teaching) Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. She is now an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Susquehanna University, a small liberal arts college in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where she has successfully started an undergraduate neuroscience program. She teaches an introductory course in neuroscience and upper-level courses Neuroendocrinology and Functional Neuroanatomy. Her research focuses on how nutrition during gestation can have long-term effects on the brain, endocrine system and behavior. She and her undergraduate research students investigate the effects of nutrient restriction during pregnancy on offspring central nervous system regulation of ingestive behavior and reproductive system physiology in rodent animal models. In 2014, she received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation in support of her research and teaching efforts. She has been a member of the Education committee for the American Physiological Society and is the current chair of the Professional Development committee for the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.


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