Promoting Science Literacy through Research Service-Learning-An Emerging Pedagogy with Significant Benefits for Students, Faculty, Universities, and Communities

By Reynolds, Julie A.; Ahern-Dodson, Jennifer | Journal of College Science Teaching, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

Promoting Science Literacy through Research Service-Learning-An Emerging Pedagogy with Significant Benefits for Students, Faculty, Universities, and Communities


Reynolds, Julie A., Ahern-Dodson, Jennifer, Journal of College Science Teaching


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Science literacy is often narrowly construed as the understanding of key concepts and principles of science when, as Carl Sagan (1986, p. 15) said, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." Rutherford and Ahlgren (1991) argued that scientifically literate people should understand the strengths and limitations of science, be familiar with the diversity and unity of nature, and be able to use scientific thinking and knowledge. Given this idea, we wondered how much undergraduate science courses actually promote science literacy. Certainly many do, particularly upperdivision courses. But many introductory courses probably do not promote science literacy, especially when they focus on covering content. Paradoxically, introductory courses have both the greatest opportunity to promote science literacy--because so many students take them--and the greatest potential to perpetuate the myth that science is inaccessible to the average person--by focusing on content.

Therefore, when we decided to design an introductory course for nonmajors that would promote science literacy, we knew we should move beyond content and teach students to think scientifically. Our solution was to use an emerging pedagogy, research service-learning (RSL), to engage students in authentic, community-based scientific research while showing them how to use their new knowledge to serve society.

Research as service

Traditional service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs and then reflect on those service experiences through structured opportunities designed to promote learning and development (Jacoby 1996). Examples of service-learning activities include tutoring academically at-risk students, working in food banks, and visiting older adults in nursing homes.

RSL expands this model to include research as service. RSL teaches students to ask research questions that are relevant to their communities' needs and to work with faculty and community partners to design and implement research projects to address those needs. This approach encourages students to investigate why service is needed and to consider the larger institutional structures that impact their project. Service is linked to the themes of the course (e.g., emerging diseases or impacts of technology on society) and students learn basic research skills such as conducting literature reviews, identifying research questions, taking field notes, gathering and analyzing data, and interpreting results. Students also learn to reflect critically on the ethical, intellectual, personal, and civic aspects of their experiences while producing tangible research products (usually reports) for their community partners.

Service-learning has grown in popularity in recent years, and research on service-learning has responded to faculty concerns about academic rigor (Eyler and Giles 1999), assessment (Gelmon et al. 2001), and connections between students' community service in college and later participation in public life (Cammarano, Battistoni, and Hudson 2000). Nevertheless, critiques of service-learning include the following: (1) benefits that favor students and faculty instead of the community (Community-Campus Partnerships for Health 1998); (2) lack of intentionality regarding the community role in decision making, planning, and developing projects (Cruz and Giles 2000; Sandy and Holland 2006); and (3) predominately superficial impacts because of limited time in the community (Enos and Morton 2003). RSL proponents have taken these partnership critiques seriously, putting greater emphasis on mutual benefits and long-term partnership development (e.g., Ferrari and Jason 1996; Mintz and Hesser 1996; Willis et al. 2003). In RSL, students are treated as colleagues, not just volunteers or interns. Likewise, RSL faculty are not just teachers, they are also collaborators and colearners. …

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