Can Community Service Improve STEM Education?

Combining community service and classroom instruction has been a boon for performance in most academic subjects. Does it work for STEM? That’s the question at the heart of a new Cal State study funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Related: W.M. Keck Foundation: Grants for STEM Higher Education

Funders and educational institutions are trying all kinds of teaching philosophies, mentoring, tech tools, competitions, etc., to boost performance and interest in science, tech, engineering and math education. One area where there hasn’t been much close attention paid is service learning, in which STEM courses integrate community service into lessons. 

While it varies with personal experience, studies have demonstrated that service learning courses can significantly improve learning, academic engagement, and retention among college students. Working on projects in the field teaches teamwork and practical skills, and can provide personal inspiration that increases the students’ connection to their education.

This is catching on in STEM courses, particularly in engineering education, where it provides students with knowledge of more practical aspects and human context behind the field.

But so far, there’s been a lack of research on the impact specific to these courses. 

At California State University, where the school has been particularly enthusiastic about growing service learning in STEM courses, an 18-month research project hopes to put some data to the actual value for students. The study will happen in partnership with Cal State and the California Campus Compact, a state service learning organization. Researchers will track academic achievement, career development, and civic engagement of students participating in such courses. 

The study is supported by the W.M. Keck Foundation, which is supplying a grant of $500,000 for the university to conduct the research. The Los Angeles-based Keck funds a lot of research, but also has a program on undergraduate education.  

One of the biggest challenges in promoting STEM education is that students, especially women and minorities, don't feel like such fields have relevance to their lives or goals. There’s a stubborn image of science students as nerdy, white guys in lab coats, reinforced by the fact that it often is nerdy, white guys in lab coats. 

In that sense, you can see how service learning could provide a new perspective on the value and relevance of STEM skills in real communities, while forming real human relationships.