George Lucas Educational Foundation
Service Learning

Empowering Kids to Be Part of the Solution

Giving elementary students a project in their community provides a real-world application for their content learning.



Explore School and Community Needs as Real-World Catalysts for Learning

When designing projects and lessons at Crellin Elementary, teachers regularly look at school and community needs with the idea of using those needs as real-world catalysts for learning, instead of inventing problems for the kids to solve. Learning is made more tangible and real this way, and students are also empowered by discovering that they are able to enact change in the world around them. They become more engaged and passionate about learning because they can see the direct results.

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How It's Done

Find Local Problems Your Students Can Solve

At Crellin Elementary, community service is a core value to the school. Teachers and staff are always seeking ways for the school to give back to the community, whether by planting a community garden or helping cook meals for a local community center. But rather than just service for service’s sake, Crellin finds local problems that they can solve and ties these projects to learning objectives. By doing so, they make learning relevant and engaging.

Dana McCauley, Crellin's principal, believes that this approach helps kids immediately see the reasons for what they're learning. "I'm not going to ask them to memorize those multiplication tables because I have nothing else to do," she says. "It's because later on, when we're calculating how big that composter needs to be, they'll need to know the area we're going to be using, and they'll to do it quickly. So it's about applying the knowledge."

3 Steps to Engagement

Crellin teachers suggest three main ways of finding real-world problems for students to solve:

1. Keep Your Eyes Open for Problems

Crellin teachers are always looking for real-world problems -- either in the school or the surrounding community -- from which students can learn. When they first began using local problems as fodder for learning, teachers had to do more of the seeking themselves, but now, several years into this practice, McCauley says they no longer have to search as hard.

"We find 'problems' by keeping active and being aware of what is happening in both the Crellin and greater community," she says, adding that they find interesting opportunities by reading newspapers or talking with members of the community. She even notes that, by this point, people will actually bring problems for the school to solve.

Building relationships with community members can really help. McCauley suggests that the best way to get started here is to put out the word that you're looking for issues which the students can help solve. Once you open your doors to the community, it's much easier for people to approach teachers and suggest possible projects. "It's all about relationships," says McCauley. "We know what the needs are out there -- we are in constant contact with parents and different groups in the community."

2. Tie Projects to Learning Objectives

"Everything's a learning opportunity, right?" observes McCauley, a statement that holds true for all Crellin teachers. So once a problem has been identified, teachers begin looking for ways to use that problem or issue as a catalyst for learning: What standards can they tie in? How can they broaden the issue to hit more learning objectives?

McCauley offers the example of cooking, where students use math, reading, following directions, and working with measurement tools. "You're not going to cook just for the sake of cooking," she notes. "That's how you tie in all the things you need to teach, and you make it relevant."

Teachers designing a problem-based unit ask themselves questions like:

  • Why would we do this?
  • What are we doing?
  • What do we hope to get out of it?

This helps them ensure that they're hitting learning objectives and not just throwing out random problems that will only confuse their students.

3. Let Students Help Steer

Sometimes teachers might not be sure where to search for a local problem, or might have multiple real-world problems or issues to choose from. This is when Crellin teachers often turn to their students for input on what they find the most interesting.

"If I ever had to choose which project," says McCauley, "I think I would look at the kids and let them help." She describes a scenario of giving them the option of two projects or problems and then inviting a discussion steered by questions like:

  • Which do you think we can be a part of?
  • Which do you think that you'd want to be a part of?
  • What are the benefits of it?

McCauley notes that the student choice can be part of the learning. "I don't think we always have to be the one to choose," she adds.

This way, not only do students feel a sense of ownership, but the teachers also know in advance that there's some interest in the issue. Even if the teacher decides to take the project in a different direction -- possibly for safety reasons, or feasibility -- at least students have had a chance to voice their opinion. "I think allowing kids to be part of that conversation is important," says McCauley. "That way, they can understand why some decisions are being made."

The Benefits of Real-World Problem-Solving

Once students are able to be actively involved in solving problems that have tangible outcomes, they become more invested in solving other problems. This takes them deeper into the learning that they need for finding those solutions.

"Because you're teaching kids to be critical thinkers, you're teaching them to be reflective, and you're teaching them to be creative," says McCauley. "It doesn't matter what problem you give them after that because they'll be able to figure it out. They'll have the skills they need to think something through logically."

"When you can help kids see the impact they can have to solve a problem in their own little corner of the world," observes McCauley, "it's an opportunity to learn something. It's an opportunity to make something good happen. That gives them that sense of belonging and a sense of being a part of something bigger. . . 'Here's an issue, here's a problem, and I'm going to lend my part to that. Even I, as a ten-year-old, have something to add to that.'"


School Snapshot

Crellin Elementary School

Grades PK-5 | Oakland, MD
109 | Public, Rural
Per Pupil Expenditures
$14,251 District
Free / Reduced Lunch
99% White
1% Asian
Demographic data is from the 2014-15 academic year. Fiscal data is from the 2013-14 academic year.