George Lucas Educational Foundation

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Montpelier High School

Grades 9-12 | Montpelier, VT

Service Learning: Real-Life Applications for Learning

Montpelier High School's service learning program integrates across the curriculum, utilizing a school greenhouse and gardens to provide food for the school district's lunch program.
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Service Learning: Real-Life Applications for Learning (Transcript)

Tom: When we're producing food, there's that purpose and that brings relevance. It's all about student engagement and by engagement, I'm not talking about just paying attention. I'm talking about like an emotional, psychological commitment to their learning.

Anne: We're always studying these things in the context of this classroom or in a textbook, and that's not necessarily authentic. Service learning is any kind of project or unit that takes the required curriculum and finds applications in the community. So it's going to end up having a real life product or meaning. You have a third party right in front of you. The school definitely has needs. How can your class meet them? The greenhouse is a really great example of a way that service learning can actually benefit the same group that is doing studying.

Tom: Every kid is part of the food system, so the relevance is there. The original vision for the greenhouse was that biology students were going to grow salad greens. Using biology students guaranteed that every kid in the school was going to get exposure. The daily operations of salad green production involves them tending their plants on a daily basis. Each student has two of those trays. They plant them, they water them, they monitor them for pests, they thin them out.

William: We learned all about soil, fertilization, what the plants need and taking care of the plants in general, which was great.

Sam: We harvest them Mondays and Wednesday mornings. Those are taken to the cafeteria and distributed throughout the entire district. The greens are not only eaten here within the school, but they're also eaten at the middle school and the elementary school.

Betty: We can use everything that they grow. I pay for the greens, that's why we document it. They are more apt to take greens from the salad bar if it's something that they've seen and grown. They're a little bit proud of that.

William: Having so much effect on what we're eating in school, it feels really nice. It feels like you've accomplished something.

Tom: We don't necessarily want to get things planted as soon as they can. We want to kind of work backwards from the school year in the fall so that what you're planting, what you're growing, will be ready when the kids are back in school.

In my environmental applications class, service learning is a key piece. They get the outdoor gardens started. They'll set up management and harvest plans for the next year's class to come in. Within that structure of the service learning projects, these different initiatives and projects come about. For example, we add different crops, the hoop house, the irrigation system, and aquaponics.

William: The fishes' waste is toxic to us, but when the plants get a hold of it, they take the nitrogen and other helpful things in it and turn it into food for us.

Tom: They have action plans that they have to develop. They have different rubrics that they assess themselves, and I assess them every other week to see if they're sticking to those plans. They blog about it at least every other week.

William: There's lots of opportunities to apply our learning and make it relevant to the real world, because why learn it if it doesn't mean anything?

Anne: When I think about how I'm going to incorporate service learning into my curriculum, I first look at, what are my objectives? What do I want kids to walk away with by the time this unit is over? How are the kids going to get from not knowing anything to a final product that is useful and helpful? As part of teaching physics, one of the ways that heat transfer can be talked about is through the process of making bio char, which is charcoal used like fertilizer.

We're looking at the efficiency of--

Student: How fast it will burn water.

Anne: How fast it will heat up water. We need the mass of the wood beforehand and we need the mass of the unburned wood afterwards.

Kids are designing their own systems that will create this bio char. We'll inoculate it with some bacteria and probably see how much does it increase crop yields and do some experiments with that. Service learning projects take ballpark three or four weeks, which is a substantial commitment, but it's going to be relevant. The kids are going to remember it forever, so it's totally worth it because engagement is so much higher.

What do you think, is it going to change it a lot?

Student: Yeah.

Student: Yeah, I think so.

Student: Yeah.

Tom: There really is also this work component to it. It's tied into their grades in different ways, but the level responsibility, salad greens in the greenhouse. You skip it for a day and they could die. That level of responsibility, we didn't realize how big that was going to be.

Anne: They have an external reason to care; it's not just about the grades for them. I've often seen kids who are not really that engaged in school come alive when they get to project that's going to mean something to someone else.

Tom: Former students come back and talk about how that, you know, really transformed them.

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Service Learning: Real-Life Applications for Learning

For the past 10 years, Montpelier High School has seen the value of providing opportunities for students to participate in service activities. 

Service learning is any kind of project or unit that takes the curriculum and finds an application and relevance in the community. It gives the learning a specific focus and outcome for a third party. Teachers often find that service learning provides a context for what is being studied in the classroom, and it engages students by making the learning relevant in the real world.

How It's Done at Montpelier High

How It's Done

Service Learning: Definitions

Service learning is any kind of project or unit that takes the curriculum and finds an application and relevance in the community. Service learning is different from community service, which involves going out to help people and may not have any curricular ties. Service learning is also different from community-based learning, which is like an apprenticeship where students go out into the community to do their learning.

Designing a Service Learning Component

Designing a service learning component begins with thinking about what curriculum unit might be a good fit for a service learning project. What are the objectives of the curriculum unit? What do you want students to walk away with by the time the unit is over? How are students going to get from not knowing anything to a final product that is useful and relevant to a third party?

As you begin to think about your unit, you will also want to think about where in the community the project can take place. Who needs a feasibility study done in energy, for example? Who needs a solution? Ask community organizations and businesses what their needs are right now. Could they use some help with a small project or some aspect of your curriculum unit? Connecting with needs in the community is essential to creating a good, relevant project.

Once the project is set up with a community partner, lay out the steps for proceeding with it. Is there any paperwork that needs to be done (permission slips for leaving the school)? Are there any materials that need to be gathered (a community organization's mission statement and purpose)? Possible materials include:

  • Supporting documentation
  • Background on whatever might not be exactly tied to the curriculum
  • Anything describing how to proceed with the project
  • Descriptions of how students will get from not knowing anything to a final product that is useful and helpful to someone

Finally, you want to frame the unit for the students, which usually involves getting that third party to come into the classroom and pitch their need -- or find some other way to introduce the need and have students connect to it. Frame the need so that everything you do in that unit has an overarching goal. Students inevitably ask, "Why are we learning this?" You can answer that question with a real, direct reason for how that third party could benefit from their learning and work.


On average, teachers at Montpelier have found that good service learning projects take 3-4 weeks. Many teachers choose to do one really solid service learning project per year, because it takes a fair amount of planning and preparation. In addition, because these projects do actually fulfill real needs, MHS teachers design new projects every few years. However, even a handful of projects every year adds up to a lot of relevance for students during the school year.

Working Within the School: Montpelier’s Greenhouse

When identifying a third party for whom a service learning project is beneficial, the school itself is a great option as that third party. As MHS physics teacher Anne Watson says, "The school definitely has needs. How can your class meet them?" If you're new to service learning projects, it can also be much easier to work within the building than outside of the building. Teachers can certainly create opportunities for one another.

Over the years, MHS has built a greenhouse as a way to support its commitment to sustainability. The school's greenhouse and food production model is a way that service learning benefits the same group that is doing the studying. All students in biology class learn about plant and nutrient cycles, and MHS has tied this into service learning by also having the students grow salad greens in the greenhouse, which are then used by the school cafeteria. Each biology student takes care of two trays of salad greens throughout the school year. Students tend their greens on a daily basis, planting the seeds, watering the plants, monitoring them for pests, and finally harvesting. Greens are collected twice a week and brought to the food service staff for purchase. The cafeteria actually pays for the greens from their budget -- money that would normally be spent on purchasing from an outside vendor. The money in turn helps support the greenhouse through the purchasing of seeds, fertilizer, and other supplies. The greens are eaten not only at the high school, but at the local middle and elementary schools as well. Students are more apt to take greens from the salad bar if they have grown them. They feel connected when they feel that they've accomplished something.

More Service Learning Examples

Other examples of service learning at MHS have included the physics class doing a feasibility study on how much energy the solar panels on the greenhouse are producing, and whether it's enough to sustain that space in terms of electricity. The economics class has looked at the greenhouse's crop yields and whether they're cost-efficient to continue running the facility. A math class looked into whether the cafeteria should switch over from plastic to metal utensils, and collected and analyzed data about the loss of silverware over time. Their findings were presented to the school and demonstrated that switching to metal utensils would still be more cost-effective than keeping plastic utensils. The school made the switch!

Service learning can, of course, be done outside of the school to benefit a community group or an organization or business. A recent example included the physics class studying the air quality of downtown Montpelier, and submitting the study to the city to help deal with car pollution and driving patterns. Another class did an energy study on heating and insulation in their own homes, and made recommendations on whether there was enough insulation in their family home.

Service learning benefits students and the community partner. For students, it is a project that means something to someone else, and often makes the learning relevant and real. Teachers find that students are often more engaged with the learning when they understand these real-life connections.


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