Service Learning

Having Students Serve Their District

Visit a high school that incorporates service learning throughout the curriculum, including having biology classes produce greens for the cafeterias.

February 3, 2015


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.


School Snapshot

Montpelier High School

Grades 9-12 | Montpelier, VT
313 | Public, Rural
Per Pupil Expenditures
$13895 District
Free / Reduced Lunch
90% White
3% Asian
3% Multiracial
2% Black
2% Hispanic
Demographic data is from the 2012-13 academic year. Fiscal data is from the 2014-15 academic year.

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  • Service Learning
  • Community Partnerships
  • 9-12 High School

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