Earth Force Project
At Friends Central School (FCS), the science curriculum has worked to dissolve the boundaries between school and community by emphasizing service learning projects. One of the ways that the FCS Middle School approaches this commitment is through student engagement in weekly service projects. Students choose from a menu of service assignments based on their interest. Another more specialized opportunity is part of the spring trimester in the 8th grade curriculum, the Earth Force Project.
Earth Force Projects originated from collaboration with the Earth Force Initiative (http://www.earthforce.org/?q=whatwedo) as a way to empower young people to actively participate in improving their environment and communities. Earth Force Projects are service-learning environmental projects designed to nurture youth civic engagement. The value of environmental service-learning projects stems from an understanding that direct connection to nature, especially as children, is not only beneficial to childhood development but also the most critical influence on later environmental attitude (Zaradic & Pergams, 2007). Students are encouraged to choose projects that are authentically meaningful to their lived experience.
The benefit of pursuing Earth Force Projects during the spring trimester is that the fall stream study (http://digitalis.nwp.org/site-blog/stream-study-project/6338 ) and ongoing, weekly, FCS service projects provide the 8th graders with a context for framing service-based environmental projects. Some of the projects address environmental problems identified during the fall stream study. These become extensions of the ongoing stream and watershed restoration work. Examples include a student project addressing rainwater runoff from the FCS campus (https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/earth-force-project-rain-garden-for-fsc-community-alex-amelia-annie/home/h-final-report), student stream clean-ups (https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/morris-park-bridge/documentation-of-may-6th-work, https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/creek-cleaning/our-trip ), and a student organized workday for invasive Burning Bush removal from the stream watershed. Other projects take on communities related to the students’ lived experience on campus such as introducing shade grown organic coffee to the cafeteria, or beyond campus such as church community gardens. In each case, student agency drives project choice; teachers and mentors become coaches on the student’s pathway to accomplishing student designed project goals.
The introduction for the Earth Force project contextualizes the work in the framework of community and empowering students to make a visible difference in their world. Students are prompted as follows:
“Over the next two months, you face the challenge of choosing a problem that needs attention to which you will devote your energy. The next part of this challenge is for you to design and implement a project that will help solve at least part of the problem or make it easier for someone else to find a solution. In other words, you should be able to point to a specific measurable result, whether it be trees planted, people educated or decision makers influenced. The project can be local or global in nature. Our experience has been that students have had the most success making a difference with local problems. However, the most satisfying projects were locally focused with global implications.”
A rubric and student examples from past years work provide a basic framework but students are encouraged to think creatively and choose a project that is an authentic expression of their goals and interests. Providing agency to choose a project that is authentically meaningful to the student and specific goals that are accessible and speak to an audience that is relevant to the student creates a unique forum. Students learn that through authentic engagement they can be powerful agents of change in their environment and community.