Incorporating a Service Learning Project in Upper Division Environmental Chemistry Course – Partnership with a Local Middle School

Joyce Dinglasan-Panlilio, University of Washington Tacoma, Donna Chang, First Creek Middle School, and Lia Wetzstein, University of Washington Tacoma

Initial Publication Date: May 28, 2013 | Reviewed: July 11, 2017


In this activity, college level students learning fundamental concepts in Environmental Chemistry apply their knowledge either in carrying out a research project or in designing a hands-on mini-workshop with the key objective of teaching middle-school students topics relevant to water quality and stormwater. College-level students also take part in a restoration activity on a local watershed three miles away, working side by side with the middle-school students and the members of the community.

The project aims to bring together middle-school students, college-level students, and local citizens on a monitoring and restoration program of a local creek; improve the public's understanding and engagement on local environmental issues such as stormwater; improve the educational experience of both middle-school and college-level students; and motivate middle-school students to pursue further education in the field of science. This project is an example of environmental education bringing together two different levels of students, as well as the community as a whole.

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Learning Goals

Students learn a variety of concepts revolving around water quality of the local watershed being studied, including turbidity, eutrophication, pH, alkalinity, metal(s), speciation in aquatic systems, and partitioning behavior of contaminants. Students also learn experimental design (for a research project), how to measure water quality parameters in the field using portable instrumentation, and how to record data. Finally, they learn how to analyze their data and present it to the general public through oral and poster presentations. The overall goal of the project is to educate and inform the students in hopes of translating to stewardship of the local watershed.

Context for Use

A crucial component for this service-learning activity has been the establishment of a partnership with a local middle school and the identification of a local watershed on which to center the activity. This project partnered University of Washington Tacoma Environmental Chemistry students with First Creek Middle School students on a study of First Creek. This creek is conveniently located adjacent to the middle school. The Environmental Chemistry course linked to this activity centers on aquatic chemistry and includes a laboratory. Thus, this activity is ideal as a culmination-project for the course; it allows students to apply a topic of their choosing to the research project or the mini-workshop that they design. The projects or the mini-workshop are presented to the middle school students at a time arranged with the middle school where community engagement could also be incorporated along with a restoration activity around the area of the creek.

To encourage community participation during this event, this project has been presented to the middle school students during Martin Luther King Day of Service or during Earth Day. Students at both levels are made aware of the event ahead of time. For college students, the event is clearly included in the syllabus and for middle school students, enough time is given for students to be able to be given permission slips to take home and bring back to their teacher. Some specialized equipment was purchased for this project including a field pH/conductivity meter, a portable turbidity meter, sampling bottles, and a sampling pole. These instruments were used during the event for the college level students to demonstrate water quality measurements to middle school students and community members. Middle school students and community members were encouraged to collect their water samples and collect their own data. The restoration activities that are incorporated at these events involve either clearing of invasive species, picking up garbage, or planting native plants. This project also benefitted from partnering with other community groups including the City of Tacoma and non-profit groups such as Forterra (a conservation and community-building group based in the Northwest) who assisted in creating planting plans and providing permission to access land around the creek.

This activity could be adapted by partnering with any K-12 institution motivated and invested in similar learning goals and outcomes. Having an enthusiastic K-12 instructor as a partner is essential to the success of the project. Choosing a local natural area to serve as the focal point of the project is also important. It could be a creek, an area of a beach or a wetland that is near either of the institutions. It may be easier to choose an area closer to the K-12 institution for ease of travel for the younger students.

Description and Teaching Materials

Identifying Community Partners
Implementation of this project requires ample preparation prior to the beginning of the course. The course instructor needs to identify a partner at another institution and a natural area/site (that will be the focus of the project) needs to be identified as well. This project partnered with First Creek Middle School that was adjacent to First Creek, a stormwater fed creek that discharged to the Puyallup River. Community events, which were held as the forum to present and educate community and middle school students on water quality, were organized in cooperation with the middle school and their staff. For us, the ideal days to hold these events have been Martin Luther King Day and Earth Day. Volunteers are invited to participate at these events through advertising at both institutions. Undergraduate students take the lead in instructing the community and the middle school students on the importance of water quality and they demonstrate how measurement of various water quality parameters are done.

Obtaining Funding
Water quality and restoration were the main topics for this project. Funding was needed to purchase field equipment to measure pH, turbidity, and conductivity, as well as sampling vessels and a sampling pole. Other costs of the project include funding for plants during planting events and gloves during restoration activities. This activity is part of a larger project and funding was obtained from community partners such as the City of Tacoma, the Russell Family Foundation and the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.

Incorporating the Project into the Environmental Chemistry Curriculum
The service-learning project should be clearly described in the syllabus of the course. The undergraduate students will conduct a research project related to water quality centered on a natural area, in this project, First Creek. Students can choose to compare other creeks to First Creek. Students will design an experiment and be responsible for data collection and analysis. Students will be responsible for three outputs from their research project:

  1. Research paper;
  2. Scientific presentation of their data to their peers;
  3. Presentation of research topic and data with demonstration to middle school students and participation at a community restoration event.

Examples of research topics:

  • Measurement of metals in surface waters, comparison of stormwater fed creek (First Creek) and industrially impacted creek (Hylebos Creek)
  • How healthy is First Creek? Comparison of water quality of First Creek and Swan Creek
  • Role of plants in uptake of contaminants
  • Organic contaminants in stormwater Project Information Student Handout (Microsoft Word 49kB Jan9 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips


Surveys and interviews are common assessment methods that can be used to determine the impact of participation in this project for both middle school and college level students. Surveys are designed using survey software such as "Survey Monkey" or those available in course management platforms typically used at various institutions such as Blackboard or Canvas. Using this method will require Internet access on site as well as several laptops available for students to use. Hard copy of survey questionnaires can also be distributed in place of electronic surveys and collected after completion. Different questions were asked for middle school students and college level students.

Based on surveys collected and analyzed for this project, middle-school students expressed enthusiasm for science, the use of field instrumentation, and the interaction with college students. They expressed their desires to attend college in the future. Survey data also showed most middle school participants felt they can improve the environment and community by participating in the project. College-level student participants noted their enjoyment working with the middle-school students. Many felt it helped them understand environmental concepts better as they explained them to the younger students. Some college students expressed a realization that they may consider teaching as a future career, something they had not considered prior to having been part of this service-learning activity.

References and Resources