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Becoming Better Humans through Academic Service Learning

Interview with Britnie Powell, Principal at Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE)

Tell us about your journey with academic service learning..where did you start?

I began my career in education 16 years ago and am the principal at Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE). I began my journey with service learning as an undergraduate, learning about the methodology in an elementary social studies course and testing it out during my student teaching experience. It was challenging, but I believed in the basic ideas and was moved by the data supporting the potential impact for students in terms of social skills, academic gains, and the development of empathy. As a first year teacher, I dove into service learning as a central pillar of the work I did with students.

My first job was teaching 5th grade at a Title I school, Escalante Elementary in Salt Lake City School District. On the first day of school I shared my vision with the students: By the end of the year, I wanted them to be better readers, writers, historians, scientists, and mathematicians. But if we did not all become better human beings that year, then we will have failed in our time together.


Through the weeks that followed we discussed how much impact the students could have. They could start by identifying needs in the school, local, and global community and from there pinpoint actions to make a difference. We spent time sharing observations and exploring and understanding issues. I spent time after school, driving around the neighborhood to understand the existing resources. We prioritized problems and brainstormed solutions and plans. Finally, the class settled on their service learning project: spending time each week at a nearby care center working with the elderly and residents with mental disabilities. Students came up with the most wonderful ideas on what they wanted to accomplish there, and I set about to design experiences that would authentically connect academic learning to their time spent with the elderly. This task proved to be wildly easy as there are so many things to do that support student learning (and the elderly).

So tell us what you did. How did the project work?

We spent time engaging residents in learning and performing readers theaters. Students and residents read scripts adapted from literature. This was an engaging way to improve fluency and enhance reading comprehension. We conducted scientific investigations to understand properties of matter by exploring chemical and physical changes of matter with our elderly friends. But perhaps the most engaging and impactful project was the work we did to interview and write biographies about the residents. That one stuck.

I had the privilege of working with one care center for the next decade. Each fall when I would show up to reconnect, residents would greet me and never fail to mention the “books” that my students had made for them.

So what happened next?

My use of service learning with students adapted over the years. I expanded the number of projects my students were able to engage in to increase leadership opportunities. I started and ran after school service learning programs. Even as an administrator, I have continued to do service learning with students because the value gained from service learning and the relationships I am able to build with students is unmatched by other pedagogical methods and strategies. We’ve spent time working on one-time projects as well as ongoing projects in which students build genuine connections and relationships with people from very different backgrounds. Regardless of the project my students come up with, I have always been able to find meaningful connections to grade level curriculum and learning goals. The learning is engaging and lasting because service learning is real-world and active. It is a work of empathy and reflection. It creates relevance and builds efficacy. It supports students in becoming civically engaged, empowered to have impact, and builds academic competency and relevance across all content areas.

How do you support academic service learning as a principal?

Today I am highly supportive of academic service learning and many teachers at SLCSE use it. Throughout the pandemic, teachers have continued to engage their students in service learning. Even while we were on remote learning, a class that had reading buddies in an elementary school continued reading buddies by recording themselves reading children’s books and sending the recordings to the class. The ways to have incredible impact while minimizing risk are infinite.

What sort of future do you see for service learning?

The upcoming generations of students demand more from the world. They are globally engaged and demand purpose and relevance from their learning. They seek justice and want to be catalysts of change. Service learning is a productive means to supporting students in building academic mastery, developing critical skills, and meeting their own demands for meaningful education.

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