Dr. Jessica Pamment sparked excitement in non–science majors by giving them a heartwarming task: to teach basic science to local kids in homeless shelters.
Professional Lecturer of Biology, DePaul University
Postdoctorate in Yeast Genetics, PhD in Cancer Research, MS and BA in Natural Sciences
“I grew up going to schools where I did not have to do anything for my community,” says Jessica Pamment, PhD, who teaches biology at DePaul University in Chicago. “So it didn’t dawn on me to include [service learning] in the classes I taught.”
Then, two years ago, Pamment attended a workshop on service learning at DePaul University, organized by the school’s civic-minded Steans Center. That day changed everything.
“We explored how to bring a service component into the classroom,” she says. “And I learned about the school’s connection to the Vincentian Mission, which is about what you can do for others.”
The message, says Pamment, hit home: “Living in Chicago, I hear about neighborhoods with underprivileged kids who are definitely in need of more support and care,” she says. “I’m not religious, but I’ve always had an interest in helping and [have] found ways to do that.”
She left that day with the seed of inspiration to integrate service learning into her work.
“I wanted to feel more connected to my students and my city,” she says. “There’s a bigger purpose than just a grade at the end of the semester, for both me and for my students. I know they feel that, too.”
Challenge: Disengaged nonmajors, dense material
“Required courses are hard to teach,” says Pamment, who was tired of seeing bored faces in the biology courses she taught to non-majors. “They are sitting there thinking thoughts like, ‘I’m going to do the bare minimum to pass,’ ‘I never liked science,’ ‘This is too hard for me,’ ‘This doesn’t apply to me,’ ‘Why am I taking this course?’”
Pamment wanted to find an answer to a burning question faced by many educators: When students must take a subject that is not of their own choosing, how do you make them feel like there is value in the class?
“Over the years, I have tried different approaches, such as classroom discussions and hands-on experiments during our lab classes to increase student engagement and to change the attitude of students at the start of the class,” she says. “Although these approaches definitely helped, I still felt that more could be done to increase the students’ interest in the class.”
Pamment faced another challenge, as well: Biology, she says, is a dense and abstract topic, which can make it difficult to grasp. “I wanted to take biology’s complex concepts and make them more digestible,” she says.
Innovation: Adding a service learning component
Pamment says that many professors teach introductory biology courses as a combination of lecture plus lab work. About two years ago, Pamment chose to introduce something new to the mix: a service learning project.
Early in the semester, Pamment tells students that, over the next nine weeks, they will work in small groups to develop a lesson plan on a biology topic—one that will then be implemented in schools or children’s shelters that do not have access to science resources.
“By [doing this], I wanted students to see an added value to taking this class, since the project is designed to help a community partner,” she says.
It also serves a less obvious purpose: “[Designing] lesson plans for eight-year-olds forces students [in my class] to break down complex topics into more bite-sized information,” says Pamment. “To be able to teach something, you really have to understand it, and that’s both helpful and rewarding for my students.”
“This course is an introduction for nonscientists to the study of life, mainly at the molecular and cellular levels. Especially since the students are nonscientists, the most important goal is for them to leave the class at the end of the quarter feeling like what they learned in the classroom applies to their everyday lives.”— Jessica Pamment, PhD
Course: BIO 155 Introduction to Biology with Laboratory
Frequency: Two 3-hour class meetings (one lecture, one lab) per week for 10 weeks
Class size: 30
Course description: This lecture-laboratory course surveys evolution, the diversity of living organisms, cell structure and function, the principles of genetics, and the impact DNA technology has on our society. Through observation, experimentation, and interpretation of the living world during lab classes, students will develop an understanding of the biological concepts discussed in class.
BIO 155 Introduction to Biology with LaboratorySee materials
Lesson: Teaching biology through philanthropy
During the first weeks of class, Pamment asks each student to name his or her three favorite biology topics. This helps her divide students into groups of three or four people with similar interests.
Next, she provides time in class for brainstorming. Each final lesson plan, she explains, must include a clear teaching goal and consist of two parts: an instructive/teaching section, where information is passed on to the students (the lesson is taught), and then the assessment section, which consists of a game or activity.
Once the projects are complete, the groups present them to the class. Pamment then passes along the projects to a local charity, which distributes them for use within their programs.
For any educators thinking about offering a service learning component to their required course, Pamment offers the following guidelines:
Pamment’s Grading Strategies
Students are told that the final project should be approximately 15 minutes long, will be presented to the rest of the class, and will count for 15% of the final course grade. All students will have the chance to evaluate the other projects. Pamment grades the projects based on the following six criteria:
- Preparation. She wants to see evidence of preparation in the form of an outline uploaded by a specific deadline.
- Organization. Does the presentation have a clear learning objective and way of assessing the young students’ understanding?
- Knowledge of material and presentation. When presenting projects, students must demonstrate an understanding of the material; they also must “project” their voices, make eye contact with the audience and be engaging, and avoid simply reading from slides.
- Creativity. Ideas should be expressed in innovative ways that are fun and engaging.
- Time management. Each group should show awareness of this aspect by staying within the given time limit.
- Reflection. Pamment asks students to submit a written self-reflection at the end of the course. What did they learn? What would they do differently next time?
Pamment grades the projects with the help of her teaching assistant and, at the end of the quarter, students fill out a peer evaluation, where they also grade the other members of their own group.
Find the right community partner
DePaul University offered Pamment a list of community partners who were looking for school involvement. When Pamment brought up her plans to her school coordinator, she was matched with the Chicago Hopes for Kids organization, which helps homeless children and was looking for after-school activities for those of elementary school age. It turned out to be a perfect match.
Pamment advises educators ask themselves two questions: Is the community partner one you can commit to? Will the work your students can realistically provide be of value to the partner?
“There has to be a good fit,” says Pamment. “You need to feel strongly about helping and want to produce valuable work for the community audience.”
Encourage student buy-in
“Students are likely not expecting a service learning component,” says Pamment. “Share with the class right away how the work they do will make a big difference to community, even if your students don’t get to work directly with the recipients of their project. Share details about the community partner and get them excited about helping.”
In her course, Pamment provides a handout that describes the community partner that students will be working with so they have a good idea of who their audience will be. Then, to connect the students more deeply to the kids and mission, Pamment arranges for the Chicago Hopes for Kids’ executive director, Pat Rivera, to speak to the class and share moving stories of the kids in the shelter and what they are hoping to get out of the projects. Rivera has described the mission as “providing children living in these shelters with after-school activities that can help them succeed academically despite the challenges of homelessness.”
Previous iterations have not allowed students to present the lesson plans they create, due to security rules with the partner organization. Pamment is hoping to change that in future, but for now, she emphasizes the good they are doing, telling them, “Develop this project with care, make it as fun and engaging as possible for kids, and you will not only get credit for this course but also have a positive influence on your community.”
Match the level of topic to the audience
If the project is aimed at elementary school children, Pamment suggests telling students to keep the topics simple. If the help is for older students or adults in the community, she notes, the level can easily be adjusted accordingly.
“You can limit the costs by keeping the topics and materials simple,” she notes. Students must submit their materials list early on in the semester, and Pamment purchases the items with funding from the Steans Center.
In the case of BIO 155, Pamment requires topics to be simple enough to explain to elementary school children; nutrition is one such example. If they choose to work on a more complicated topic like DNA, she tells them, they must find a way of explaining it in simple terms, perhaps focusing on its amazing 3-D structure or discussing, in very simple terms, how it helps determine who we are.
Be willing to tutor on some topics
Pamment’s students know that what they learn in her classroom can be used to develop their projects. “During the course of my lectures I will cover all the topics that students have chosen to work on,” Pamment says. “Creating a project on a topic covered in class helps students learn the material in more depth than they would otherwise.”
However, since this project covers the entire semester, some students will have to dive in before their topic is discussed in class, so Pamment gives them extra time and help.
Pamment advises that educators keep in mind that all topics are not created equal: Some are naturally more complicated, and they will require the educator to spend some time outside of class working with students. However, by having students submit ideas early on, Pamment says she can redirect them toward topics that are within everyone’s bandwidth.
Factor in class time for group work
Students are given one full session to work on their projects. “I make sure to devote some of the class time to the projects so student groups can work together,” Pamment says. “It also gives them a chance to ask me any questions they may have [as a group].”
Pamment also allows students to use the classroom whenever it is available throughout the week, since she knows that one of the biggest challenges is for students to find a time and place to get together.
Encourage cross-discipline thinking
Everyone has their own strengths. If a student feels science is not one of theirs, Pamment encourages them to think about what is—then find a way to use it in the assignment. For example, a student who started the class feeling he was no good in science was able to use his musical talent to write a song about nutrition. The same may work for someone who enjoys sports and might find a way to create a sports-based game to demonstrate a biology principle.
Expect a learning curve—for yourself
Pamment has now worked with Chicago Hopes for Kids five times. She admits that she has learned some important lessons along the way, and that other educators should not be too hard on themselves if their first service projects hit a few snags.
For example, the first time Pamment’s class participated in the project, they created lesson plans using PowerPoint; however, it turned out that the shelters have no computers and no WiFi, so they were not able to use the digital presentations. As a result, Pamment now has students create their projects using trifold presentation boards and other materials that can be easily transported to the shelters.
This type of project allows for continuous change and improvement, and Pamment is always looking for ways to improve the experience for everyone involved. “In addition to working with Chicago Hopes for Kids, I’m also developing relationships with other community partners, such as a high school where we will be able to interact with the students,” Pamment says. “I want my students to actually work directly with the kids instead of just providing them with fun lessons. I want to get my students out and into the community, so they can see the positive impact of their work for themselves.”
In addition to gaining an understanding of the basics of biology, Pamment’s students also learn an important life lesson that gardeners have always known: Nothing connects you more to your sense of purpose than seeing the fruits of your labor spring to life.
“With a service learning component, students master their topics and feel accomplished. That—and feeling good about helping others—are the best outcomes,” she says.
Since Pamment’s project was so successful, DePaul University has asked her to engage her colleagues in how to add service learning components to their classes, where appropriate. She is also looking forward to bringing her service learning project to other courses she teaches.
“One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching non–biology majors is when they tell me that they enjoyed the class and learned from it,” says Pamment. “Many of the students start the class being apprehensive, maybe due to a bad experience in high school, but they leave the class with a more positive view of science and an understanding that science is relevant to their lives. I believe this is in great part due to the service learning projects.”
Pamment’s most recent BIO 155 student evaluations are very positive. Verbatim comments from those course evaluations include these shout-outs about the project:
“I thought this project was a great way to help people use their own education to benefit the community and those who may not be as fortunate. I think it was great to be able to really synthesize information and make it understandable for a wider audience. I love that we were able to take things we learned in this class and share them with others.”
“I really enjoyed the concept of linking class material to helping people in need. Given that I’m an education major, it was really exciting to be able to incorporate my knowledge and skills to develop a learning activity for children. I would like to emphasize how glad I was that this project was a part of this class. It was an unexpected surprise.”
“I enjoyed finding creative ways to explain scientific concepts to young kids. By coming up with creative ways to convey information, I learned that this method of learning is not only helpful for kids, but adults, too.”
“I felt that most presentations in college are a waste of time, but because this one dealt with a service project and helping children, it gave a new and interesting twist to the assignment.”
“I really enjoyed brainstorming ideas with my group for a game that would help kids understand biology. I learned the parts of a cell a bit better.”
“This was, by far, one of the best group projects I have been assigned. It was very easy to work with my group members and I truly enjoyed producing the project. I think it was a fun, creative, and interactive way to incorporate course content into a service learning project, which made it barely feel like work at all!”