A Skeptic’s Guide to Service Learning in Mathematics

By Priscilla Bremser, Contributing Editor

Many college and university students do volunteer work in local communities, and can learn valuable lessons in the process. The term “service learning” refers more specifically to service activities that are integral parts of academic courses. It can sometimes be difficult for mathematicians to envision how such projects could be included in their courses, especially courses focused on “pure” topics; for example, I have difficulty imagining how one would include such activities in Abstract Algebra. I have found myself, however, teaching courses in which service learning made sense, and I’ve implemented some service-learning projects with varying outcomes. Below I share some lessons I’ve learned in the process.

First, though, I offer some context. Here at Middlebury College, every entering student takes a writing-intensive first-year seminar (FYS), and every department contributes to the FYS program. For my most recent seminars, I’ve taught “Mathematics for All,” which explores questions of equity in K-12 mathematics education. Students develop their writing and reasoning skills by, for example, comparing contemporary critiques of mathematics education, and examining what is meant by “high-stakes” testing. Each version of the course has focused on a different age group, and the students did projects at local schools. These seminars are capped at fifteen students, and the instructor is the students’ academic advisors until they choose their majors, which might not happen until sophomore year.

The other relevant course is “Mathematics for Teachers,” a math content course for aspiring educators. I offer it jointly with the Education Studies department; the aims are for students to strengthen their understanding of fundamental mathematics concepts, grow as mathematical thinkers, and gain appreciation for the complexities of teaching math to children. That last aim was the motivation for getting students into classrooms. This course has had a more varied audience, including first-years through seniors, only some of whom are firmly committed to teaching after graduation, and from 15 through 30 students.

Here are my notes to self about service learning:

Include a service-learning project only if it supports the learning goals for your course. This may seem obvious, but well-meaning administrators with the worthy goal of community engagement might conflate “life lessons” with the intellectual development for which you are responsible. Be sure that your own goals for your students are primary.

In the first of my FYS projects, students learned about the statewide school assessment program then in place, and wrote a brochure about it for parents of elementary-school children. A more recent cohort learned about the nature and importance of math acquisition for preschool children, and then designed and played math games with children in the local Head Start classroom. Next, they wrote a report about their activities for a college committee that was reviewing community engagement efforts. In both cases, I felt that the writing-to-learn objective of the FYS program had been met, along with the content goals concerning testing and early-childhood learning,  respectively.

Get help from people on campus. Those enthusiastic administrators in your Office of Community Engagement (or Campus Compact liaison) may have lists of potential community partners, and may even have some funds to cover expenses, from van rentals for site visits to cards for thank-you notes to partners. They can also connect you with colleagues in other departments who have tried projects.

Make sure you have clear communication with community partners ahead of time about what you and they expect. Remember the brochure my students assembled? We ceremoniously delivered a couple of boxes to the school principal at a nice dinner on campus, which also included the teachers whose classes we’d visited. Only later did I learn that the principal never distributed the brochures. What we thought would be helpful – an accurate Q. and A. list, in plain language, about the testing program – didn’t serve the principal’s needs. In the future, I will make sure that at a minimum, expectations and needs for both my students and our community partners are laid out in writing. Bringing the students into that conversation is particularly helpful.

Invite your community partner to visit your class ahead of the project. Before the visit, have your students prepare some questions. Having learned from my first experience, I had the principal of the second school come to my “Math for Teachers” class. She emphasized, in a way that I couldn’t, the importance of maintaining confidentiality, especially given that some of her students were children of college faculty and staff. She also was explicit about the kinds of conversations she wanted my students to have with hers: “Ask them to explain their strategies.” A view into a fourth-grader’s mathematical thinking was exactly what I hoped my students would get.

When the Head Start teachers came to my latest FYS class, they too offered valuable background. One had been a Head Start parent before she went back to school in early childhood education, a life quite different from most of my students’. They emphasized the importance of play in their room, and exuded a love for their charges that was contagious. Most notable to my students was the advice to get down on the kids’ level rather than stand around, and I saw that happen as soon as we entered their classroom. The children engaged with my students immediately, to everyone’s delight.

Be prepared to invest a lot of time in logistics. Scheduling site visits and making sure students get to them can be a challenge. It didn’t make sense for me to send more than three students at a time to a classroom, and schools have frequent alterations to their schedules, for example, so my plans went through many drafts. Consultation with my colleagues in Education Studies was invaluable here, but even so, there were a lot of moving parts to monitor.

Invite your community partner to come to class once the project is complete. This doesn’t have to last for a full class period, but it can be valuable. For example, one group of my students had engaged the preschoolers in a game in the gym, and were a bit discouraged with how it had gone. The teachers, however, said, “You got them to stand on that line – that’s an accomplishment!” My students got a little more insight into the world of three- to five-year-olds, and a bonus lesson in setting realistic expectations.

 Have your students reflect on their experiences. Allow time for the class to debrief, and, where appropriate, assign writing that requires them to integrate what they’ve learned in the field with the rest of the course. Cognitive science has identified the importance of metacognition to the learning process (see, for example, How People Learn), and it’s also useful to read students’ reflections to inform your next project.  This was my not-so-secret agenda in having students write about the Head Start project for the committee; their report included a brief description of the readings and discussions that preceded the project, and explained how working with the children had built on those readings.  It also made it clear to me that should I do the project again, I will need to help my students fine-tune their games, given the developmental range between an immature three-year-old and an almost-six-year-old.

Read about other mathematicians and statisticians who have done service projects. For much more information and advice, I highly recommend Mathematics in Service to the Community, edited by Charles Hadlock (also the author of the lovely Field Theory and its Classical Problems). There you’ll find a chapter on service-learning in mathematical modeling courses, with case studies such as “The Baltimore City Fire Department Staffing Problem,” as well as chapters for instructors of statistics and education courses, and a detailed “How-To” chapter.  There is also a special Primus issue on the topic.

As a self-described skeptic, would I include a service-learning component in a future course?  At this point, I would say yes for the first-year seminar, but no for the Mathematics for Teachers course.  In the latter, the semester is already too short to meet my mathematics learning objectives, and students can go into local school classrooms as part of Education Studies “methods” courses.  In the seminar, though, if I want my students to hone their analytical skills by asking what an equitable mathematical educational system would look like, the benefits of experience at the children’s eye level are well worth the trouble.  The added benefits to my own learning have been a welcome bonus.


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5 Responses to A Skeptic’s Guide to Service Learning in Mathematics

  1. Jane McLain says:

    I read this article with great interest. I hadn’t actually thought about service learning in connection with mathematics, but I am definitely thinking about it now. Thank you in particular for sharing your reflections on the process and what you would do differently in the future.

  2. Priscilla Bremser says:

    Thank you for your interest. If you end up doing a service-learning project, let us know how it goes!

  3. Karl-Dieter Crisman says:

    Thank you so much for this blog post! There are very few resources for service-learning in mathematics at the tertiary level, so I hope this draws more people.

    I was one of the editors of the PRIMUS issue, and want to point your readers to slides of all the talks from the MAA contributed paper session which led to it. Some of these appeared in the issue, but not all, so I hope this will be an additional resource.


  4. Leesa Johnson says:

    Nice article and impressive guidelines.

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