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From Scholars to Citizen Scholars: The Story of Hope House

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    Ben Smith

Designing the service learning component of a learning expedition can be one of its most challenging aspects. But when implemented effectively, meaningful service learning can inspire students to deeper, more engaged learning. In “Hope House,” a learning expedition designed by eighth-grade teacher Cherisse Campbell, service learning was the conduit through which all other learning occurred. 

Getting Started

Amana Academy is a public charter school located in the Atlanta suburb of
Alpharetta, Georgia. The school serves grades K-8 and is in its seventh year. Amana Academy places heavy emphasis on S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), service and compassion, and environmental stewardship. In keeping with the culture of the school, Campbell wanted her fall expedition to allow students to experience how science and compassion could be harnessed to address a real-world issue. 

Campbell partnered with the Mad Housers, an Atlanta nonprofit that builds temporary huts for homeless individuals and families, because she hoped that homelessness would be a compelling topic. Campbell planned for her students to research problems with the current hut design and then design solutions using repurposed, inexpensive, or sustainable materials. Her students would build and test working prototypes to determine efficacy and safety of their modifications before formally presenting them to the Mad Housers. Students would also build a hut using the existing design for a homeless client. The project would
meet Expeditionary Learning’s criteria for engaging in original research, critical thinking, and problem solving while building both character and academic skills. 

Giving Students Hope

To set the stage for a successful expedition, Campbell and her Humanities teaching partner, Kyra Rivera, led the students through a day-long crew-building retreat at a low ropes course, a kickoff experience involving literature and media about homelessness, a field study of a LEED-certified building, and various writing and presentation assignments related to homelessness. 

The students’ field work at two Atlanta-area homeless camps was the hook that connected them to their roles as scientists and engineers. What the students found at the homeless camps surprised them. To be certain, the living conditions were worse than they had imagined, but many students were surprised at how friendly and positive the homeless people were. “The media portrays that the people who are homeless are out there for a reason,” noted one eighth-grade student, Mohammad. “That was stuck in my head until I was out there and met the people. They were normal like me and they wanted a way to come back. I think that the huts are the first step.” 

Students carried engineering notebooks to record detailed observations about the camp as well as notes from their interviews of the clients living there. Students discovered that the people in the camp faced major problems with their existing huts that included issues with heating and cooling, humidity, waste disposal, flammability, and daytime lighting. “When we went out there, it was easy to see what the clients wanted and what they didn’t want,” said Mohammad. “If we hadn’t gone out there, we might have given them something they didn’t want or need—and that’s not what we wanted to do.”

Real Work

In the months following their field work, students worked in their crews to solve one of the problems they’d seen. The products they created included a solar battery charger,insulation made from lunch trays and used foam tri-fold boards, and a solar oven to safely heat bricks to keep the hut occupant warm at night. 

All of these products were directly related to Georgia’s state standards. For example, students examined the difference between pure substances and mixtures when they considered different heating options for the hut. They also spent time describing how heat can be transferred through matter by conduction, radiation, or convection when they explored alternatives for insulating the hut. Finally, students demonstrated the advantages and disadvantages of series and parallel circuits and how they transfer energy when they used those circuits to build the solar battery charger.

Campbell notes that having students work through the scientific process was the most challenging part of the expedition: “Students are accustomed to performing labs where one right answer can be achieved in a 45-minute lab period. There were days that resulted in tears because students didn’t get the results they wanted or because there was some experimental error that required them to start over again.” Campbell kept reminding her students that honesty in science is always important, but that it was even more so in this project. “It was really powerful for them to realize that faking their results could actually result in serious injury or death to an occupant.” 

Despite the struggles, Campbell saw her students understand the scientific process more deeply than ever before. One student, Fatima, commented, “It was different with these experiments because we knew that they were actually going to be published to the world. We worked harder so that it would benefit the homeless.” 

This type of commitment to quality helped students perform better on their paper-and-pencil exams. “When we were taking our finals for science, I would think, ‘Well, we did this in the expedition so I know this,’” noted another student, Amaris. “It was kind of like we didn’t even have to study at that point because we were living it.”

Real Purpose

The highlight of the expedition for many students was the showcase event with Nick Hess, president of the Mad Housers. Campbell explained, “Normally, when we do a showcase, parents kind of sit back and are happy with whatever their kids bring to the table. But Nick was really engaged. He was taking notes and walking back and forth.” 

When the students finished their presentations, Campbell turned on the lights and everyone started clapping, but Hess interrupted them, saying he had some questions about their work. At first, the students thought Hess was questioning the validity of their data. But he was actually quite impressed. “What pleased me is that these students really were doing it right,” Hess said. He is considering using the students’ design and modifications, and the hut the students built went to a homeless client immediately after the expedition.

Class has changed, too. Campbell reports that because her students saw how abstract science standards could unfold into real-world applications, they now rarely ask her how something in science applies to the real world. “In the initial phase of the project, their actions were guided primarily by the heart and they wanted to gloss over the science. However, they eventually came to understand that both aspects are important in making meaningful scientific advances.” 

Rochelle Wilson is the instructional technology/digital communications teacher
at Amana Academy in Alpharetta, GA. She is in her ninth year of teaching and can be reached at rwilson@amanaacademy.org.

Download the full PDF of the Spring 2012 Signpost here.