Service Learning and Hurricane Recovery: A Reflection
Guest post by Dr. Michele Guannel
Service learning is a prime example of culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP). A concept introduced by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, CRP is a teaching approach that links socially significant, locally relevant issues to the classroom. Within science classes, service learning has the power to connect students more closely to the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Service learning is more than “just” doing community service – it involves a reflective approach to the planning and analysis of service projects that are conducted by an individual or team.
Following Hurricane Irma in September 2017, I was inspired to consider ways that UVI students could address hurricane recovery needs in the Science 100 course, which focuses on natural disasters and ecosystems of the Caribbean. Early conversations began with Ms. Imani Daniel – now the Chair of the St. Thomas Recovery Team (STRT) – who was leading many grassroots efforts in hurricane response starting the very day after Irma. We talked about ways to engage UVI students in response efforts – the connection between Science 100 (in which I was serving as an instructor of one lab section) and community needs was clear. Starting in January 2018, when I became lead instructor of the course, and along with Dr. Joan Ledbetter of UVI’s Center for Student Success and Dr. Michelle Peterson who leads Science 100 on the St. Croix campus, we piloted service learning projects in Science 100 on both campuses. The service learning projects further supported an initiative by Provost Camille McKayle to strengthen service learning across the UVI curriculum.
Academically, we hypothesized that service learning would increase students’ engagement in course content, and that the planning, action, and analysis of service would develop 21st century skills (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication). However, as Science 100 students explore this option for the second semester in a row, it is apparent that, for me, there is a deeper reason behind these research questions. This is therefore a personal reflection on my involvement in service, and its connection to my teaching and research practice.
In 1997, I was graduating from Smith College with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Biological Sciences, a Minor in Marine Science, and no clue where I was going next. Navigating graduate school was a mystery to me, as my parents did not have four-year college degrees. Through a work-study job at Smith, I had discovered that I enjoyed tutoring other students and so I considered post-graduation jobs in both science and education.
Ultimately, I joined the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a division of AmeriCorps that conducts short-term, domestic public service projects, including many education initiatives. The program was run in pseudo-military style, in which all corps members, ages 18-24, lived and worked together. Our campus in Perry Point, Maryland, had about 50 corps members, divided into several teams of 8-10 young people from all over the nation – some just out of high school, some partway or fully through college, and even one or two with Master’s degrees.
Over the course of my NCCC term, the projects my team and I conducted included:
tutoring math to small groups of sixth-graders in a Baltimore, MD public school;
providing companionship to mentally ill veterans housed in the Veterans Administration grounds on which our campus was located;
building homes for families in need in Massachusetts (pictured at the end of this story).
Additionally, over the course of this AmeriCorps term, as a group, we experienced many extremes (in addition to the pressures of living and working with the same people, 24/7!). Around Thanksgiving, one of our cohort disappeared, and all 50 of us were deployed to search for him in Delaware. Eventually we learned that he had passed away tragically. On Martin Luther King Day (“a day on, not a day off”), we joined President Bill Clinton in a rehabilitation project at a DC-area school. President Clinton shook my hand and thanked me personally for my service. In May, as all teams reconvened at our campus in Maryland to finish out the term, several members of our cohort were viciously attacked in a racially-motivated incident – and we together struggled to support one another and to seek justice.
Following the conclusion of my NCCC term, I completed a second AmeriCorps term in Western Massachusetts focused on youth services and education. I supported at-risk students within public middle school classrooms and in afterschool programs for teens related to pregnancy prevention and … service learning. Eventually, I made my way to graduate school, earning Master’s and PhD degrees in Oceanography from the University of Washington – but I never stopped teaching, serving, or asking questions about the ways that science or education can be of the greatest benefit to society. Although I did not know it when I joined AmeriCorps, the program instilled this drive to “get things done” for the community. If executed with care and intention, service learning experiences have that effect, for many people.
What do the details of this story have to do with integrating service learning in UVI’s introductory general education course, Science 100? The experiences that our community have undergone over the past year – before, during, and after two Category 5 hurricanes – have magnified pre-existing challenges in the same sectors that AmeriCorps aims to address: education, the care of vulnerable populations such as seniors and those with disabilities, housing, and others. The challenges that we have faced are also deeply personal. We are still grappling with individual- and community-level experiences of grief, loss, and injustice – even as we celebrate our progress. We are all still telling our hurricane stories, and often not without difficulty. But we know that grief and loss often help to bond a community, and strengthen it.
Service learning within Science 100 takes this form: at the start of the semester, all students are given two options for the format of their semester-long Science Presentation assignment. Students can choose the “Research” format, which starts with background research and a short summary on a topic related to course content, followed by writing outlines and drafts, and culminating in a formal research paper and oral presentation. Alternatively, the “Action” format starts and begins in the same way – in order to develop research, writing, and oral communication skills – but in the middle, students conduct six or more hours of community service instead of creating an additional research-oriented paper outline or draft. The writing assignments for the “Action” format take a slightly more reflective and analytical approach, as students are asked to investigate what is known about a problem related to natural disasters, why that issue is important to the 2017 hurricanes, and which previous findings might apply to recovery efforts in the USVI.
The first semester this project was piloted (Spring 2018), on the St. Thomas campus, only 10 out of 84 students elected for the Action format. This semester, almost 30 out of 92 students have chosen the Action format! These projects include those that have been identified by STRT as community programs that will address post-hurricane needs and increase resiliency; the Action projects also include ongoing initiatives of VI-EPSCoR and partners. The eight, currently identified projects include:
Coastweeks Clean-ups and Science Saturday events – to address the problems of marine debris & marine conservation (with VI-EPSCoR, Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service (VIMAS), Department of Planning and Natural Resources’ Coastal Zone Management Program, and others)
Experimental Mangrove Restoration Project – monitoring the application of the noxious marine alga, Sargassum, as fertilizer to enhance growth of mangrove seedlings replanted after the storms (with VI-EPSCoR/VIMAS)
Engineering for Resiliency – laying the groundwork for solar-powered charging stations, or using drones to improve mapping of St. Thomas waterways (with the Caribbean Green Technology Center and STRT)
Volunteer Organization for Community Response – helping to identify sources of volunteers and map out the efficient means of deploying them, in the case of another emergency (with STRT)
The Great ShakeOut (pictured) – organizing and running this international earthquake awareness event on October 18, at 10:18 am. Following the 2017 hurricanes, we are well-aware of hurricane-focused preparation – but what about preparation for earthquakes? (I will lead this project, along with Peer Instructors of SCI 100, some of whom noticed that our students last year displayed unsafe responses to a large earthquake that we felt here in April!)
Support for Our Local Schools – Due to prolonged delays of installation of modular units and repair of existing schools, many students just began their school year on September 27. As a result, four of the five public middle/junior/high schools on St. Thomas & St. John are starting late this year; most notably, the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School re-opened on October 15. (exact details under development, but will evolve with input from VI-ISERP teachers, school officials, and STRT members involved in school rehabilitation)
Community Gardens – This is a project identified by STRT, and modified along with the suggestion of a current Science 100 student, who served with AmeriCorps in a senior/mental care facility through and after the 2017 hurricanes. Other students indicated an interest in supporting senior care – therefore, we will be piloting a combined gardens/senior care project – as well as supporting installation of school gardens through the EcoSchools program. (Ebenezer Gardens facility; EcoSchools program (pictured))
Disaster Case Management (DCM) – At least one student has volunteered to work with the DCM committee of STRT, which helps to match families in need with resources to recover from the hurricanes, if they have not qualified for aid from FEMA or insurance. (with STRT)
This semester’s students have begun their projects which I expect will show evidence of enhanced engagement in the course topic (natural disasters). Course assessment analyzes evidence of 21st century skills (those four Cs of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication). These Action projects also link freshman-level students with UVI and community scientists and non-profit professionals – which can encourage students to follow specific STEM or social science pathways. In the USVI, we are uniquely positioned to develop the science and education of recovery and resiliency. Our education about natural disasters naturally extends beyond the classroom.
Finally, as I have described here about how service (or “Action”!) has impacted me, I believe that service is an example of a transformative experience. Even short-term experiences of a few hours – such as the service hours required for the Action assignment – can impact career directions and lives. With this project, moreover, I aim to help develop a culture of preparedness – which must include our reliance on one another, in times of great need.