Tanya Sharon (Mercer University)
Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.
To help students learn about: (1) research methods, (2) children's development, (3) healthy living, (4) their community, and (5) themselves
This field experience, designed for students interested in developmental psychology, begins with the class visiting a local children's museum to see what topics are covered and identify an unmet need. For example, given the prevalence of childhood obesity and diabetes, the class might choose "Healthy Living" as a theme if the museum doesn't already cover health, exercise, and nutrition. Next, class members research what is known about the chosen topic (e.g., young children's understanding of their bodies, food, and exercise), and identify age-appropriate learning objectives related to the topic. Students then form teams of 2-6 members based on shared interests in a specific subtopic, and each team develops, designs, constructs, and installs a museum exhibit to teach children about the selected subtopic. In the last part of the field experience, students write an essay reflecting on what they learned from their project.
Many student academic experiences are just that — academic. Too often, students do well on tests but fail to see any connection between their learning in the classroom and the larger world. This is especially unfortunate in the case of psychology classes, where it seems that connections could be made relatively easily. This project offers students a chance to put their psychological knowledge and skills to work in their own community. Specifically, they identify a need in the local community that can be addressed through education, then construct an educational museum exhibit and test its effectiveness via changes in the understanding of local school children after viewing the exhibit.
This project took 12 weeks of a 16-week semester. The first step was for the class to visit a local children's museum to see what it already covered and identify an unmet need. Students chose the theme "Healthy Living," an appropriate topic because most local children are either overweight or at risk of being overweight, and the local public school system does not include recess as a regular part of the school day. Next, students researched what is known about young children's understanding of their bodies, food, and exercise, and identified age-appropriate learning objectives on these topics. Students then divided into teams of 2-6 members, based on their shared interest in a specific subtopic, and proceeded to develop, design, construct, and install their exhibit over the following six weeks. Most materials were inexpensive (e.g., construction paper, glue gun), so the overall cost was less than $150, paid from lab fee monies. Here are a few museum exhibits that students created:
- Exercise Is Fun — student researchers choreographed and filmed a dance video; children in the museum were asked to accompany the video (and a student researcher) twice, once with a weighted vest and once without, to simulate differences in body weight. A borrowed stethoscope allowed children to see how the increase in weight made their hearts work harder.
- This or That — children saw seven unhealthy snacks (e.g., Pop-Tarts) along with relevant nutrition information (calories, grams of fat) and were asked to generate healthy alternatives; they could open a lunchbox to find one example of a healthy alternative (e.g., graham crackers).
- Fun with Weights — student researchers inserted lead weights (fishing weights and BB-shot) into toy food replicas so their weight corresponded to their caloric value; children were asked to guess which had more calories and could check their answer on a scale.
Evidence of Effectiveness
Both the school children and the student researchers showed evidence of learning. Our elementary school participants came from both a local public school (predominantly African-American and lower SES) and a private Montessori school (predominantly Caucasian and higher SES). Both groups showed statistically significant increases in their understanding of healthy living habits (Sharon, 2012), and the effect on the student researchers was probably even greater. As a final assignment for the course, I asked my students to complete a 3-4 page essay in which they reflected on what they had learned from the entire project. Research on service-learning strongly suggests that reflection is the critical component for connecting academic course work to service in a community (Campus Compact, 2001; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Hatcher, Bringle, & Muthiah, 2004).
A content analysis of their essays revealed multiple areas of growth and learning. For two thirds of the class, the most successful aspect of the course was the fact that they were able to facilitate learning among the school children. They were also struck by how, working together, they were able to create something greater than any one of them could have individually.
The most striking component for me was the breadth of their learning. They learned not only about healthy eating (some students reported changes in their own eating habits), but also about the realities of research (its complexities, challenges, and rewards), how to communicate effectively with others, and also about themselves. For example, some confirmed their interest (or lack thereof) in working with children, while two surprised themselves with their hitherto latent abilities for leadership. Across the class, student responses suggested growth in no less than 6 of the 12 goals of undergraduate psychology instruction (Halonen et al, 2007): understanding basic research methods (Goal 2), the application of psychology (Goal 4), effective communication (Goal 7), sociocultural awareness (Goal 8), personal development (Goal 9), and career planning and development (Goal 10).
They also showed growth in an unexpected area: perspective-taking abilities. Students expressed a new-found recognition and/or appreciation of the perspectives of their classmates, the children visiting the exhibit, and even of the museum-workers who create the exhibits. This growth is especially noteworthy because perspective-taking is central to cognitive development (Chickering & Resisser, 1993).
Limitations and Lessons
The biggest challenge involved time constraints. Prior to completing the usual requirement of an APA-style manuscript, students first had to conceptualize and create the exhibits that would allow them to collect their data. Although the division of labor among student teams helped, there was still considerable time pressure. Another limitation was the necessarily narrow scope of the topic. Students learned much about the research process, healthy living, and themselves, but relatively little about the broader field of developmental psychology. This type of project thus seems most suitable for advanced courses in which students already have a broad knowledge base. There were also some students who, if they had known of the project and the teamwork required, would probably not have enrolled in the class. On the other hand, one of the delights of the course (for students and the professor) was how students surprised themselves with what they were able to accomplish. One student even wrote, "The saying, 'anything is possible when you put your mind to it' rings true with our project."
The largest lessons for me in teaching the class were (1) the importance of communication (with students, among student groups, and with our community partner); and (2) the value of having students regularly reflect on what they were doing and what they were learning. Two tools contributed to the latter. First, students were required to keep a research journal in which they wrote down everything germane to the project -- from the phone numbers of teammates to the results of their bibliographic searches, questions that arose, and decisions made in their group meetings. The idea was that their research log would be useful not just logistically but conceptually, as a place to think about and explicitly reflect on what they were doing. The second component was regular peer review: at each step in the process (literature review, initial project design, etc.), each student group presented its initial ideas for critique and suggestions from the other class members. These presentations allowed students to get helpful feedback from peers and to see how their group's work fit into the larger project.
This project was originally designed as one part of a laboratory course in developmental psychology. However, the idea could easily be extended to other lab courses or even non-lab courses in which a service-learning component is desirable. All that would be required are an identified educational need and a venue for sharing the exhibits, which could be anything from a formal museum to a temporary exhibit, classroom, or even a virtual museum online.
Applied research experiences offer a powerful tool for engaging students in research while contributing to their community (Chapedelaine & Chapman, 1999). The responses of students who participated in this project support this assertion. Their final reflection essays revealed both pride in what they accomplished and a new understanding of what they could accomplish. In short, they seemed empowered by their experience. This outcome could be the most important, because a feeling of inefficacy is one of the stumbling blocks to involvement in community service (Eyler & Giles, 1999). One student summed up her experience thusly: "I would certainly call this one of the best experiences I have had at [this] University."
Campus Compact. (2001). Reflection FAQS
Chapdelaine, A., & Chapman, B. L. (1999). Using community-based research projects to teach research methods. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 101-105.
Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. R. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E., Jr. (1999). Where's the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Halonen, J. S., Appleby, D. C., Brewer, C. L., Buskist, W., Gillem, A. R., Halpern, D., Hill, G. W., & Lloyd, M. A. (2007). APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. APA Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies.
Hatcher, J. A., Bringle, R. G., & Muthiah, R. (2004). Designing effective reflection: What matters to service-learning? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 38-46.
Sharon, T. (2012). Learning times two: Creating learning through a children's museum exhibit. Teaching of Psychology, 39(1), 24-48.