Pre-service “EdZoocation”: Strengthening Teacher Education with Civic Engagement and Community Partnerships

Sarah Haines
Towson University, USA


This manuscript describes a course designed for preservice elementary education majors that is taught at a local zoo and integrates a service learning component. Qualitative measures demonstrate that students believe the service learning components enhanced their understanding of the course material, and helped them to see the connections between what they learned in the classroom and how that learning can be applied to make their local communities better places to live.

Introduction & Theoretical Background

The benefits of including civic engagement opportunities as part of a person’s educational experience have been known to us since the 1940’s (Dewey, 1944). Since then, the educational research arena has amassed a substantial amount of evidence that the integration of service learning into traditional coursework can lead to positive academic, social, and vocational outcomes (Bringle & Hatcher, 2002; Piliavin, 2003; Pratt, 2002; Waldstein & Reiler, 2001). In a national study supported by Learn & Serve America (Astin et. al. 1998), participation in service learning activities in higher education coursework positively affected 35 different measured outcomes, including academic outcomes, civic responsibility, and life skills. Astin et. al. (2000) also report that service learning experiences that are incorporated into coursework are superior to what the authors refer to as “community service”- that which takes place outside of class time and is extracurricular. Their research suggests that service learning as part of coursework is better at promoting racial understanding and activism, and is also a better method of improving students’ critical thinking, writing skills, and even grade point average. In further support of these assertions, Strage (2000) reports that students enrolled in a child development class with a 20 hour service learning requirement outperformed students enrolled in the course in previous semesters before the service learning requirement was implemented.

These positive results have been reported for courses in a variety of different disciplines (Blieszner & Artale, 2001; Dreuth & Dreuth-Fewell, 2002; Kendall, 1991; Keyton, 2001; Moorman & Arellano-Unruh, 2002; Waskiewicz, 2001). Additionally, many have found the method of pedagogy particularly effective in the area of teacher preparation (Haines, 2010; Potthoff, 2000; Root & Furco, 2001; Swick, 1998). According to Anderson (2000), effective service learning programs in teacher education must be designed around three assumptions:

  • P-12 schools and teacher education institutions are not just places where students go to learn, but places from which they go back into the community to apply what they learn and contribute to the common good.
  • Pre-service teachers and young people are a current resource, not problems to be managed or resources only for the future.
  • Frequent reflection activities are crucial for maximizing the lessons of service experiences.

Here I describe a course designed for pre-service elementary education majors that is taught at a local zoo and integrates a service learning component. The assumptions listed above were embodied in the goals and objectives, and in the service learning activities themselves. The results support the idea that service learning experiences can make pre-service teacher education programs more meaningful for students. The experiences are most effective when they are designed to be specific to the location and community in which they take place.

Context of Course within Education Program

The course described here is a 300-level biology course taken exclusively by undergraduate elementary education majors in the junior year. These students are in the second semester of a four semester professional sequence of coursework. In the first semester (Level I), coursework is focused on language arts and literacy. The second semester (Level II) is the mathematics and science semester. Students enroll in an earth/space science course and a life science course (described here) that devote 2/3 of class time to science content and 1/3 to teaching methods and pedagogical skills. Additionally, students enroll in a mathematics methods course and also two teaching practicum courses in which they teach mathematics and science in an elementary school once a week. In Level III, students are placed in Professional Development Schools, and much of their course work takes place within an elementary school. Level IV is the final semester in which students complete the teaching internship.

Students complete the professional sequence of courses as part of a cohort; therefore the same group of students takes all classes for a given semester together on the same days and times. Class size is limited to 18 students, mainly so that the faculty can provide adequate observation time and feedback when the students are teaching in the elementary classroom.

Course Description

Course biological content focuses on living organisms in the environment, emphasizing modes of scientific inquiry and the utilization of living organisms in the classroom. The biological content of the course can roughly be divided into three main units: plants, animals, and ecology.

Students are expected to be actively engaged in doing science as well as teaching and reflecting on science teaching- their own and that of others.

Students examine ways to plan, facilitate, and assess learning. They seek to understand the nature of the science learner and ways to motivate that learner. They also study models of instruction, inquiry and problem solving in science, the influence of personal beliefs, and professional roles of the teacher. (The goals and objectives of the course, the survey instrument, and other course materials are available from the author.)

Due to the location of the course at a local zoo, environmental education is heavily emphasized. Course texts include Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (Louv, 2005), Silent Spring (Carson, 1962), A Sand County Almanac (Leopold, 1949), Inside Out: Environmental Science in the Classroom & the Field (Blake, et. al, 2010),Project Learning Tree PreK-8 Environmental Education Guide (2006), and Project Wild (2004). The instructor models methods of teaching science content outside of the classroom, utilizing the school grounds (zoo grounds) whenever possible. This pedagogical method integrates well with the service learning component, in which students are encouraged (and often required) to think of ways to teach content to elementary level children using the school grounds and/or local community as a teaching tool and an alternative to using traditional indoor classroom teaching methods and materials.

Service Learning Components

This course was designed to meet the five “rules” of service learning that will provide for optimal results as described by Billig (2010) and the four crucial components for effective service learning as outlined by Stukas (1999).

Upon consultation with zoo education staff to identify the most pressing needs of the organization and its visitors, three main service learning components were added to the course: the Edzoocation Station, the Field Guide, and the Zoo Photographic Tour. The EduZoocation Station is an interactive learning station that students prepare for zoo visitors of elementary school age that focuses on adaptations and behavior of an animal on exhibit at the zoo. Students set up their stations using a folding table and a tri-fold display board. Students stand at their stations and invite children to participate in the activities at their stations as they walk past. Besides gaining experience teaching in nonformal settings, the students also enrich their content knowledge by conducting the required research on their animal in order to create an informative and effective display.

The stations are donated to the zoo at the end of the semester for use by zoo education staff.

For the Zoo Photographic Tour, students create a photographic presentation that demonstrates concepts learned throughout the semester, using zoo animals as the focus. The assignment is a modification of one presented by Gilbert (2010) for middle school students. At least 25 photographs must be included in the presentation, and subject integration is also required. These presentations are used by teachers who are planning field trips to the zoo.

The last service learning assignment comes at the conclusion of the semester, when students are ready to fully integrate the content they have learned with the pedagogy they have been practicing. Here, the students create a Field Guide/Unit Plan. These are week- long mini units for teachers who are planning a field trip to the Maryland Zoo. Students must include two classroom activities that would be appropriate for pre-trip preparation, a day-long itinerary for a field trip to the zoo that covers grade-level appropriate content, and two classroom activities that would be appropriate for post-trip follow-up. Students work closely with zoo personnel in developing the content for these field guides. Field guides are retained by the zoo and shared with classroom teachers and zoo education personnel. The rubric for this assignment is extensive and includes measures for assessing content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, as well as the interface between these two elements, pedagogical content knowledge, or PCK (Shulman, 1986).

Measuring Course Effectiveness

This course was one of seven offered through an initiative of the university’s office of civic engagement. Seven faculty fellows were chosen to create new service learning courses or to modify existing courses in order to create a service learning component. Students enrolled in these courses were administered the Carnegie Foundation Political Engagement Survey both at the beginning of the course and at the conclusion of the course. Additionally, students were required to submit a reflective essay on the importance of teaching environmental stewardship to young learners. Students were asked to include the following: personal experience of learning outdoors as a child (if possible); a short description of the EdZoocation station; an interpretation of how well you think the children were engaged in your station activities; reasons to teach environmental science topics in an outdoor setting; the importance of experiential learning for all ages; and why the specific service learning projects required in the course enhanced their learning experience (or why it didn’t). The results demonstrate that adding a service learning component to a course can be a powerful learning enhancement. Figure 1 displays results to the question “How much do you care about the following issues?”

Figure 1: How Much Do You Care About the Following Issues?


Pretest (n=17)

Posttest (n=17)

% Change





Poverty & Homelessness








National Defense




Health Care




International Relations




Racial Issues








Given that this class was a course for education majors, it is not surprising that the students cared about Education the most. The students cared more about all of the issues during the post-test. The greatest differences occurred in the categories of Racial Issues and Economy. Students exhibited a greater desire to help promote racial understanding as a result of their service learning experiences at the Maryland Zoo (see Figure 2). The Maryland Zoo is located in an inner city neighborhood, with a racially mixed population that is very different from the population of the university the students attend. The experience of interacting with those different from themselves may have influenced students’ attitudes in this area. Several students communicated a sense of nervousness or lack of confidence in working in a community with a racial composition very different from their own communities. Many lacked experience teaching in underserved areas. Final reflections revealed that students came to realize many of their concerns had been alleviated after their experiences began at the zoo. Class discussions indicated that students were

made more aware of social injustices that they had not encountered before, especially with respect to how those injustices affect the educational system in a community (inequitable funding, lack of resources, etc).

The integration of environmental education projects into the service learning component also seemed to influence students’ attitude toward protecting the environment. Pre-test results show that 33% of the class was interested in being involved in environmental “clean up” projects before the course began, but 50% were interested in doing these sorts of activities post-test. There is much research that suggests exposure to environmental education can result in greater environmental stewardship (Volk & Cheak, 2003; Cheak et. al, 2002; Hungerford & Volk, 1990; Marcinkowski, 1998). The results presented here suggest that these types of components might lead pre-service teachers to instill a sense of stewardship in their students through leading by example. Given that environmental experiences have been shown to increase student achievement in a variety of settings and disciplines (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998; Wilson & Monroe, 2005; SEER, 2000), service learning experiences for pre-service teachers that incorporate environmental themes seem particularly appropriate to integrate into teacher education programs.

Figure 2: Please indicate the importance to you personally of each of the following: (Percentages include answers „Very Important‟ and „Essential‟)




Participating in a community action program



Helping to promote racial understanding



Influencing the political structure



Becoming involved in environmental programs



Developing a meaningful philosophy of life



Becoming a community leader



Most students (57%) reported that the service learning component of the course and the chance to collaborate with other people in the community and with other students were either “highly important” or “very important” to their learning in the class (See Figure 3). Many other researchers have reported similar results (Astin et. al., 2000; Billig, 2000; Melchoir, 2000). Teaching by its very nature is a collaborative endeavor. Teachers do not work in isolation within a school. Rather, they often collaborate with other teachers, administrators, and parents, to name a few. Interpersonal skills are a necessity for a successful teaching career. To model a collaborative atmosphere and to assist pre-service teachers in developing these skills, the service learning activities were designed to be completed in small collaborative groups. Seventy one percent of the students reported that collaborating with other students was “Highly Important” or “Very Important” to their learning in the course. These results demonstrate that fostering collaboration through service learning is valuable to pre-service teachers and effective in fostering learning of life skills needed in the workplace.

It is interesting that both the service learning component and class lectures were found to be equally important in promoting learning to students in the course. The implication here is that no one method of pedagogy is best for all situations; service learning works best when it complements learning taking place in the classroom. The integration should be seamless; service learning is most effective when classroom and community-based learning are balanced.

Figure 3: How important were each of these activities in promoting your learning in this class (Percentages include “Highly Important” and “Very Important”)

Assigned Readings


Discussions about class or program topics


Discussions about current events


Community placement or service-learning project


Lectures in the class or program


Research papers or projects


Written reflections about ideas or experiences (such as journals or reflection writing assignments)


Opportunities to influence the content or organization of the class or program


Collaborating with other students


Collaborating with people in the community


Many important aspects of the service learning components were discovered through the open-ended comments students made regarding the course. Fifty-eight percent of all the comments made about the service-learning activity or the people students worked with were positive. For example, students commented that they enjoyed the opportunity to do something new.

Many (90%) said that the service-learning project helped them to see how the coursework applied to their future. A benefit that was mentioned by many was having the opportunity to teach actual elementary/middle school students instead of simply teaching peers, as occurs in many classes within the teacher preparation program. The following comments summarize the views of students in the course:

When I think of school and the many “useless” things that we do a lot of the time they don’t translate to real world situations. As a teacher candidate it was nice to be a part of the “real world” at the zoo, and really had ourselves to “educating” people.” I’d encourage all fields to have the same sort of service learning. What better way to learn then to be a part of the real world interacting with real people. This whole course has been quite the treat and having been in classrooms my whole life I feel that the experiences gained cannot be compared if this course was classroom only.

For us I do feel it was beneficial for our major, you have to be one on one with the students & if we were to have been stuck in a classroom trying to simulate it to our college peers, we would not have gotten the same knowledge & experience we do now.

I think this project is a good idea for students in the education program because you’re working with kids & adults, which is what we’ll inevitably be doing in the classroom. This experience helps us to build our confidence with speaking in front of strangers of all ages & gives us a chance to begin to feel comfortable doing so. I do think that service learning experiences would be good for other people in this major because of this. I’m sure there are programs @ TU that a service learning experience would be a good idea for, as well, I just don’t know which ones those are. Definitely any kind of major where you’re going to be dealing with people or speaking to crowds.

Several students liked knowing that the curricula they created will be used by educational personnel at the zoo, rather than simply being evaluated by the instructor. Many students noted that they learned more by doing the service- learning project than they would have by reading a text book or writing a research paper. One wrote, “I think service learning is valuable for any student because it allows you to give back and also gain hands-on experience.”

Fifty seven percent of students stated that their outlook on service- learning changed from the start of the course to the end of the semester. Of those students:

  • 92% had a positive change in outlook.
  • 29% of students said their outlook on service-learning stayed the same.

And of those students:

    • 83% maintained a positive outlook.
    • 14% of students stated that they had no outlook.

“Service learning experiences are definitely valuable to all students, in both the education program and almost every other program I can think. They provide the student with a meaningful, engaging experience that enhances the learning process. They are a great way to give back to the community. They also are a wonderful opportunity for students to apply their learning, and gain deeper, relational understandings of content.”

“Service learning would be beneficial to all students. It gives a sense of connection to the community, you learn more about yourself, maybe think outside the box and provides real life experiences outside of academics.”

“I believe this service learning experience would definitely be of value for future education students as well as students of different degrees because you give back to your communities by providing this service and I think that is something everyone should experience.”

“This experience would be of great value to continue with future TU students.”

“I personally think service learning should be included in all of Towson classes. This did connect to my degree program and I really loved it.

Service learning gives you a sense of achievement, excitability, and a job well done. Service learning should be a requirement at Towson. Students need to get themselves in the community and do things for others. They will gain so many things.”

Eighty four percent of students are inclined to continue the sort of service they performed in this course, or some other volunteer activity, in the future.

Ninety three percent of the students stated that they are able to make a difference in their communities through service learning. Many said that the course helped them to see that the smallest change can help make a difference, such as helping one student learn a new concept:

“The experience also reminded me why I want to be a teacher. The joy of teaching is imparting knowledge on others and seeing that their excitement matches your own. I think everyone should experience a service learning project no matter their program. Service learning helps you to appreciate your community and it makes you feel good to know that you have done a good thing.”

“I would recommend service learning experiences to just about anyone in my program. It allows us to get out of the classroom and teach others in a different environment. Not just education majors, but any major can take something from this experience. At the very least, it helps the surrounding community and the attitudes they feel towards the volunteers.”


The data obtained from the Carnegie Foundation Political Engagement Survey suggests that the service learning activities incorporated into the course described here were effective in meeting course goals and objectives. Students seemed to place more value on learning through service versus learning the content in a more traditional manner. The results presented here represent one course over one semester; however, they are consistent with those found in many other studies across a variety of disciplines. For those involved in pre-service teacher education or environmental education who might want to design similar courses, I summarize the lessons learned from this experience:

  • Collaboration benefits the learning atmosphere
  • Service learning should not entirely replace classroom activities but should complement them. Teaching and learning in a non-classroom setting can be a powerful learning tool that creates a sense of feeling more connected to a community among students.
  • Community or location-specific service learning can increase appreciation and understanding of local racial/cultural/ethnic/economic issues.

Additionally, for those involved with environmental education, many studies show that service learning experiences that are environmentally connected can directly influence the extent of environmental stewardship among students (Keen & Baldwin, 2004; Curry, et. al., 2002).

If we truly want a citizenry that is engaged in civic issues and concerns, we must continue to offer opportunities for young adults to become aware and involved. What better way than through their coursework, as they prepare for their careers?


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About the Author:

Former middle school science teacher; has served as adjunct faculty at several colleges: Univ. of Georgia, Delaware State University, Essex Community College, Eastern Shore Community College, Wesley College, & Salisbury State

University. Three years experience as a veterinary assistant. Currently an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, and director of the Center for Science & Mathematics Education. Teach science education courses for elementary education and secondary education majors, and an environmental education course for biology majors. Research interests focus on using the environment as an integrating context for learning in K-12 education. Currently principal investigator on a five year NSF Math-Science Partnership grant with Baltimore City and Baltimore County Public Schools.


© 2011 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.