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Educational Programs - 4-H Sustainable Living Program (SLP)

Conducting your Service Learning Project
Adapted from University of Maine 4-H Camp & Learning Center at Bryant Pond training by Athena Palmer and Mitch Mason

Welcome to your guide in planning a service learning project through the Sustainable Living Program (SLP). There are four easy steps for your SLP group to complete:

1. Background research: look at other service learning projects on the web and in your community.
2. Complete activities to prepare your SLP group to create a project: discuss the meaning of  service learning, complete the Reflection Grid,  review S.M.A.R.T. goals and the scientific method.
3. Plan your groups service learning project. Share the results with Athena Palmer, the SLP Coordinator.
4. Do the project!


Before you start planning your service learning project it may be best to review the three questions below first:

What is service-learning?

“Service-learning is a strategy that integrates community needs, intentional learning objectives, and structured opportunities for reflection. Service-learning projects take community service or volunteer projects to the next level by emphasizing both service and learning to create a more meaningful experience for youth.” (Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach) 

How does service-learning differ from community service?

While working on a community service project your focus is not necessarily to learn while you serve. With a service-learning project you are specifically designing a learning opportunity that will also benefit and serve your community. For instance, a community service project may be cleaning trash off local trails or streets. However if this is transformed into a service-learning project, the youth may try to determine the source of the litter, weigh how much is collected, and try to develop a solution or way of reducing the amount of litter that reaches the trails or streets.

What is a service-learning project?

A service-learning project is a project developed by youth that focuses on an area of need they identify within their community. This project will provide an opportunity for youth to learn, as well as positively influence their community, and also to build skills and real world experience. These projects are not typically “one-time” efforts. The boundaries of service learning projects are almost limitless, and for the Sustainable Living Project they can be focused on an array of sustainability and environmental concerns (i.e. how far away does your food come from and why eating locally may be the best option, why are we seeing an increase in Maine’s invasive species populations, what is the health of our local ecosystems and how do we protect them from pollution, how are builders increasing the energy efficiency in local homes and businesses) within local communities; or globally if the group is VERY ambitious.

Reviewing the questions above with your SLP members prior to planning your service learning project will allow them to fully understand why they are creating a project, it’s importance, and how it will effect their community. Now guide your group members through the four easy steps in planning a service learning project.


Let’s Get Started! 

Step 1. Background Research

Time: 60 minutes of research, 15-20 minutes of group discussion
Provide your SLP members with resource links similar to the ones listed below that they can research. These links give some examples of service-learning projects that have been completed in other parts of the country. After the youth have done some background research , hold a 15-20 minutes group discussion. At the discussion youth can state which was their favorite example (and why) and which one they would NOT want to do (and why). Service-learning project examples:

SLP Coordinator favorite examples:

 A potential collaborative project, The FIG Project:

Step 2. Activities to prepare SLP youth to develop or choose a project
Time: 90 minutes

There are four activities to do with the youth before they are ready to select their service learning project. These activities provide information to make a good decision while moving the youth into a service learning “state of mind.”

Activity 1.  Define service-learning, how it differs from community service, and discuss some of the project examples that they thought may be appropriate for their community. (15 minutes)

Activity 2. Complete the Reflection Grid (printable version:  word   pdf ). Ask the youth to list three statements for each of the cells in the grid (example below). It is OK if the statements they provide don’t seem to relate to a potential service-learning project. Then provide time for youth to discuss some of their ideas and opinions.  (25-30 minutes)

  Yourself    Your School  Your Community   
Positive Aspects of:
  • I am artistic
  • I am very organized
  • I am passionate about science
  • We have a lot of school spirit
  • My school has a lot of funding
  • I have very involved and caring teachers
  • My town is small, so everyone knows and helps one another
  • There are a lot of fun places in my city for the public
  • My town has a very pro-active town council
Things you want to change about:
  • I am a procrastinator
  • I don’t get enough physical exercise
  • I watch too much TV
  • My school doesn’t have a lot of after school activities
  • We spend too much class time inside
  • There is a lot of drug use in my school
  • There aren’t many opportunities for adults or youth in my town.
  • My city has a big problem with polluting streams
  • My area creates too much waste per household

Activity 3. Review the definition of S.M.A.R.T. goals with SLP youth and why the goals are important: “S.M.A.R.T.  goals will help guide you to create a practical service-learning project and if followed, will also provide your project with a better chance of success” . Later, when youth brainstorm specific ideas for a project, refer back to this discussion to determine if a project idea is S.M.A.R.T. (15 minutes)

S.M.A.R.T. stands for:

Examples of SMART goals:

Activity 4. Review the steps to use the scientific method for problem solving. One of the goals of SLP is that youth learn to use a logical and thoughtful decision making process in all aspects of their lives. (30 minutes)

Here is a model of the scientific process that youth might use to develop their service learning project:

Planning Step   Examples
1 Identify the problem that is
(an area of concern/need
in your local community related to sustainable living and the environment).
  • Most people buy food that is shipped from across the country
  • The number of invasive species in Maine is rising
  • Ecosystem health is being negatively impacted by increasing development and urban sprawl
  • The pollution of streams is a serious problem in most cities
  • Most old home are not energy efficient and need updating
 2 Ask a question or make a
  • I hypothesize that by building and using my own compost pile, I can reduce my overall garbage waste by half.
 3 Research the background/history
of the problem.
 When did it start?

  • The problem of extreme waste in the U.S. most likely began shortly after then end of the great depression, and has steadily increased

How has it come to be a problem?

  • As families increased their wealth and products became more affordable, it became easier to throw items away once they broke or became outdated.

What factors may be contributing to, or impacting the problem?

  • An increase in the commercial attitude that “newer is better”
  • A shorter turn over rate on newer product models
  • An overall historical increase in the income per family (especially within the middle class)
  • Most families do not recycle or repurpose food waste using compost piles
 4 Develop a plan, method, experiment,
or procedure that you believe will
help change or fix the problem.
  • I will measure the waste my family sends to the landfill for two months to see if we can reduce our waste by half with the help of a compost pile.
 5 Put your plans in motion.
If possible collect data (i.e. take measurements, document observations)
using resources like your field
notebooks, cameras, GPS units, or
testing equipment.
  • I will measure the typical amount of garbage I put out to the curb every week for a month, and then take the average (SUM of 5 weeks ÷ 5 weeks) of that waste. This will provide me with the weight of my families typical monthly waste.
  • Next, I will build a compost pile in which I will add all of my compostable food waste. Before adding this waste to the pile I will weigh it and keep a journal over the course of another month.
  • Each week, over my month study period, I will weigh my trash bags to determine how much of my families waste I cannot compost. Each month I will calculate and record the average.
  •  At the end of my study period I will compare my monthly averages and see if they match my original hypothesis.
  • See my data below.


Month 1: Weight of garbage bag normally (lbs) Month 2: Weight of garbage bag while composting (lbs)
Week 1 10 5
Week 2 7 2
Week 3 9 4
Week 4 5 4
Week 5 7 7


6 Analyze what you did, saw,
collected, or found.
Try to use tools such as graphs, diagrams, charts, tables, or lists to analyze your data/ observations.
The chart below shows the plotted data from the example problem above. It shows that generally, the weight of the Palmer families waste before using a compost pile was generally higher than the families waste after using the compost pile

  7 Draw conclusions and determine your findings based on your analysis.Was your hypothesis true or false? Was it partially true? Did your efforts solve or positively impact the original problem? What could you do the next time to get better results, or did you accomplish your group’s goals?
  • I conclude that we were able to reduce my family’s waste by using a compost pile. Upon further analysis of my averages, I found that using the compost piles did not reduce my family’s waste in half. Our waste was only reduced by slightly more than half. To continue trying to solve this problem I will conduct the same experiment over a longer period of time to see if my results may change due to seasonal waste (i.e. Christmas present wrappings, spring cleaning). I will also keep a more detailed account of what my family is throwing away to see if more of it can be reused, recycled, repurposed, or donated.
8 Share your conclusions/findings with other SLP groups, and people throughout your community.
  • This can be in the form of a short report (use a format that documents each of the steps you took: i.e. flier, pamphlet, a paper, email, or a post on the SLP google groups page), a presentation, a demonstration, and/or more
  • Ex: I wrote a short report that showed my procedure, the results of my experiment, my conclusions, and suggestions for a wider community experiment. I then brought this report and my ideas to the members of my town council, and asked that they help me conduct a larger town based experiment.

Step 3. Identify and Plan the Service Learning Project
Time:  30-40 minutes to complete these tasks:

Step 4. Do Your Project
Time: depends – but keep it S.M.A.R.T.

Have fun!

Image Description: A comparison of the Palmer's family waste before and after composting: Month 1, weight of garbage bags normally (lbs: week 1=10; week 2=7; week 3=9; week 4=5; week 5=7); weight of garbage bags while composting (lbs: week 1=5; week 2=2; week 3=4; week 4=4; week 5=7)

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