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by Katy Farber
Educator and Author, Vermont

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October 30, 2017
The Best Service Learning Is Like the Best PBL

by Katy Farber
Educator and Author, Vermont

Both of these pedagogies, at their very best (think Gold Standard PBL, and Shelley Billig’s high quality service learning), have a lot in common. They both invite students to explore their own interests; ask relevant and meaningful questions; engage in prolonged inquiry, research and reflection, assessment and feedback; and ask students to create something that is of service to the world and share it with an authentic audience.

There are many intersections between service and project based learning. But don’t let me just tell you about it, let student projects from the field describe this intersection, in a sweet spot that promotes engagement and greater service to the world.

In Burke, Vermont, the middle level team is embarking on an ambitious project based learning plan for eighth graders using the United Nation’s Global Goals. In English class, the students started a unit on immigration by exploring the concept of empathy, brainstorming its meaning, especially when compared to sympathy (using this video from researcher Brene Brown). Then, they experienced the New York Times Displaced virtual reality, where they met three kids who have had to leave their homes due to violence. Then they used Flipgrid to reflect on whether the experience grew their empathy and in what ways. The students will ultimately, after studying world geography and reading about immigration and refugees in nonfiction and fiction, create a Project for Hope that connects to the UN Global goals of no poverty, quality education for all, peace, and justice and strong institutions. These will be guided by student choice and will be presented to the school community and local (and hopefully global) organizations. The projects will not only raise awareness as a service to a rural community, but grow student perspectives and allow the community to learn about these global issues from youth.

In Cabot, Vermont, middle school students are spread out in different buildings. The fifth and sixth grades are housed in a separate building from the 7-12 students. That makes it hard to build a cohesive middle level program for students, and for the 5/6 students to feel connected to and developmentally involved in the middle grades. So, the team launched Cabot Leads, a yearlong service learning and leadership project, based on another model called iLead that I led at my former school. The project has students exploring their interests, looking at school and community needs, and applying for yearlong leadership positions with school or community mentors. Students will have leadership experiences in their school jobs weekly, and will regularly reflect on their learning and growth. The program will culminate with students presenting a digital portfolio of their learning, including reflections, pictures and videos about their leadership position. They will present to families, community mentors and the school board. Talk about an authentic audience!

In Proctor, Vermont, students launched their project based learning unit on extreme weather by visiting WCAX, a state-wide news station. They watched a live weather TV broadcast and had a chance to ask the meteorologist questions. Then the students researched various climate zones and the weather disasters each one faces. Students created videos of their projects that were designed to help citizens in various climates across the country. One group designed a model of a hurricane proof house, another group developed a first aid kit for use in floods, and another provided video tips of what to do during a tornado. The projects were posted on the class website and even sent to the WCAX meteorologist for feedback. Students presented their projects during a family sharing event as well.

You’ll see more examples of service and project based learning in the Voices from the Field section of by book Real and Relevant: a guide for service and project based learning, including one teacher who coordinates with a local Humane Society for service learning; how one group of students built a Frisbee golf course to promote health and drug-free activities in their community; and how students are presenting about problems and their solutions in their local communities to state legislators.

By using both project based and service learning pedagogies, teachers can create experiences that connect students deeply to their communities, while increasing motivation, engagement and meaning.


Katy Farber, Ed.D, is a professional development coordinator, educator, and writer from Vermont.  She is the author of three books about education including Change the World with Service Learning: How to Create, Lead and Assess Service Learning Projects; and its new edition, Real and Relevant: a guide for service and project based learning, released in June 2017. Learn more about her work and connect at


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