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Earth Inc.

A Service-Learning Lesson Plan

A well-planned service-learning project should include stated academic and service goals, strategies for assessment, and opportunities for reflection. As an example, the Social Studies Education Consortium offers a template for a model service project. Included: Cross-curriculum goals, activities, and more!

service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum Can a well-planned service-learning project make a real difference? Debra Bjorna and her colleagues at Desert Sky Middle School (Glendale, Arizona) would answer with a resounding "Yes!"

Bjorna -- along with her colleagues Andrea Geith, Cassie Turley, and Howard Waltz -- created Earth Inc. The developers of this service-learning project aim to increase student and community awareness of the need to manage desert water resources and protect endangered species. The students involved in Earth Inc. "could actually see evidence that they could make a difference in people's attitudes and habits," said Bjorna, a science teacher on the team.

Being able to measure the impact of a project such as Earth Inc. on the community is an important element of service learning. A true service learning project, however, includes community service plus measurable learning.


To read more about what distinguishes service learning from community service, read this week's CURRICULUM story, Service Learning Equals Community Service Plus Learning.

Each teacher on the Desert Sky team took responsibility for integrating the school curriculum into the Earth Inc. project.

"In science, I have to teach basic chemistry aspects, such as solution, mixture, atom, molecules, acids, and bases," Bjorna told Education World. "In one of our curriculum simulations, we investigated a water pollution problem. We studied the basic chemistry concepts -- along with concepts such as parts per million and point source and non-point source pollution -- in terms that were highly relevant to students and resulted in a solution to a problem.

"At the end of the simulation," Bjorna added, "the students determined the extent of the pollution, investigated possible cleanup actions, and evaluated the impact of pollution environmentally, ecologically, socially, and politically."



Desert Sky teachers attending a summer institute conducted in 1996 by the Social Science Education Consortium (SSEC) created Earth Inc. The two-week institute focused on the design and implementation of service learning in the middle school curriculum. Teams of teachers from the western United States developed model service-learning units. As the teaching teams worked, institute staff provided assistance. During the school year that followed, those teams taught and evaluated their units.

Teachers at Desert Sky had already developed the Earth Inc. curriculum unit, but in the summer program, they enhanced the unit by adding a service-learning component in which students actually inform their community about the fragility of the desert's resources. Among the additions to the curriculum were the opportunities for students to write and record public service announcements for radio and television, develop water conservation brochures, and create poster art for display in the Phoenix International Airport.

The unit developed during the summer institute is provided below -- courtesy of the Desert Sky teaching team and the SSEC -- as an example of a model service-learning unit. As you review the unit, you'll see all the suggested components of such a unit and a few of the many ways in which Desert Sky teachers drew actual curriculum goals into the project.


The Earth Inc. project is one of a dozen sample service-learning units provided in materials published by SSEC. If you're a teacher or school administrator who might benefit by seeing a wide variety of ways in which teachers have combined learning with community service, you will be very interested in the SSEC materials. Service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum: A Resource Book includes background on the summer institutes, a discussion of the elements that make up a service-learning project, and eight sample units. Service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum: Supplement includes five more teacher-created units (including Earth Inc.). The Service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum: Staff Development Handbook is also available.

A model service-learning project should include a statement about the community; information about the background and purposes of the unit; a listing of the topics and concepts to be taught; specific goals, by subject area; service-learning goals; curriculum activities; evaluation strategies; and -- after the unit has been taught -- reflections on the project. The balance of this article will present edited highlights of the Earth Inc. unit designed by the Desert Sky teachers. Those highlights are intended to provide a flavor for the elements that might be part of a model service-learning project. The complete version of this unit appears in Service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum: Supplement.



is located in Glendale, Arizona, a northwestern suburb of the city of Phoenix. Glendale is located in the Sonoran Desert, which has an annual rainfall of 7 inches. The school population consists of approximately 1,100 seventh- and eighth-grade students. Desert Sky has implemented the middle school philosophy of education. Each student is a member of an integrated team that provides science, social studies, mathematics, and language arts instruction to its students. Each team is composed of approximately 120 to 130 heterogeneously mixed students.



Earth Inc. is an interdisciplinary teaching unit based on an imaginary company seeking a new advertising agency to handle its publicity. In the scenario, the company has discontinued its relationship with the old agency because people in Arizona continue to endanger the water supply and indigenous species. In the simulation, students compete for the Earth Inc. advertising contract. Each cooperative team of students designs and presents an advertising campaign consisting of public service announcements for TV, for radio, and for print. Students also conduct service projects in their community, using either water conservation or threatened wildlife as subject matter.

The unit is designed for one team of approximately 120 to 130 students but could easily be adapted to include an entire grade level or school, each focusing on a local environmental issue or problem. The issues of water conservation and threatened wildlife are major problems for the Sonoran Desert environment as more and more people settle in the "valley of the sun."

Students participating in Earth Inc. are expected to develop a greater sense of the true fragile intricacies of Earth and its systems. They will learn about the impact humans have had and will continue to have on Earth. Finally, and most important, students will develop a sense that they can make a difference in the quality of their lives if they take action based on making informed decisions.



The overall topic of the unit is environmental ecology, specifically desert water management and factors threatening Arizona desert wildlife. More-specific topics in the various disciplines appear below.

Water cycle
Food cycle
Endangered animal species
Predator/prey relationships
Indigenous species
Classification of threatened wildlife
Governmental protection and actions
Chemistry of water
Social Studies  
Arizona history
Governmental impact
Agricultural land use
Arizona geography
Population growth
Economic impact
Patterns and relationships
Data analysis/probability
Problem solving
Language Arts  
Business letter writing
Propaganda techniques
Research analysis
Research interpretation
Ad campaign development
Literature studies
Oral presentation skills



The following goals are included in the state of Arizona's Essential Skills for Science:

  • Develop positive attitudes and excitement toward learning science and the confidence in one's ability to do and understand science.
  • Understand the nature of science and technology.
  • Acquire and apply appropriate scientific knowledge to interpret the natural world.
  • Develop integrated skills through science experiences.
  • Use experiences with science and technology in personal decision making.
  • Increase understanding of the limits, possibilities, and interrelationships among science, technology, society, and the environment.
  • Acquire skills for learning through concrete and manipulative use of the instruments and materials of science.

Social Studies
The following goals are included in the state of Arizona's Essential Skills for Social Studies:

  • Describe and compare patterns of physical geography that pertain to different regions of the world.
  • Explain how the geographic features of a country or region influence its settlement and the way people use natural resources.
  • Identify and describe the basic economic concepts that influence the environment.
  • Describe laws and policies that are developed to meet the changing needs of society.
  • Research and identify issues that require social action and take part in the actions.
  • Demonstrate skills of persuasion and debate by working toward reasoned solutions regarding a controversial issue.

The following goals are included in the state of Arizona's Essential Skills in Mathematics:

  • Measurement: Experience informal comparisons; have opportunities to estimate measures of length, weight, mass, volume, time, etc.; apply measurement skills in problem-solving situations.
  • Problem solving: Apply, reason, experience, and demonstrate concepts and skills in the areas of number sense, measurement, geometry, and patterns.
  • Symbolic representations: Relate personal experience to symbolic representations.
  • Data analysis and probability: Organize, collect, and interpret information and data; construct lists, graphs, and tables; logically reason and interpret data and form conclusions.
  • Algebra: Explore and understand mathematical relationships using variables.
  • Logic and reasoning: Develop reasoning, logic, and higher-level thinking skills through interaction and communication regarding mathematical ideas.

Language Arts
The following goals are included in the state of Arizona's Essential Skills for Language Arts:

  • Read, analyze, and demonstrate comprehension of informational resources.
  • Listen and demonstrate comprehension of ideas from oral presentations and discussions.
  • Write a persuasive expository paper using writing-process skills.
  • Prepare and present an effective oral presentation.



  • Develop positive attitudes and habits toward water use in a desert climate.
  • Appreciate the impact of individual efforts.
  • Learn to work effectively with others.
  • Identify and work with professionals in the community who have relevant expertise.
  • Promote community awareness of local issues and potential solutions.
  • Develop self-esteem through informed decision making.
  • Develop an attitude of civic involvement regarding local issues and solutions.
  • Apply academic and cognitive content and skills in authentic environments.


The lessons in the unit were generally focused on three major areas -- habitat and endangered species, the water cycle, and communication skills. Goals and activities in each area are described briefly below:

Habitat and Endangered Species Goals and Activities

Habitat and Endangered Species Goals
Students should be able to

  1. Explain the criteria used to determine whether a species population is threatened, endangered, or extinct.
  2. Identify threatened species and factors that affect their populations.
  3. Describe and explain the following terms: biome, community, habitat, and food cycle
  4. Explain the role predators play in a habitat.
    Investigate and evaluate governmental regulations and actions designed to protect threatened species.
  5. Identify Arizona's three geographic zones.
  6. Locate Arizona's major mountain ranges, rivers, dams, and lakes.
  7. Identify and describe Arizona's climate and vegetation zones.
  8. Propose and communicate solutions for Arizona's endangered species problems.
  9. Create, describe, extend, and analyze a wide variety of patterns in our world.
  10. Use problem-solving approaches to investigate and understand mathematical content.
  11. Develop and apply a variety of strategies to solve problems, with emphasis on
  12. multi-step and non-routine problems.
  13. Verify and interpret results with respect to original problem situations.
  14. Generalize solutions and strategies to new problem situations.
  15. Review and apply note-taking skills.
  16. Explore the role environmental issues play in literature.
  17. Demonstrate attitudes about issues through reflective journal writing.

Habitat and Endangered Species Activities

What Happened to the Bald Eagle? Students study the effects of pollution and habitat loss on the eagle population. (Science and social studies)
Guando Island. In this activity, students create a life form based on information about the habitat on which it lives. (Science)
Mapping Arizona. Students create an Arizona map with counties, county seats, mountain ranges, rivers, dams, climate areas, and vegetation zones. (Social studies)
Rice Checkers. In this activity, students simulate exponential growth and discuss the effects of population growth. (Math)
Population Growth. Students examine population growth and its impact on water resources and endangered species, predict future problems if growth continues, and brainstorm solutions to problems. (Social studies)
Arizona's Issues. Students examine environmental and economic development positions and issues in the state of Arizona. (Social studies)
Endangered Species Game. In this activity, students simulate the effect that managed wildlife preserves have on endangered species. (Science)
Environmental Jeopardy. Students play a Jeopardy-style game using environmentally based math questions. (Math)
Environmental Book Reports. Students read and present reports to the class on environmental issues covered in a teacher/librarian generated book list. Students take notes from presentations for future use. (Language arts)
Reflective Journal Writing. Students reflect on what they have read, heard, and seen in all their classes and the media about environmental issues. (Language arts)

Water Cycle Goals and Activities

Water Cycle Goals
Students should be able to

  1. Explain the chemical makeup and properties of water.
  2. Explain and describe the impact of Earth's water cycle.
  3. Identify, describe, and analyze the impact of water use in the community.
  4. Evaluate the impact of water management, conservation, and reclamation projects in the community.
  5. Identify factors that contribute to water pollution in the community and analyze their impact in the water supply.
  6. Explain the impact of population growth and agriculture on Arizona's water resources.
  7. Propose and communicate solutions to Arizona's water problems.
  8. Systematically collect, organize, and describe data.
  9. Construct, read, and interpret tables, charts, and graphs.
  10. Make inferences, predictions, and arguments based on data.
  11. Demonstrate attitudes about issues through reflective journal writing.

Water Cycle Activities

Dirty Water. Students study the effects of pollution on Earth's finite water supply. (Science and math)
Water-Use Debate. Students debate positions of various economic interests (agriculture, golf, tourism) on water use issues and water conservation. (Social studies)
Water Analysis. Students analyze water samples and create graphs and charts of results. (Math)
What Happened the Day the Water Stopped? Students simulate living without water delivery would be like. (Math)
How Water Is Used to Recycle Trash. Students study the use of water in recycling programs. (Math)
Reflective Journal Writing. Students reflect on what they have read, heard, and seen in all their classes and the media about environmental issues. (Language arts)

Communications Skills Goals and Activities

Communications Skills Goals
Students should be able to

  1. Create an ad campaign presenting issues and solutions.
  2. Identify and apply propaganda techniques to ad campaign.
  3. Identify and apply scriptwriting skills to ad campaign.
  4. Use correct bibliographic format to research information. vWrite business letters informing the public of issues and solutions to problems related to them.

Communications Skills Activities

Propaganda. Students analyze television, magazine, newspaper, and radio ads to identify propaganda techniques. They develop notebooks with examples of each kind of propaganda.
Public Speaking. Students become familiar with persuasive words and learn proper posture, enunciation, body language, gestures, voice quality, and eye contact.
Scriptwriting. Students learn to organize, choose proper wording, and use reasoning to get a point across in the least amount of time and words. They use story boarding and dialogue with stage movements and directions and learn to apply persuasive techniques.
Business Letters. Students write letters to local companies regarding the unit.



Student teams at Desert Sky created advertising campaigns on water use in the desert that included brochures, posters, and public service announcements for radio and television.

  • All students in the school participated in the project by viewing and listening to the television and radio ads and reading the brochures and posters.
  • Members of the larger community viewed the television ads at school during special events and on local cable television.
  • The Welcome Wagon service provided to all new residents and homeowners in the community distributed the brochures.
  • Students exhibited their posters at the Phoenix International Airport for two months.


Teachers used several strategies to evaluate the effectiveness of the project. Those included attitudinal/habit surveys (pre and post); rubrics for evaluating advertisements and team effectiveness; surveys; journal reflection; and daily evaluation of class work.



From science teacher Debra Bjorna: During the project, I observed changes in attitude toward water use by most of my students. Parents reported that students were reviewing household use of water and suggesting ways to reduce water use in their homes. One parent was told not to use the toilet for an hour because his daughter was testing for water leaks. The advertisements were well received by all who viewed them. I find it most rewarding to observe the changes in attitudes of the students toward the fact that they, themselves, can make a difference in the fragile Earth environment.

From math teacher Andrea Geith:

I think the Earth Inc. unit was a success. Students enjoyed preparing and presenting their radio and television commercials to the core team and to the school.

In math, we made up the survey questions and tallied the results both before and after the public service announcements were shown to other students. The kids were really surprised to see how they impacted the decisions and attitudes of their fellow students on the issue of conserving water.

We were excited to see how the community, students, teachers, parents, and families came together to support our efforts. We had several parents tell us how they were excited to see their student get involved in such a wonderful learning experience. Some parents even told us how their son or daughter would make sure that siblings turned off the water while brushing teeth. I know I even found myself telling my two-year-old, who was potty training at the time, how important it was not to flush the toilet unless it was necessary.

From social studies teacher Howard Waltz:

My personal thoughts about Earth Inc. are all positive. From the social studies perspective, I feel that Earth Inc. accomplished its goals. We were able to study Arizona geography with a specific purpose. I was able to answer the often-asked question Why are we studying this? and give answers that the students were able to see and accept. The students were also able to see that they can make a difference in their community. The team heard, on countless occasions from parents and the community, how the students' projects caused them to look at water in Arizona in a more conservative way. Earth Inc. is an excellent way for students to take a local concern, incorporate the concern into a curriculum topic, and work on solving a problem.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2009 Education World