Projects That Work: Applying Implementation Science to Research on K-12 Service Learning

Date Published:

Jun 26, 2017


Ed Metz

Focus Area(s): 

Educators are always looking for innovative ways to engage students as active learners.

Students doing service learning projectIn recent years, more K-12 schools and classrooms are incorporating experiential education to make learning hands-on and to apply course content. Service learning is one form of experiential education – where students perform real-world projects to learn academic content with the added goal of addressing important community and civic issues.

Examples of engaging and impactful service learning projects include students: charting driver’s texting at intersections outside of school to practice research and statistics methods in a math course, analyzing polluted river water in the school laboratory to learn environmental science, or designing a website for a local homeless shelter to apply design and coding skills in computer science.
Decades of research show service learning projects are most potent when students – guided by a teacher-facilitator – collaboratively research a real community need that aligns with course content, design a project to meet that need, perform sustained service, reflect, and disseminate through writing and presentations to detail what was accomplished.  

Despite its potential, a “research to practice gap” prevents most K-12 schools from implementing service learning projects. Essentially what we know works is often not used to achieve intended student benefits. For instance, few teachers have time to design and integrate multi-week projects while still covering required learning objectives. Few schools have resources to create the necessary hospitable conditions for projects to thrive, including planning and managing students leaving school grounds while collaborating with community partners. And the field of service learning at large lacks useful information on specific project types that have been shown to be feasible to implement within courses while producing the desired outcomes.

Applying Implementation Science to Research on Service Learning

One approach to bridging the gap and building capacity for strengthening service learning practice is through Implementation Science (IS). IS is a framework that emerged over the past decade in disciplines such as public health and child welfare to understand what needs to happen to promote the efficient and effective implementation of research evidence to practice at scale. IS provides a framework for developing feasible and sustainable interventions by explicitly operationalizing the functions and activities that need to be carried out for successful implementation, including identifying the stakeholders to carry out the strategy. IS also focuses on continuous quality improvement, where implementation is systematically assessed so that interventions can be refined over time with feedback from participants.

Projects that Work examines what happens and how well it happens during implementation, to identify what works in school-based service learning.

Projects That Work is a new national study that tracks the implementation of service learning interventions (projects) occurring in middle and high schools around the US. Applying an IS framework, the study examines what happens and how well it happens, to identify what works in service learning. The goal is for the research is to generate lists of project types that are a good fit and aligned with course content and objectives, and to isolate components and activities that increase feasibility and the likelihood that service learning projects will produce desired student outcomes. By uncovering the how project implementation is optimized, findings will drive “project improvement cycles” wherein successful implementation patterns can be replicated and improved upon, increasing the likelihood that service learning projects can be scaled across schools districts to produce student learning outcomes.

Students working in laboratoryThe Projects That Work study is underway with data provided on 41 service learning projects done in middle and high schools around the country. Initial findings are detailed in this White Paper, and reveal that teacher and student experiences differed by variations in the components and activities used to implement service learning projects.  For example:

  • Projects were most feasible to plan and do when teachers provided students detailed information on implementation and when a community partner supported a teacher and students during the project.
  • Students indicated they learned more and made a greater difference in addressing the issue when an adult from a community partner organization joined the project.  
  • Students indicated they learned more when projects were more closely aligned to academic standards - yet projects more aligned to curriculum standards were perceived as less feasible to plan and do.  Students also indicated they learned more and made a greater difference in addressing the issue when the project included reflection activities such as reading academic content, classroom discussions, and disseminating project results.  

Stay tuned as the Projects That Work study progresses.

Ed Metz is a developmental psychologist and a researcher in the field of school-based service learning. Contact Ed at for more information on the Projects That Work study.