Curriculum, Engagement, Promising Practices, School Community

Science Learning With and In Communities

Engaging students through authentic community-based science

Photo Caption: This Grade 12 student (middle) was able, through the Brock University Science Mentorship Program, to work with Professor Craig Tokuno (left) on his research into the neurophysiological and biomechanical control of human movement.

I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.

–Albert Einstein

Most would agree that students need to become more scientifically literate. However, science-literate students are not necessarily equipped to confront the complex societal issues that they will encounter as citizens. Students require knowledge, skills, and dispositions that enable them to critically and responsibly deal with an increasingly scientific and technological society. One way forward is to engage students in authentic, relevant and meaningful learning activities nested in their communities. This important educational innovation can help students become more engaged in learning science, help them connect their science learning to other subjects, strengthen their understanding of science, and improve their capabilities for responsible citizenship in their community. Nevertheless, the role of science teachers, schools and communities in terms of developing effective partnerships along with appropriate curriculum and pedagogy is not fully understood. This commentary begins the dialogue regarding science teaching and learning in relation to school communities.

Scientific literacy and citizenship

Historically, the conceptualizing of scientific literacy has been an esoteric endeavour. Nevertheless, pundits agree that increased scientific literacy of students and citizens will have broad societal benefits.[1] While science career goals are always part of any statements for scientific literacy, democratic and responsible science citizenship goals are just as important. For instance, there is agreement that proficiency in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is closely related to a country’s capacity in important sectors of the economy.[2] Without question, society is strengthened when all students, regardless of their career path, are equipped to learn, evaluate and respond to scientific and technological issues in their community.[3]

Community-based education

Schools are a part of their local communities. These schools interact in myriad ways with families and the general public, but also with governmental, non-profit, and business organizations, to support students and teachers. These connections can bring a wide range of resources, including additional funding and staffing, into schools.[4]

A growing number of schools and community partners are adopting programs that allow students to learn in their communities. These partnerships provide students with more authentic ways to develop necessary knowledge and skills, aiming to engage students in curricular topics that explicitly relate to where they live, and to use their own community as a source and location for learning. This is an important feature, as failing to contextualize science learning can lead to students’ alienation from science. While there are many ways to organize community-based education, advocates have focused on models that engage students in meaningful experiential learning through problem- or project-based approaches. Collectively referred to as community-based learning, these models include: academic partnerships, civic education, environmental education, place-based learning, service learning, and career-based learning.[5]

Community-based science learning

Community-based science education is an approach to teaching and learning that connects disciplinary learning to the local context. Figure 1 illustrates how schools and science can be seen as a focal point for a network of locations consisting of material and human resources for science learning within a community.

Figure 1: Community-based science education

Below are a few Canadian examples that highlight community-based science learning opportunities for students:


Academic science-community partnership

The Science Ambassador Program pairs senior university science, engineering and health science students with rural and remote Aboriginal community K-12 schools to support creative and culturally-relevant science teaching and learning. University students work alongside teachers to present hands-on science activities, facilitate class discussions, and mentor students.


Environmental education and communities

The EcoLeague program is a youth initiative that provides resource kits for elementary and secondary students across Canada to encourage them to help the environment through community- and school-based sustainability action projects.


Career-based science learning

The Brock University Science Mentorship Program links secondary school science students from local schools in Ontario’s Niagara Region to university faculty mentors from various disciplines including Biological Sciences, Biotechnology, Chemistry, Health Sciences, Neuroscience, and Physics. Working on site with university researchers, students are encouraged to consider a career in the sciences while engaging in science research programs carried out at the university.


While these initiatives are meaningful opportunities for students, student engagement in science education – particularly at the secondary school level – can be further enhanced when learning environments:


  • are designed to utilize complex science topics
  • give students authority to address community problems
  • hold students accountable to others and disciplinary norms
  • provide students with local resources that support authentic science learning[6]


One example of an initiative that incorporates some of the above characteristics is EcoSpark’s Changing Currents program. Based in the Greater Toronto Area, the program aims to allow students to identify and monitor a watershed close to their school community. Not only do students have access to community resources while engaging in authentic ecological science practices related to water quality and biodiversity; they also have the opportunity to conduct future study on issues or challenges they discover based on their data collection, as they contribute to a regional water monitoring program. Additionally, teachers are provided with resources and training to help their science students carry out the watershed science.


Cultivating community-based science education

Community-based science education provides a way for students and teachers to become local problem-solvers who can deal with scientific and technological challenges that are of consequence. But programs such as Changing Currents are not common.

These partnerships are challenging to develop due to the need for specific science materials and equipment, along with science and educational expertise – all necessities not available in many Canadian communities. Further, partnerships can have multiple and sometimes competing goals. Outcomes for students, teachers, and community partners need to be clearly articulated, and resources and relationships need to be sufficient and workable. Overall, there has been an increase in school-community initiatives in school science, typically focused on environmental science topics (e.g. biodiversity, air, and water projects). However, these represent only a small sample of potential partnership opportunities available in many communities across Canada.

While there have been some efforts to research and develop community-based science programs with schools,7 additional efforts are required to develop science curriculum and support professional learning that emphasize school science and community partnerships. The potential benefits to science students are important.

Using a communities of practice framework8 can help address the elements required for a successful science-community partnership. These include:

  • having all stakeholders share understanding of the science topic
  • fostering ongoing and trustworthy relationships among the members
  • identifying practices and resources required to make these endeavours successful and sustainable

Needless to say, government policies and incentives for initiating and sustaining partnerships are critical for community-based learning in science. Emergent technologies (e.g. social/collaborative online tools) can also play a critical role in facilitating the participation of science experts, educators, parents and volunteers.

We are entering an era where schools and communities are forming more and more partnerships, and cultivating these relationships is becoming ever more important. In order to establish beneficial community relationships, teachers and school administrators must be at the nexus of these relations. Thus, continued efforts are necessary to support important outcomes beneficial to all participants with/in communities across Canada.


En bref: La plupart des gens conviendraient que les élèves doivent accroître leurs connaissances scientifiques. Cependant, les élèves possédant des notions scientifiques ne sont pas nécessairement outillés pour confronter les questions sociétales complexes auxquelles ils feront face en tant que citoyens. Une solution consiste à engager les élèves dans des activités d’apprentissage authentiques, pertinentes et significatives intégrées à leur communauté scolaire. Cette importante innovation éducative peut aider les élèves à se consacrer davantage à l’apprentissage des sciences et à faire le lien entre leurs connaissances en sciences et d’autres matières, ainsi qu’accroître leur compréhension de la science et leurs capacités civiques dans leur collectivité. Néanmoins, le rôle des enseignants en sciences, des écoles et des collectivités dans l’établissement de partenariats efficaces n’est pas entièrement compris. Ce commentaire suscite un débat concernant le lien entre l’enseignement des sciences et les communautés scolaires.



Photo: courtesy Photo courtesy Brock University Science Mentorship Program


First published in Education Canada, March 2016

1 Douglas A. Roberts, “Scientific literacy/science literacy,” Handbook of Research on Science Education (NY: Routledge, 2007), 729-780.

2 Graham W. F. Orpwood, Bonnie Ann Schmidt, and Jun Hu. Competing in the 21st Century Skills Race (Canadian Council of Chief Executives, 2012).

3 Glen S. Aikenhead, “Towards Decolonizing the Pan-Canadian Science Framework,” Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics & Technology Education 10, no. 4 (2006): 387-399.

4 Carolyn Gregoric, School-Community Involvement (UNESCO-APNIEVE Australia publications, 2013); Catherine M. Hands, “Why Collaborate? The differing reasons for secondary school educators’ establishment of school-community partnerships,” School Effectiveness and School Improvement 21, No. 2 (2010): 189-207.

5 Atelia Melaville, Amy C. Berg, and Martin J. Blank, Community-Based Learning: Engaging students for success and citizenship (Washington, DC: Coalition for Community Schools, 2006). 

6 Randi A. Engle and Faith R. Conant. “Guiding Principles for Fostering Productive Disciplinary Engagement: Explaining an emergent argument in a community of learners classroom,”Cognition and Instruction 20, No. 4 (2002): 399-483.

7 Lisa M. Bouillion and Louis M. Gomez, “Connecting School and Community with Science Learning: Real world problems and school-community partnerships as contextual scaffolds,”Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38, No. 8 (2001): 878-898; Douglas D. Karrow and Xavier Fazio, “NatureWatch, Schools and Environmental Education Practice,” Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 10, No. 2 (2010): 160-172.

8 Etienne Wenger, Richard Arnold McDermott, and William Snyder, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A guide to managing knowledge (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2002).

Meet the Expert(s)


Xavier Fazio

Xavier Fazio is an Associate Professor at Brock University in the Department of Teacher Education. He teaches pre-service secondary science teachers and conducts research in schools that promote scientific inquiry, environmental education, curricular integration, and innovative science teaching.

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