PBL Service Learning = Authentic SEL Experience

Art created by Heartside patrons


Darius was a struggling student. In fact, he had not completed a project all year. To top it off, he had been arguing with his mom a ton at home and the extended December break meant a further strain on their relationship. When school started back up in the new year, he learned that the class would be taking a trip to Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. He was not thrilled. As an introvert, he was nervous about meeting new people and having to talk. Afterwards he admitted that he enjoyed the experience and wanted to make something to help the patrons.

Darius and his group decided to make “Greaterade,” a new sports drink. They squeezed out juice from real lemons and oranges. They read that a little heat would help an upset stomach so they put some red pepper flakes in it. They added a salt, calcium magnesium, to help with recovery. The first batch was a disaster. It had pulp and seeds in it and tasted horrible from the pepper and calcium magnesium. They shifted to using lemon and lime juice, decreased the salt, and skipped the peppers. The second batch still tasted nasty from the calcium magnesium. Other students wouldn’t even try these first attempts in a taste test. On the third try, they decreased the calcium magnesium, and their drink tasted delicious. Now everyone wanted to try some. Darius was proud to bring his drink to share with Heartside visitors. As a bonus, his science teacher, Nate Langel, called his mother to share his success and discovered that Darius was talking with his mother again and mending that relationship. 

Failing Forward

Luciana was stressed. She was struggling to create bath bombs. In her latest trial, she had forgotten to add cornstarch to her recipe and instead of hardening, the mixture stayed slimy again. She knew better. From previous trials, she knew that she needed cornstarch for thickening, but it looked so much like baking soda that she accidentally neglected it. Now she had wasted a trial and ran out of citric acid, one of the active ingredients that creates the fizz in water. Maybe she should give up and just buy some at the store. But Luciana persevered, bought more citric acid, and successfully made her bath bombs. They were diamond shaped from forms that she had designed and 3D printed. 

Luciana was not alone in struggling with her experiments. Every student at the Grand Rapids Museum School that I talked to had generated multiple attempts in the Poverty Project. Students were creating products in response to the Driving Question, “How can we use material science to develop food, care, and art products to share with our Heartside neighbors?” while studying the polar and nonpolar properties of molecules. Tad and Gamon ran fourteen trials attempting to make a healthier toothpaste without the many chemicals in commercially sold ones. Their sticking point was the nasty flavor of their main, active ingredient, baking soda. In the end, they were unsuccessful, but appreciated the freedom to try and fail. 

Community Partner

Motivation during the Poverty Project came from the school partnership with Heartside Ministries, a local homeless organization. Heartside describes itself as a “living room” for underprivileged people. They don’t offer regular meals or overnight lodging, but a warm, safe space in the daytime to rest and get a cup of coffee. Heartside offers GED classes, church and counseling services, and a service dog. They have a spacious art studio where people produce beautiful pieces, expressing their creativity. 

This service project had an authentic audience of homeless people and the Heartside staff. The project launched with a visit to Heartside to meet people and investigate needs. It culminated with a return visit for students to demonstrate their products and explain the science behind them. Students were surprised when the patrons asked lots of science questions. One patron, who called herself Precise, asked very specific questions and shared life lessons with them. It was eye opening for the students to meet James, who although homeless himself, was trying to help other homeless people. Students became passionate about finding a solution to homelessness.

The Poverty Project integrated social studies, ELA, and science curriculum. In social studies, students researched the twenties and thirties looking at the government’s role in affecting poverty and homelessness during the Great Depression. For the humanities part of the project, students read Of Mice and Men then visited other homeless organizations in town to interview people. Students considered the DQs, “When does helping help? When does helping hurt?” The final product was a blog based on the interviews.


Luciana had another problem to solve. Homeless people did not have access to bathtubs so although her product met science standards, it was not practical. She decided to wrap the bath bombs in decorative bags and sell them. When her supply exceeded the demand from friends and family, she sold them at her public library. Luciana used the money to purchase art from Heartside patrons, supporting the people in a dignified way.

Science teacher, Nate Langel, who designed the project shared the following SEL goals: empathy, gratefulness, service, compassion, and social justice. During reflection at the end of the project, students articulated the analogy of the science concepts of polar and nonpolar properties to our society. 

“People are sometimes like oil and water, but they don’t have to be. People that have homes are the oil and people who don’t are like water. Our school is the soap, an emulsifier that breaks down the separation between them.”

In the Poverty Project, students practiced Responsible Decision Making through the tests and trials of their experiments. While students created products to help homeless people, they were learning core content in ways that not only benefited the community, but create a generation of students who have strong Social Awareness to take on the local and global issues with empathy and compassion.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.