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Special Report

Social Justice Service-Learning at an HBCU

Transforming Courses in the Wake of COVID-19

Journal of College Science Teaching—May/June 2022 (Volume 51, Issue 5)

By Nastassia N. Jones and Francesca M. Mellieon-Williams

Integrating social issues into biology courses may be of particular interest for educators seeking to create inclusive science environments that support diverse populations. This social justice–focused service-learning project extended a partnership between a social justice institute and a nonprofit organization into an undergraduate introductory genetics course at a small, private Historically Black College and University. For this project, the foundation of gene expression and regulation in an introductory genetics course was used to link sustainable agriculture to food justice issues. In-class activities focused on introducing students to genetically modified foods and using bioinformatic tools to explore genes and proteins. Out-of-class opportunities exposed students to the benefits and impacts of sustainable agriculture. Students had a positive experience with the project and believed the service benefitted the community. As institutions of higher education consider what the educational structure should look like in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new normal, projects such as the one described in this article can be used in alternative learning formats to continue best practices in education, such as active learning, which have been shown to work well for diverse groups of students.



Institutions of higher education are being forced to consider what the educational structure should look like in the wake of the rapid mass adoption of online learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. From a curriculum studies perspective, Cahapay (2020) discussed the opportunities and challenges with this “new normal” period approaching, while other scholars have explored implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for higher education overall (Pokhrel & Chhetri, 2021; Toquero, 2020). Some students and faculty have discovered that various forms of online learning work for them and that going back to the old normal may not be as appealing as searching for alternative structures for teaching and learning.

This desire to deviate from business-as-usual amplifies issues that were already identified in foundational biology courses. Freshmen and sophomore students enrolled in these lower-level biology courses often do not see the bigger picture of what their current course is providing them. Educators are continuously fighting students’ misconception that the course is a silo rather than a foundation for their future courses. The sooner students see the connection to foundational concepts, the sooner they can transfer these concepts to their next courses and create a strong biology framework for the rest of their educational career. In this article, we discuss a project that connects introductory genetics concepts to community issues and provide tips for how this project could be adapted for courses in this new educational normal resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.


The historical context, societal importance, and cultural relevance of topics are covered sparingly in traditional biology courses; however, providing this information could improve student learning by helping students see the relevance of biology learning and foundational concepts (Chamany et al., 2008). Considering that women and people of color historically have been excluded from—and continue to face barriers to entering and remaining in—the sciences, integrating social issues into biology courses may be of particular interest. Furthermore, threading real-world problems throughout the curriculum encourages students to see biological concepts as they are connected to societal issues the students may address in future careers. Many of these social problems are cross-cultural, and focusing on them will lead to a more inclusive learning environment for all students, which can be essential to engagement and retention of minority populations in the sciences (Lasker et al., 2017).

Another way to promote inclusive learning environments is by cultivating an active-learning classroom environment. Active learning refers to any technique that includes students in the learning process rather than giving them facts to memorize. Students in active-learning environments are more likely to complete the course compared to students in traditional lecture courses, and research shows positive outcomes associated with active-learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses (Lasker et al., 2017). One such method to engage science students in active learning is through service-learning projects, a high-impact educational practice that has been shown to increase student engagement and retention (Begley, 2013; Kuh, 2008). The hallmark of this pedagogical practice is school- or university-community partnerships that aim to meet community-identified needs and in-class reflection activities that connect the experience back to the curriculum to reinforce academic concepts (Bringle, 1995, cited in Begley, 2013). Kuh & O’Donnell (2013) describe evidence-based high-impact practices such as service- and community-based learning and collaborative assignments and projects as diversity and global learning that contribute to increased student learning and persistence when these practices are designed, implemented, and assessed effectively. Service-learning has become popular across the K–16 educational landscape, and there has been an increasing number of studies that focus on service-learning in science courses at the postsecondary level.

One way to connect the integration of real-life societal issues in science courses with the community-based service-learning approach is through social justice education. Social justice education is a philosophical movement that is “grounded in the civil rights era … and positions education as a key tool for understanding and overturning oppressive conditions and practices in schools and society” (Butin, 2007, p. 178). Infusing social justice topics into science courses enables students to apply scientific ways of knowing to identify and address questions important to their local communities (Finkel, 2018). Considering the role of culture and identity in real-life problems connected to science content in the world in which students live—as social justice teaching does (Finkel, 2018)—is also part of the culturally responsive pedagogy described by Ladson-Billings (1995). Therefore, a social justice–oriented service-learning approach in science courses can “broadly link the personal to the social and the classroom to the community” (Butin, 2007, p. 177).

One of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF; n.d.) 10 Big Ideas for the 21st century is Understanding the Rules of Life. The focus of this big idea is the convergence of research across various STEM disciplines along with the integration of modeling and bioinformatics techniques to predict observable characteristics of organisms using genotype and environmental data (NSF, n.d.). However, many students struggle to grasp the details of gene expression and regulation, which prevents them from succeeding in subsequent biology courses or being able to pivot into the innovative research pathways carved by the NSF. The foundational topic of gene expression and regulation was used as a backbone for this social justice service-learning project in an introductory genetics course to link sustainable agriculture to food justice issues.

Service-learning experience

Prior to the start of the semester, the instructor explored potential topics of interest from students in the biology department that relate to the genetics concepts that would be covered during the course. The lack of readily available fresh produce and food near campus became a topic of interest. There was a core group of students in biology who volunteered on weekends at a local community garden, where they were learning how to grow food and compost. Genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture became the two topics of focus, as the genetic engineering of food and its effects on agriculture could be connected to the genetics class; additionally, the movement toward more sustainable agriculture seemed to be a result of people’s initial concerns regarding genetic engineering of food and monoculture mass agricultural practices. This project occurred near the end of the semester as a final project in which students could connect genetics concepts learned throughout the semester with real-life social justice issues.

This service-learning experience was introduced at a private, 4-year, very small, exclusively undergraduate liberal arts institution designated as a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). At the time of the project, the institution held a Carnegie Foundation Classification for Community Engagement with a special focus on social justice, as evidenced by a mission statement that highlights a desire to graduate students who are advocates for social justice. There were a little more than 700 students enrolled at the institution; 65% were female and 93% were Black. The genetics course was a typical 4-credit-hour science course that included three hours of lecture per week (in three, 50-minute sessions) and a weekly lab (2 hours and 50 minutes). This 200-level course, which covered the basic principles of genetics, was designed to be a sophomore-level course that should immediately follow the freshmen-level general biology course for biology majors. Major topics covered in this course included the molecular biology of the cell, gene expression and regulation, and changes in chromosome structure and number. During the semester in which this project took place, there were 32 students (100% Black and 72% female) enrolled in the course.

Project implementation was possible due to the commitment of each partner involved in planning and executing each aspect of the experience. The college’s Social Justice Institute (SJI) was instrumental in connecting the course instructor with the nonprofit organization to mediate conversations in the initial planning phase. SJI also focused on campus policies and any legal issues that needed to be explored related to the nonprofit’s leaders hosting events on campus, students leaving campus for course-related events, and providing transportation for the off-campus experience. The U.S.-based international nonprofit organization (NPO) that partnered with the college on this project had a history of working in communities to support local farmers with addressing hunger and poverty. In countries around the world, the NPO has a history of not only assisting with startup funding and entry into supply chains and markets but also providing mentor support related to best business practices. For this project, the NPO used its community connections to organize the out-of-class experience, which focused primarily on sustainable agriculture. The final partner was Dr. Nastassia N. Jones in her role as the instructor for the genetics course. Dr. Jones organized the in-class experience, which focused on gene expression and regulation using genetically modified organisms as an example, as well as how to use bioinformatic tools to explore protein changes.

Project implementation

In-class experience

The in-class experience portion of this project was integrated within the lecture and laboratory time blocks and divided into three different parts. Part I included members of the NPO attending the genetics lecture class to introduce themselves to students, talk about what they do in their career, and share other career opportunities at the NPO. Part II of the in-class experience included information regarding course-specific aspects of the service-learning project, including explanations of the group project and the grading rubric. An introductory lecture on genetically modified organisms, transgenic organisms, and the connection to gene expression and regulation occurred during this part of the project. Marie-Monique Robin’s 2008 film, The World According to Monsanto, was streamed during class and followed by class discussions. Table 1 describes some of the in-class topics of discussions from the film viewing connecting it to academic concepts and social justice issues.


Table 1. Summary of topics discussed in class following Part I activities.

Topic discussion category

Description of discussion topic


The scientific misconceptions that people have about genetically modified organisms (GMO) and foods


The process to genetically alter the Roundup Ready soybeans and other foods that have been genetically altered


The effect of GMOs on native Mexican corn and the role of transposons when modified genes are introduced in society (corn phenotype varied based on location of same transgenic gene)

Social justice

The new kill gene in the genetically modified plants and how it impacts plants on nearby smaller farms

Social justice

Big biotech company effects on the global food market, including the increase in farmer suicides and efforts to make farmers completely dependent on the market to buy seeds, nitrogen-based fertilizers, and Roundup or other herbicides

Social justice

The green revolution and its connections with feeding an increasing population

Part III of the in-class experience focused on introducing students to bioinformatics tools. This part included an introductory lecture on the computer tools offered by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI; and BioCyc ( to explore gene sequences and operons and a demonstration of multiple sequence alignment and phylogenetic tree building. The overall goal of this part of the project was to strengthen students’ understanding of gene expression by using computer tools to explore different genes and visually see the impact of gene changes on protein structure. In addition to the lecture, students completed an individual lab assignment that introduced them to using NCBI and BioCyc, as well as a related genetically modified organism (GMO) bioinformatics lab assignment that walked them through how to predict function based on protein motifs and domains. They also explored three-dimensional protein shapes to discuss differences in structure related to function, the importance of sequence conservation and its links to function, and predicting types of mutations.

Out-of-class experience

The out-of-class experience was divided into two different parts that occurred both on and off campus as indicated. Part I was a movie night for the entire campus community hosted by the NPO. The documentary Fresh, released in 2009, was shown because of its focus on sustainable agriculture while highlighting the activists, entrepreneurs, and farmers who are changing America’s food system.

For Part II, the NPO and SJI coordinated a Saturday class trip to a rural community approximately 120 miles from campus, where students were able to engage with the local community. In the spirit of social justice for our students, snacks, a boxed lunch, and beverages were provided to ensure that all students would have access to food throughout the duration of the trip. Upon the class’s arrival, a community member liaison met with students and encouraged them to “leave behind something that you brought with you and take away something that you can remember” and invited them to return to the community to continue engaging. Students were divided into groups to work at two locations. At the community’s high school, a group cleaned and set up the greenhouse so high school students could use it for farming, while other students filled plant beds and planted seeds as well as beautified the campus by doing landscaping. At one of the local community gardens, an elderly community member talked with students about the benefits of community gardens and the students worked with community members to clear plots and plant seeds. There were alternative assignments offered for every activity that occurred outside of scheduled course time.

Project evaluation

After the completion of the service-learning experience, 22 of the 32 students enrolled in the course completed evaluation forms for the SJI about their opinions of the experience. The overall feedback from students indicated that they had a positive experience with the social justice service-learning project, with 95% of students indicating that they enjoyed the service-learning project and believed the service benefitted the community. This evaluation form asked students about the organizational components of the project experience, such as whether they believed they had adequate time, adequate orientation, and an appropriate amount of information and knowledge to connect the service component to course content. The form also asked for students’ opinions about whether the program contributed to their improved understanding and ability to apply the academic course material. The evaluations showed that students believed this service-learning experience allowed them to fulfill the social justice mission of the institution and would lead them to pursue future opportunities for community involvement. Students also completed course evaluations and submitted a reflection paper connecting the service project to course content.

Following the completion of the project, two representatives from the NPO provided feedback to SJI regarding their experience on the project. Both representatives stated that they had a very positive experience. They indicated that there was sufficient communication between the partners throughout the process and acknowledged that they could have done a better job of connecting the organization’s mission to the course material and service project. Additionally, they shared a desire to continue the partnership that was established through this project and that the service-learning project was successful overall.


This experience highlighted the need to incorporate real-life activities into the curriculum so students can make social connections. While many projects focus on course learning objectives and student outcomes, one focus of this project was to help students connect social justice issues to their academic journeys to prepare them to be socially conscious citizens no matter their career choices. The process to build this project can be replicated for other STEM disciplinary fields and is not limited to genetics. This project design is also not limited to a sophomore-level science course, as there are adjustments that could be made for more advanced courses. For instance, more senior students could have a more active involvement in the project design process early in the semester or design individual projects based on the topic and get them approved by the instructor prior to beginning.

As institutions are still negotiating changes in face-to-face learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a few ways this service-learning experience could be implemented in alternative learning environments. Lectures can be done using virtual conferencing tools, which would also allow guest speakers from community organizations to interact virtually with students. Instructors can show movies to students using virtual conferencing tools by sharing the screen, or students can be provided links to view on their own with a live, virtual discussion during class time. Students can brainstorm ways to support their communities directly and submit a proposal for their service-learning activity to the instructor for approval. For example, based on the subject of the project described in this article, students could volunteer at a local food bank or food distribution effort that has occurred due to higher unemployment rates to link the topic to local food issues; discussions could be centered around benefits of genetic modification to sustain the food supply or benefits of community gardening to provide local access to food during a pandemic.

One unintended benefit of this service-learning project was college recruitment. The following academic year, a freshman student in the introductory biology course asked about a service-learning experience in that course since she was at the rural community’s high school when the genetics students were beautifying the campus. She explained how that encouraged her to apply to the institution because students came to give back to her community.

As institutions of higher education consider what the educational structure should look like in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new normal that follows, projects such as the one described in this article can be used in alternative learning formats to continue best practices in education, such as active learning, which have been shown to work well for diverse groups of students. Further studies on how to integrate social justice service-learning projects into introductory STEM courses and the impact that these projects can have on marginalized populations—coupled with alternative learning environments such as hybrid or online learning settings—will increase our understanding of how to best serve all students in STEM courses.

Nastassia N. Jones ( is an associate professor in the science and mathematics education doctoral program and Francesca M. Mellieon-Williams is an associate professor in the science and mathematics education doctoral program and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Biology, both at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


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