How to embed service to society within the educational experience

Helen Coulshed and Jeanne Wilson discuss their experience creating an interdisciplinary “service” module to challenge gender inequalities in local schools


King’s College London
10 Mar 2023
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University student teaching secondary school students

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With outreach firmly on the agenda for the modern university, one way institutions can aspire to shape and transform local communities is by embedding service to society within the educational experience. As well as enriching students’ time at university, this can have both short- and long-term benefits to wider society.

One approach can be to build teaching around an existing project or scheme already designed to support the local community, such as the Gender Action (GA) award programme, which was established to promote and support a whole-school approach to challenging gender stereotypes in nurseries, primary and secondary schools and colleges. In this article we discuss how to build an interdisciplinary “service” module around such an existing scheme, with an emphasis on student-led projects, which provide a valuable learning experience for university students while helping to make a tangible difference to pupil well-being and future potential in the local community.

Course structure and content

The module should be fully interdisciplinary so that it can be offered to students across all subjects as an optional module. Therefore, assuming no prior knowledge or skills, in our case instruction included the following topics:

  • Knowledge: gender bias and its impacts, learning stages of school-age children, impacts of gendered language and factors influencing subject choice.
  • Skills: impact measurement, safeguarding, ethics, peer review, self-reflection techniques, methodology for data collection and analysis.

To allow for a relationship to develop between schools and students ahead of the project, it is desirable to run the module across two semesters, with knowledge and skills training alongside project planning in the first semester. Pairs of students should be matched with a local school early on and, through regular meetings with an academic supervisor and nominated school contact, guided through the process of creating a detailed action plan for a six-week project that aligns with the schools’ priorities that can be carried out during semester two.

Engaging schools

Initially you can engage with local schools, spanning all key stages, that have already engaged closely with your chosen scheme. But as the module matures you may want to recruit further partner schools, using one or more of these means:

  • Departments may maintain contact lists for outreach or widening-participation activities.
  • A university PGCE programme may be able to share contacts with partner schools.
  • Members of staff parent networks may have links to local schools through their children.

When recruiting schools, it is important to clearly communicate the benefits and expectations, ensuring that demands on teacher time are not excessive. As the module evolves, resources developed during previous projects can be shared as examples. To enable this, students should be asked to complete cover sheets for each assessment, opting in if they are happy for their work to be shared in this way.

Types of project

Projects should be co-created between teachers and students, accommodating the needs and specific issues faced by each school as well as the research interests of the students involved. Examples of some effective projects include:

  • Resources for a nursery school to trigger discussions about and challenge gender stereotypes, such as this example.
  • Lesson plan creation and focus groups on gender topics in a secondary school to empower student voice.
  • Staff training, surveys and activities to support self-reflection on conscious and unconscious biases.
  • Audits of existing resources such as lesson plans, books, displays and student-staff classroom interactions for gender biases.


Assessment variety is pedagogically recommended, especially given the potential diversity of students engaging with the module. The module can be assessed through coursework designed to guide the development of the projects and provide outputs that are beneficial to the partner schools:

  • A literature review during the first term encourages the development of projects that are informed by peer-reviewed research and sharing of pedagogic advances with partner schools.
  • Peer-review assessment of the detailed project plan promotes reflection, sharing of good practice and iterative improvement, which school partners benefit from.
  • Project activities and conclusions can be assessed through an executive summary and oral presentation, to which school contacts could be invited.
  • A reflective portfolio encourages students to document both personal and project development through sharing additional materials such as surveys, observations and lesson plans.

Problems encountered

To offer truly interdisciplinary modules within a university where most degree programmes are hosted by a specific department or faculty, mechanisms must be established to support advertising and enrolment on to the module, teaching workload allocation, external vetting of assessments and the sharing of students’ extenuating circumstances in a timely manner. Such mechanisms need to be centrally resourced and clearly communicated with buy-in from all faculties.

A straightforward procedure must be established to enable students to apply for Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) clearance, which is required for the students to work safely in the schools without constant supervision. Support staff should be allocated to manage these processes with clear timelines agreed in advance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, modules founded on the principles of gender equality may attract a predominantly female and non-binary cohort. Mindful marketing of modules could be considered to prevent homogeneity of the module cohort, aiming for good gender representation as well as representation from subjects where certain students are traditionally underrepresented.


A service module built around Gender Action, or another project, requires alternative approaches to teaching and additional infrastructure but provides a novel way to enhance the student learning experience while helping schools progress in an important area that might otherwise be neglected.

Helen Coulshed is a senior lecturer in chemistry (education) at King’s College London. She is passionate about recruiting and retaining historically underrepresented and marginalised people into the physical sciences and engineering.

Jeanne Wilson is a reader in particle physics at King’s College London. She is actively involved in diversity work and addressing the underrepresentation of women in physics. 

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