Enriching Economics Through Global Education and Service Learning: 5th Graders Rally Around the Rainforest

Gregory E. Hamot with Marlene Johnson

“I really feel as if we helped the rainforest students in some small way, so they might have a brighter future. I also feel that my friends and family understand the situation in that region and the importance of the rainforest to the whole world.”

— Fifth grade participant in a Hoover
Elementary School service learning project on Brazi#146;s dwindling rainforests and the disastrous effect of deforestation on the indigenous peoples and the global economy.


Fifth grade students at Hoover Elementary School in Iowa City, Iowa, know their year will be filled with service learning projects. These projects always involve the entire school in some form or another. For example, during a recent project aimed at generating community support for Filipino children in need of cleft palate surgery, third grade students assisted in a toy collection drive. The school sent the toys to a hospital in the Philippines so that the children would have something to play with during their recovery. The entire school also participated in a community fund raiser to help defray surgical costs for the families.

Although students of all ages take part in these projects, the fifth grade is their curricular and organizational home. In fifth grade social studies and language arts classes, service learning projects begin with students investigating global issues by reading The New York Times, The Washington Post, and news magazines, and by navigating the Internet. From these and other resources, students learn the impact of, say, political corruption or natural disasters on the economic conditions of other countries.

Content Standards and a World of Connections

The service projects link economic education, service learning, and global education. The value of these components has been recognized nationwide. School-related service is on the rise, as more than 47 states have formed commissions on national service1 and more than 40 states have recommended various forms of global education in their K-12 curricula.2

The service learning projects at Hoover also connect the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics to the fifth grade curriculum.3 S. Zeldin and S.Tarlov developed a model for service learning similar to the one used at Hoover Elementary School.4 In this model, students plan the entire service learning activity, carry it out, and reflect on what they’ve learned from the activity. With the teacher’s guidance, the students construct the project in a collaborative, democratic style.

Research, Brainstorming, and Debate

Students first post a list of countries targeted for possible service learning projects, then brainstorm ideas for carrying out these projects. They decide which project to undertake by discussing the feasibility of each in turn.

Last year, students learned from The New York Times that the northeast region of Brazil suffered from a six-month drought. From Internet news sources they learned that the drought had ruined crops and killed livestock. These Brazilians were in dire need of food and potable water, and desperate citizens were robbing government food rationing stations.

Through class discussion, the students realized that the Brazilians were faced with two alternatives: (1) to wait for the government to ration food or (2) to do what they did: rob the stations. The students learned that the legal economic alternative was the opportunity cost borne by the people through their desperate, yet illegal, act (Standard 1; Grade 4; Benchmark 7), and that the Brazilians were willing to bear this cost because of their desperate situation.

Exploring the Economy and Ecosystem

Through continued investigation, the students discovered that Brazi#146;s economic problems extended far beyond the drought to the rainforest crisis. Their social studies teacher invited a guest speaker from the local university medical school who had lived most of his life in Brazil. He spoke of the Amazon rainforest’s enormous value to the indigenous peoples, pointing out that approximately 150 million people lived in Brazi#151;the world’s fifth largest land mass country. Artifacts from the rainforest region indicated the importance of the tropical rainforest and its natural resources to the cultural and economic survival of these people. Yet the threat posed by commercial development to tropical rainforests made the increasingly difficult existence of the rainforest’s long-time inhabitants even more precarious.

After hearing the guest speaker, students began to research the ecosystem and native land use of the rainforest. They investigated commodities essential for the survival of the indigenous peoples and what these people considered “extras.”

The local population had used the rainforest’s resources for many centuries—for logging, agriculture, livestock breeding, and the health benefits of medicinal plants. As developers turned large tracts of the rainforest to commercial use, they threatened the delicate economy of the indigenous peoples, as well as the mystical value of the rainforest to their basic belief system. They also threatened the indigenous plants and animals.

Equally important, the students discovered that development of the Amazon rainforest provides the rest of the world with important commodities, including pharmaceuticals, lumber, and meat products. These commodities, in turn, help the Brazilian economy (Standard 18; Grade 8; Benchmark 3).

The class learned from this example that “effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits”5 and that cost-benefit analysis was a long-standing concern for the local population (Standard 2). As outside developers exploited the region’s natural resources, they disrupted this cost-benefit process.

The fifth graders were faced with a dilemma: the indigenous population and growing commercial interests seemed locked in an intense and irresolvable competition for the rainforest’s treasures. Through further investigation, however, the students learned of efforts by the Brazilian government and volunteer organizations to help the local population develop farming techniques, conservation plans, and political action plans that would preserve their way of life and allow them to cope with growing commercial development (Standard 15).

Securing Funds and School Supplies

The fifth graders realized the potential here for a service learning project. They decided to involve the community in bringing educational materials and financial aid to a school in the Amazon region. This would, they reasoned, better equip the next generation to preserve their lifestyle while coexisting with the encroaching commercial interests.

After two days of debate and discussion of how to involve the school and community, the students agreed on two distinct, but related, goals. First, they wanted to heighten school and community awareness of the problem and its impact on the global economy. Second, they wanted to capitalize on this heightened awareness by collecting school supplies and raising money.

To publicize their project, the fifth graders lined the halls with posters they made and artifacts they collected from parents and friends who had visited the Amazon region. They asked their student council representatives to discuss the rainforest crisis during a student council meeting, and th ey proposed a “grant request” to the council for financial support to a rainforest school.

The culminating activity was a schoolwide bake sale. The fifth graders hoped the bake sale and student council grant together would raise at least $100. The student council voted to support the project with a $50 grant from money they had raised from a Valentine’s Day candy sale. The bake sale, however, took more direct planning.

Cost Benefits and Standardization

The teacher, tying the economic standards to the students’ task, asked each student to produce at least a dozen baked goods. She assigned two problems to solve in connection with their baking.

The first problem involved a cost-benefit analysis of their baked goods production (Standard 2). Students were to add up the costs of the materials they needed for the job, multiply the sale price for each item (25 cents) by the number they produced, and compute the difference. In each case, the difference was a positive number, and the students saw how to compute their monetary contribution to the Amazon rainforest school (their “profit”) if consumers bought all their baked goods.

The second assignment was an experiment designed to help the students gain an understanding of specialization and division of labor (Standard 6; Grade 4; Benchmark 3). The students were to try working alone to make the baked goods, then work with at least one family member, dividing the tasks. In so doing, they learned how specialization and division of labor speed production and result in more goods.

The fifth graders spread the word in the local community by creating and distributing advertising posters and asking the entire student body to inform their parents and friends of the event. They also contacted friends and relatives who worked in stores, explaining to them the plight of the indigenous Amazonian peoples and their need for school supplies.

The tradition at Hoover Elementary School is to allow only ten minutes at the end of the day for the bake sale. This is not much time, but the publicity generated in both the school and community elicited such a large turnout that a crowd of people purchased everything in sight. Total sales doubled the students’ goal of $50, and brought the total amount raised to $150.The students also collected 75 pencils, 80 pens, and 5 reams of paper for delivery to the school.

The students knew from the beginning that they would never be able to personally deliver the money and materials. As the school year drew to a close, however, the social studies teacher arranged to accompany her husband on a medical research trip to Brazil. The language arts teacher asked the fifth grade students to write letters to their student counterparts so that the social studies teacher could deliver them along with the materials and money.

Forty-eight students wrote letters, hoping to develop new friendships across the world and to encourage the rainforest students as they continued their education. The Hoover students told of how they learned about the rainforest through their curriculum and how the school and local community came together in this service learning effort. The social studies teacher delivered the letters, materials, and money to a school in Amazonas, the Brazilian state identified by the guest speaker who had first stirred the students’ interest.

In the fall, the now-sixth grade students listened intently as their former teacher showed them slides of the children in the school she had visited. Last March, these sixth graders joined a nationwide “Save the Rainforest” Project sponsored by the Earth Foundation. Since 1992, more than 10,000 schools have participated in this project.

Now, the current fifth graders are beneficiaries of the school and community interest generated by their predecessors. They are selling T-shirts, backpacks, and tote bags to benefit the rainforest cause. Ten sales buy an acre of rainforest in Sierra de la Minas, Guatemala. Their goal is to purchase 10 acres in the name of the school and the community.

Bringing Global Economics— and Citizenship—to Life

The Hoover rainforest project demonstrates three benefits of teaching economics through a global service learning project founded on the notion of community.

First, economics and service became mutually enriching. As the subject matter is linked to the life of the community, it becomes more meaningful to students.6 In this case, the curriculum fused service learning with global education and the national content standards for economics. As a result, global economics, which had once seemed distant and detached from their lives, became an integral part of their daily existence—their worldwide community.

Second, service promotes civic-mindedness and helps students understand the procedural and economic aspects of life in a democracy.7 At Hoover, student direction of the process enhances the ethic of civic responsibility. As one teacher noted, “students learn to assess their economic potential, make economic choices, become involved, and reflect on how their experience contributes to the global condition.”

Third, the experience teaches young people to be compassionate human beings as it projects their concrete experiences in economics into a global dimension. The global nature of this project helped students understand that economic differences are accompanied by economic universals, such as alternatives and their costs, cost-benefit analysis, and specialization and division of labor. Grasping these economic universals gave them what Kriep describes as “a common position for what it means to be human.”8

Through their exposure to media and as members of an increasingly multicultural student body, students at Hoover have a budding notion of community as a global, as well as local, phenomenon. Fifth graders see the interconnection of their community and a broader world through the clothes they wear, the foods they eat, and the people they meet.

The fifth grade teachers believe that global service learning with an economics focus energizes students to develop what one teacher called “a view that the world is everyone’s community” and a belief that they can make a difference in the world. Assuming responsibility for others and themselves is clearly evident in the citizenship displayed by students involved with service learning projects at Hoover. School-related service is on the rise.


1. J. Schine, “Editor’s Preface” in Service Learning: Ninety-Sixth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. J. Schine (Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education, 1997).

2. F. Czarra and A. Smith, A Survey of State International Education Coordinators (Washington, D.C.: Council of Chief State School Officers, 1992).

3. National Council on Economic Education, Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics (New York: Author, 1997).

4. S. Zeldin and S. Tarlov, “Service Learning as a Vehicle for Youth Development” in Service Learning: Ninety-Sixth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, ed. J. Schine (Chicago, IL: The National Society for the Study of Education), 173-185.

5. National Council on Economic Education, 3.

6. E. L. Boyer, “Service: Linking the School to Life.” Community Education Journal 15, 1 (1987): 7-9.

7. R. P. Lipke, J. A. Beane, and B. E. O’Connell, Community Service Projects: Citizenship in Action (Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1985).

8. W. M. Kniep, “Clarifying the Essential Elements of a Global Education,” in Next Steps in Global Education: A Handbook for Curriculum Development, ed. W. M. Kniep (New York: The American Forum, Inc., 1987), 60.

About the Authors

Gregory E. Hamot is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Iowa. He coordinates civic education reform projects in Armenia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. Marlene Johnson has taught in elementary schools for 30 years. She has received the Purdue University James Ackerman Citizenship Award, the Stanley Foundation Hunger Project Award, and the Iowa Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year Award.