The term “service-learning” generally refers to projects planned as components of academic coursework in which students use knowledge and skills taught in the course to address real needs in their communities. This kind of learning experience, which allows students to focus on critical, reflective thinking and civic responsibility, has become an increasingly popular component of undergraduate science education.
Service-learning projects may involve many sorts of activities that link students directly with people and groups in their communities so they can collaborate to solve problems. What is generally characteristic of service-learning projects is that they allow students to connect their coursework with real-world problems, to see how information they learn in class can be applied in solving problems and improving their communities, and to reflect on what they learn from the experience. For example, students might conduct a greenhouse gas emissions inventory for their college campus; investigate contaminant transport in a local watershed and identify potential risks to the local population; or examine the impact of geologic hazards on the human population and design appropriate responses.
Service-learning fits well with the goals for undergraduate study in the geosciences, the disciplines concerned with the Earth, which include geology; geophysics; geochemistry; and atmospheric, polar, and ocean studies.1 Researchers in these disciplines explore natural processes and
1 In this document, the term “geosciences” refers to the disciplines served by the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation, the sponsor of this project.
help people understand their relationship to the environment in which they live—they help people locate and use needed resources, prepare for natural disasters, and understand changes in climate, for example. Students in geoscience fields study issues, such as landscape evolution, environmental challenges, energy use and production, weather and climate, and their effects on society. These kinds of topics naturally highlight the direct links between academic studies and real-world issues.
Students doing service-learning projects as part of their geoscience education work with their faculty advisors to identify projects that address real-world issues, are of genuine importance in their communities, and draw on the knowledge and skills learned in geoscience courses. The students are given some autonomy to devise solutions to problems and are called on to reflect on how they have approached the task, the successes and challenges they encountered, and what they learned from the experience.
Geoscience educators have hoped that service-learning could help them to engage more undergraduate students, particularly women and members of underrepresented population groups, in these disciplines. However, the best ways to use service-learning as a recruiting tool and its potential impact are not known. There have been few systematic efforts to examine how service-learning is used in the geosciences and how it benefits students or to assess the lessons to be learned from similar programs in other disciplines.
With the support of the National Science Foundation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine planned a workshop to explore the current and potential role of service-learning in undergraduate geoscience education. The Committee on Service-Learning in the Undergraduate Geosciences was appointed to plan the April 2016 workshop. This committee included researchers and practitioners with expertise in undergraduate instruction in geoscience and other science disciplines, higher education administration, and service-learning in the geosciences and other fields. The committee was given the charge of exploring how service-learning is being used in geoscience education, its potential benefits, and the strength of the evidence base regarding the nature and benefits of these experiences; see Box 1-1 for the statement of task.
This proceedings document, prepared by the workshop rapporteur, summarizes the presentations and discussions that took place.2 The planning committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the
2 The workshop agenda, biographical sketches of committee members and presenters, and a list of workshop participants can be found in Appendixes A and B. These and other resources, including the three papers commissioned for the workshop, can be found at the
workshop. The views contained here are those of individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.
The sponsor proposed seven sets of questions for the committee to consider in planning the workshop:
- How does the geoscience community define and implement service-learning? What types of service-learning activities are currently being implemented within the geoscience community? How is service-learning being used in other science disciplines?
- What are the learning goals of service-learning experiences and what student outcomes are measured? How consistent are the goals and outcomes across programs? What is the evidence that these goals and outcomes are being achieved?
- What is known about best or effective practices in geoscience service-learning programming (e.g., identify design principles, describe what students benefit the most, and explore the influence of handbooks and toolkits)?
- Is there evidence that these types of experiences lead to increased engagement/attainment in the geosciences? Is there evidence
project Website, along with an archived video of the proceedings; see http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/DBASSE_171478 [December 2016].
the impact on attracting underrepresented minority students to geoscience fields? Is there evidence to indicate the point in a student’s educational path at which these kinds of experiences have the most impact?
- How does service-learning fit within the preparation of future geoscientists? Would such an activity be perceived positively by future employers?
- What are the obstacles to implementing these programs and expanding access to successful programs or approaches to programing?
- What research is needed to improve understanding of the potential contribution of service-learning in the geosciences?
The committee commissioned three papers to look in depth at aspects of this charge and structured the workshop presentations and discussions to explore these questions.3 The three papers explored research and other insights from service-learning experiences outside of the geosciences (Silka, 2016), themes in the literature on service-learning within the geosciences (Savanick Hansen and Fortner, 2016), and what is known about the participation of historically underrepresented groups in the geosciences (O’Connell, 2016).
This proceedings document discusses the primary topics addressed at the workshop. Chapter 2 explores reasons why service-learning is important and ideas from other disciplines that may be useful for geoscience educators. Chapter 3 discusses what is known about two goals for geoscience service-learning programs: engaging diverse student populations and providing all students with positive outcomes. Chapter 4 focuses on the nature of these programs, using discussion of examples to flesh out the picture of how they are defined and implemented. The final chapter looks at the outlook for such programs in the future and questions for further research. Participants suggested numerous resources in the course of the workshop, and these are provided in Appendix C.
3 The three commissioned papers and other resources can be found at the project Website, http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/DBASSE_171478 [August 2016].