Service-learning has been a part of undergraduate teaching for decades, although it has not always been known by that name. With roots in education reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of formally incorporating service with pedagogical goals gained popularity during the 1990s.1 The first workshop session provided an overview of the role this approach plays in undergraduate geoscience fields and lessons to be learned from its role in other fields of study. Two presenters explored the value and characteristics of service-learning in the geosciences: committee chair Cathy Manduca of Carleton College offered broad observations about key benefits of service-learning in the geosciences, and David Szymanski of Bentley University provided a more detailed look at how service-learning programs can work and the value they bring. A third presenter, Linda Silka of the University of Maine, drew both on research and her own experience with undergraduate service-learning in a variety of fields to identify themes that could be helpful in the geoscience context. The session closed with an opportunity for general discussion of strengths and weaknesses in the ways service-learning is currently done.
1 For information about the history of service-learning, see a summary on the University of Southern California Website at https://dornsife.usc.edu/history-of-service-learning [October 2016].
Service-learning experiences may not only help students to integrate their academic learning with the world around them, Manduca observed, they also have benefits for institutions. They give colleges and universities opportunities to connect with the communities of which they are a part, and they can enrich geoscience departments by engaging students from diverse cultural backgrounds and academic disciplines. Manduca noted that the geosciences include not only study of the solid Earth, the atmosphere, and the oceans, but also study of the people who live on the Earth, which means study of geography, environmental sciences, and sustainability as well. The fields that constitute the geosciences, she commented, offer fertile ground for service-learning programs that address intersections between science and society.
Szymanski drew on experience with his own students at Bentley University to illustrate his thoughts about the value of service-learning in geoscience fields. He began by noting that service-learning has a more specific meaning than community service, with which it can be confused. Service-learning is linked with academic learning objectives, he explained, and helps students to develop professional skills—such as technological or scientific consulting, grant-writing, assessments, and research—that are not always aspects of community service experiences.
Students who participate in service-learning engage in the civic life of their communities in two ways, Szymanski suggested. They become involved in issues of communal importance (such as risks from natural hazards, waste disposal, conservation, and sustainability), and they may also participate in public decision making and the political process. It is through these experiences, he explained, that service-learning has the potential to teach students how to apply ideas from the disciplines they are studying, and perhaps also to develop the ability to synthesize ideas and skills from multiple disciplines in order to solve a problem. Students who engage in these projects learn about problems that are important to their community partners, Szymanski added, which encourages them to think deeply about different perspectives and how their own contributions may fit with work already being done to benefit a local community or perhaps beyond.
Szymanski noted that while the relevance of the geoscience disciplines to everyday life is not widely recognized, they are critical for understanding and addressing many societal and economic problems. Moreover, in his view, the geosciences “do a particularly good job with complexity—with wicked problems.”2 For example, he noted, many issues that come
2 The term “wicked problems” originated in the study of management and refers to problems that are unusually challenging. Szymanski noted that even defining these problems
before elected officials or juries involve both political and legal challenges and also complex scientific understanding. Service-learning not only builds on the geoscience tradition of integrating ideas and skills from different disciplines, it also provides a public demonstration of the contributions the geosciences can make.
Szymanski noted that the challenges of environmental sustainability illustrate particularly well the important contribution of the geosciences. Increasingly, he noted, sustainability is recognized as a complex, or wicked, challenge that will affect virtually every kind of industry and business, as well as other aspects of society. Many business leaders are realizing that sustainability has come to be a factor in all of their decisions and that it is no longer adequate to address environmental concerns through tangential projects such as providing donations to an environmental cause or event. Businesses and other employers with this view recognize that they need workers in every kind of role who have the capacity to understand scientific issues and make sustainable decisions.
As more employers come to value this attribute in their employees, Szymanski continued, preparation for thinking about sustainability will be increasingly important for undergraduate students, regardless of their majors. To help prepare students, Bentley University—a business school—and some other institutions have focused on the goal of “reciprocal integration.” This is an educational model in which business students spend time on courses in disciplines within the arts and sciences, and students from those disciplines take business courses, Szymanski explained. While the majority of Bentley’s 4,250 students major in a business field, he noted, approximately one-third also complete coursework for a second concentration or major in the arts and sciences. He said that this approach develops four modes of thought:
- practical reasoning, the application of technical training;
- analytical thinking and problem solving;
- multiple framing, an appreciation for varied perspectives, and an understanding that more than one thing can be true at the same time, depending on the frame of reference and standards of evidence used; and
- reflective exploration of meaning, a capacity to think deeply about causal questions and apply this approach when making day-to-day decisions.
The geosciences are well suited to the teaching of these modes of
may require consensus across disciplines because they involve complex competing factors that are difficult to reconcile.
thought, Szymanski observed, and service-learning is a way to teach students how these skills apply in public decision making. He involves his own students in projects that engage them in both science and policy.
Szymanski teaches a course called Science in Environmental Policy, which covers the science behind policies such as the Clean Air Act, and also allows students to observe the policy-making process in detail. The course enrolls students from a large variety of majors who bring backgrounds in many aspects of science and business. They learn about the roles science can play in the policy process and consider the competing interests that influence policy outcomes. There is an optional service-learning component to the course, and students who participate in that component earn four credits for the course instead of the standard three. The service-learning students use their business skills to assist a partner organization, such as the American Geosciences Institute, with a specific project related to geosciences. For example, they might research issues, analyze data, evaluate Website functionality, and prepare various types of presentations for their nonprofit partners and for elected officials. Students have taken on such issues as the effects of tax incentives for promoting the use of energy-efficient technologies or products and the difficulties of bringing relevant geoscience information, such as water quality data, to the attention of policy experts.
Participating students travel to Washington, D.C., to present their ideas to their project partners and also meet with policy makers to propose ideas and request action. Szymanski’s students have presented research findings in support of policy recommendations, and in turn have seen their findings cited by officials such as U.S. senators. Figure 2-1 shows a poster students prepared to summarize their report on the policy applications of geoscience research. These students made the case for funding basic geoscience research by detailing the relevance of information about energy, climate, and environmental hazards to economic issues and policy decisions. Through these kinds of experiences, the students develop research and other skills, identify barriers, and pursue options for overcoming them. The students also help to boost the influence of knowledge from the geosciences on public policy.
Workshop participants pursued several issues through follow-up questions. In response to one question, Szymanski explained that Bentley has a long tradition of service-learning, but that setting up the geoscience programs nevertheless required some effort, particularly in making the case for the relevance of the geosciences to policy and the importance of transdisciplinary learning experiences. A participant noted that it is important that colleges and universities support and reward junior faculty and graduate students who are willing to sponsor service-learning. Szymanski also noted that he has cultivated professional contacts—particularly non-
profit organizations in need of free analytical work—to help his students find new opportunities. Several comments reinforced Szymanski’s point that though service-learning can be difficult, it helps students to cultivate skills and abilities that are easily transferable to other contexts.
Service-learning is gaining popularity within the geosciences but it has a longer history in other disciplines, observed Linda Silka in her overview of lessons from research and experience. She also reviewed research, such as a meta-analysis of studies of the impact of service-learning on academic performance (Celio, Durlak, and Dymnicki, 2011), that has demonstrated the benefits of service-learning for students, institutions, and community partners. The relevant research, she noted, does not always use the term service-learning; she found valuable information by searching other terms, such as “community-university partnerships,” “student engagement,” “cooperative extension,” “science shops,” “democratization of science,” and “citizen science.” Projects that link to the curriculum, allow students to have input into the selection of the issues addressed and regularly ask students to reflect on what they are learning orally or in writing are the most likely to have benefits, Silka found from her review of the research.
Silka observed that, in general, service-learning is a way to increase the depth of students’ understanding of the content they study, their capacity to retain it, and their capacity to perceive its application in new contexts. These experiences tend to improve students’ attitudes regarding their own learning and their sense of efficacy and also to improve their attitudes regarding the institutions they attend, she noted. These experiences can improve students’ social skills and other skills that are of interest to employers and also develop students’ commitment to civic engagement. In her paper, Silka elaborated by providing examples of service-learning projects—such as one on the viability of community solar projects and another on the relationship between beehive locations, landscape features, and pollination—that can deepen students’ knowledge (Silka, 2016a).
Service-learning’s benefits to communities have also been documented, Silka added (e.g., Billig, 2009; Conway, Amel, and Gerwien, 2009). Community partners benefit when students bring fresh, useful knowledge to bear on a problem. Moreover, students may perform tasks, such as data collection and analysis, that the community partners need but for which they lack the necessary staff or resources.
There are several ways to increase the chance that a service-learning experience will help community partners to achieve their goals, Silka explained. Perhaps most important, in her view, is to make sure the project is a true partnership between students and members of the community, one in which each participant has a voice and a role. Such partnerships can improve reciprocity in campus-community relationships. Service-learning should be viewed not as a research project or placement opportunity for students, she commented, but as a collaboration with
members of a community. It is also important, she noted, that the students not approach the project with the idea that “we are here to solve your problems our way.” Research suggests that if community members perceive that students view their service-learning project as a charitable endeavor or have an arrogant attitude, Silka noted, the result may be more harmful than beneficial to communities and relationships.
Though these features have been widely supported in the available research, Silka noted, there are no “abstract, overarching rules” for how to develop a new program. Examples from other disciplines can provide excellent starting points, she added, but each service-learning program must be tailored to fit the course of which it is a part and the context in which it will be carried out. Identifying community partners and fruitful topics, designing the program, and engaging students are all challenges that require innovation that fits the course, discipline, circumstances, students, and community, she added.
Silka also identified a number of challenges that may concern faculty members who would like to provide service-learning opportunities for their students and offered ideas for addressing several of them; see Box 2-1. Educators with whom she has worked frequently comment that they lack adequate training for their role in overseeing the projects, that they have trouble locating community partners, or that their students do not have the time to participate, for example. She has found that some are concerned about how to structure service-learning programs in the context of a large or online class. Many educators are also concerned about finding topics that will engage their students while also developing deep disciplinary knowledge that can be linked to important issues.
The limited time available did not allow Silka to elaborate on all of the responses to these challenges that she described in her paper (2016a), but she focused on ways to interest students in service-learning. A characteristic of excellent service-learning experiences, she noted, is that their design takes into consideration the needs of community partners, students’ interests, and the content of the course. She added that a Venn diagram that identifies the areas of overlap for these three elements is a good analogy for identifying projects that are effective and valuable and will engage students.
“Topics are all around you,” she noted, and she used the example of solid waste to illustrate the possibilities. Solid waste problems are expensive for communities, she pointed out. Many are struggling with increasing volumes of waste and waste that is increasingly toxic. The value of many recycled materials has declined, which has complicated efforts in many communities to promote recycling. Silka cited the experience of students and faculty from many disciplines (including anthropology,
economics, ecology, engineering, and communications) at the University of Maine to illustrate the possibilities in this topic.
There, students and faculty worked with community partners in the town of Orono to raise awareness of solid waste issues. Students played many roles: gathering information about reusing and composting, analyzing press coverage of waste issues, and working with younger students in recycling efforts. They hosted meetings under the rubric “Talking Trash: The Sustainability Challenge Hiding in Plain Sight” to foster discussion. Local communities with large immigrant populations were especially interested in building public awareness, Silka noted, and students responded with discussion and learning sessions focused on local resources for recycling items that are difficult to categorize.
Silka emphasized that the examples she found might serve as sources of inspiration for geoscience educators—not as blueprints. Her paper discusses ideas she saw in projects from other disciplines (e.g., art, evolutionary biology, ecology, political science), such as ways of approaching potential community partners or bringing together faculty and students from multiple departments to identify opportunities, which could be applied in a geoscience context, For example, in one case she cited, faculty
from departments of ecology, engineering, economics, communications, and geographic information systems collaborated to develop a project on the viability and present and future impact of dams in New England rivers (Silka, 2016a).
Silka closed her presentation with some thoughts about resources educators may find in unexpected places. She noted that many campus organizations or institutions have experience with efforts similar to service-learning and also with enterprises that require collaboration among university groups and community members. A national resource is Campus Compact (see Chapter 3). Some institutions also have an office of community outreach or community engagement that could be helpful. Such groups may be in a position to provide advice and examples even if they have not done service-learning projects in the geosciences.
Questions and discussion after the two presentations centered on what can make programs more effective. “You need to be willing to make mistakes,” said one participant. Another pointed out that it is important that the faculty member involved not “stand above” the community, but that at the same time, the authority that comes with being on the faculty of the local university can be useful. Several comments addressed the importance of collaboration between the students and faculty and the community group or groups with whom they are working. “Real, live partnerships are key,” one said, adding that “it shouldn’t be the college telling people what they need.” A good starting point, another suggested, is to ask a community partner to describe a back-burner project the group would like to do but cannot. Having identified a project the community partner truly needs, students and partners can collaborate to develop the approach that will be most helpful. Another participant talked about the importance of including faculty from other disciplines that may be relevant to the proposed project.
Participants highlighted benefits to students, including the development of social skills needed to work effectively with people who work in different roles, the opportunity to transfer what they have learned to a completely different setting, and the opportunity to pursue an interest that may not have seemed to have an academic application. One suggested using student reflections to demonstrate the depth of the learning that comes with such programs.3
The participants were asked to separate into groups to share their
perspectives on what is being done well in geoscience service-learning programs and areas that still need attention.
Current Areas of Strength in the Use of Service-Learning in the Geosciences
Participants suggested two areas of particular strength in service-learning programs:
Service-learning promotes different kinds of learning. Several participants noted that service-learning projects help students to appreciate the value of nonacademic learning. They may work with practitioners and other people with types of expertise that are completely new to them and deepen their understanding of what they have studied in the classroom. They develop skills likely to be useful throughout life and careers, such as making public presentations and conducting interviews, and they develop attributes such as resourcefulness and resilience. These experiences also introduce students to opportunities they could pursue after college. Participants observed that service-learning experiences can be excellent opportunities for students to experience failure, when their projects are not completely successful and develop the capacity to learn from and build on it. Service-learning projects also have the capacity to engage non-STEM students in geoscience disciplines and to solidify the interest of students who opt to continue in these fields beyond college.
Service-learning programs engage faculty and communities. Service-learning can be a learning opportunity for faculty as well as students. Participants noted that many programs have demonstrated the value of listening to community partners and providing services that they need—an experience that can enrich all involved. Some universities have used strategies to explicitly encourage faculty to undertake such projects, including incentives such as fellowships, grants, and official recognition in the tenure review process.
Areas Where Improvement Is Needed
Participants identified two challenges:
Students could use more support to help them benefit from service-learning programs. Several participants suggested that many students could use support in identifying the skills they have that may be useful when working with community partners, and in communicating about those skills to community partners and potential employers. Several suggested that incorporating more opportunities for conscious reflection into projects would help students assess what they have done and learned. Partici-
pants also observed that students could use guidance in managing their expectations about the roles they can expect to play, the amount of work that will be needed, and the range of possible outcomes. Faculty could do more to foster relationships that meet students’ learning needs as well as the needs of community partners. A related issue is that there are not strong assessment tools for documenting the impacts of these programs for students, a participant commented.
Institutions could provide more support for faculty. Many participants offered ways that colleges and universities can support faculty who are interested in service-learning, including providing incentives such as institutional recognition, mentoring by more experienced faculty, strategies to give faculty time for these efforts, and assistance in establishing connections across departments and with community partners. The culture at many institutions is somewhat “risk-averse,” noted one participant. There are many barriers that can discourage the pursuit of service-learning programs at many institutions, another commented. It takes years to develop the community ties and structures that are the foundation for the strongest, most stable programs, one noted. Funding structures are barriers to setting up new service-learning programs, another commented, and busy faculty and students can have difficulty making the time for a service-learning project, especially if it requires significant time away from campus. Integrating these programs into courses with high enrollment or in which many students participate online poses logistical challenges, another noted.
Institutions could also help faculty with tracking the benefits of service-learning, both for students and for community partners. Presenting data is very persuasive, a participant noted. Service-learning offers a valuable opportunity to redefine the field, a participant commented, by expanding understanding of the value these disciplines have to offer. “The wall between science and society needs to be taken down,” one person commented, and “that involves a big culture change,” in which service-learning can play an important part.
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