Geoscience service-learning can have many benefits for both students and institutions. Two objectives for including service-learning in undergraduate courses are that it will (1) help to engage a more diverse group of students in geoscience fields and (2) help all students who participate to gain skills and other benefits that will last beyond their college years, whether they pursue geoscience careers or not. Presentations and discussions explored available research and other insights on both of these topics.
The committee sought two kinds of insight on the goal of using service-learning to increase the diversity of undergraduate geoscience students. Suzanne O’Connell of Wesleyan University discussed the available research on diversity in geoscience fields. Antony Berthelote of Salish Kootenai College and Ben Cuker of Hampton University offered their perspectives based on their experiences teaching at institutions that have long service-learning traditions.
Research on Diversity in the Geosciences
Questions about diversity in geoscience service-learning are “a wide-open opportunity for research,” noted O’Connell, because very few
relevant studies are available. There are some data on the numbers of students in historically underrepresented groups who major in geoscience-related fields, O’Connell noted, which show that the geosciences are “no longer the worst of the worst” in terms of the diversity of their students. Figure 3-1 shows the numbers of students who are members of population subgroups (American Indian/Alaskan native, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic) who earned geoscience bachelor’s degrees from 2002 to 2012. Total numbers across the four groups increased during this period, with the largest gain among Hispanic students. Students in these groups were 2 percent of all bachelor’s degree earners in 2002 and almost 18 percent in 2012, O’Connell added. The numbers of geoscience Ph.D.s awarded across the United States to individuals who belong to racial or ethnic minority groups more than doubled in the same time period, O’Connell added, though overall numbers are low. There were fewer than 20 Ph.D.s awarded in 2002 and 55 in 2012 (National Science Foundation, 2012).
A few researchers have also shed some light on why participation has been low for some groups, O’Connell noted (Whitney et al., 2005; Huntoon and Lane, 2007; Levine et al., 2007; Hoisch and Bowie, 2010;
Velasco and Velasco, 2010; Stokes, Levine, and Flesse, 2015). This work suggests, she explained, that four factors tend to deter some students from enrolling in the geosciences: lack of exposure to the geosciences, lack of interest in or exposure to outdoor activities, interest in a career with greater perceived prestige and perception that the geosciences are not relevant to their interests. These factors apply to all students, she added, and they suggest insights for increasing diversity.
One problem is that many students have not been exposed to geoscience fields and are not fully aware of the range of employment opportunities for graduates. To address this problem, O’Connell suggested, geoscience faculty and other geoscientists interested in attracting more students to their fields might look for opportunities to make their work better known in their communities. Geoscience departments can also do more to publicize available data about hiring and graduation rates for their students and starting salaries. Department Websites, for example, could easily post such information, she noted.
Opportunities to do field work have long been a draw for students who have grown up with considerable exposure to the outdoors, O’Connell noted. These experiences have been comparatively more common for white young people than for those in underrepresented groups, however. To broaden the appeal of the geosciences, she suggested, it will be important to help prospective students see that field work is not an essential component of study or employment in these disciplines. Geoscience departments can do more to show that careers may also involve laboratory and computer work, and working with people. An additional problem is that some students perceive geoscience careers as having limited prestige. Departments can address these perceptions, O’Connell pointed out, by using their Web pages and other marketing strategies to highlight the many contexts for geoscience work, the range of careers their graduates have pursued, and the contributions of well-known geoscientists. O’Connell said she sees geoscience majors as an excellent foundation for other careers, including medicine, law, and politics.
A fourth issue is that prospective students may not readily see the ways in which the geosciences are relevant to their own lives, O’Connell explained. Service-learning projects can help them experience directly how these disciplines contribute to such vital issues as climate change, sea-level rise, challenges to the water and energy supply, and land use.
O’Connell observed that qualitative research has shown that service-learning benefits students by increasing their sense of personal efficacy, awareness of the world, their own personal values, and engagement in their classroom experiences (e.g., Astin et al., 2000). However, the research overall leaves many questions about the students who do and do not
enroll in geoscience courses and the role service-learning can play in attracting a more diverse student population.
O’Connell and her colleagues at Wesleyan University have found that opportunities to reflect on their learning help both students and faculty to deepen their experiences, and this is particularly true for service-learning projects. They have used an approach called Describe, Examine, and Articulate Learning, O’Connell explained, to help students reflect on their learning (Ash and Clayton, 2009). O’Connell believes that recruiting is key at every level: She is constantly looking for students who might be interested in postgraduate study, for example. Service-learning projects can be an excellent way to encourage students to continue their geosciences studies, she commented in closing.
Views from Two Institutions
Salish Kootenai College
Berthelote reflected on his experience at Salish Kootenai College, which serves primarily Native American students. He agreed with O’Connell that lack of exposure to the geosciences is a key reason why relatively few students from traditionally underserved population subgroups enroll in courses in these disciplines. He suggested that cultural differences may partly account for students’ varying attitudes with respect to geoscience fields. Another factor he has observed at his own institution is that many students are in need of remedial classes in mathematics and science and may view requirements for enrolling in geoscience classes as an obstacle.
The geosciences have “a PR [public relations] problem,” Berthelote suggested, in that their potential alignment with cultural values that have a high priority in Native American and other minority traditions is not always well understood. In his view, Native American students may place a particularly high value on community and respect for the planet, in comparison with members of other groups.1 Service-learning is a critical way to help students from underrepresented groups who bring varied cultural experiences to their undergraduate studies to see study of the geosciences as an opportunity for community empowerment and for contributing to the protection of the Earth, he suggested.
Berthelote described one approach to promoting community service, civic engagement, and service-learning in higher education, the Campus Compact. This is an association, initiated in the 1990s, through which approximately 1,100 colleges and universities in 34 states have made a
1 Berthelote referred to Gregory Cajetes’ 1999 book, Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model, as background for this discussion.
commitment to developing their students’ civic engagement and dedication to service. The compact offers resources to support educators and staff in providing opportunities for students.2
Salish Kootenai College, Berthelote noted, is a member of the Montana Campus Compact and has incorporated the compact’s view of citizenship into the four primary learning objectives for its students (the other three are critical thinking, communication, and culture). The college defines citizenship as “informed and committed participation in the life of one’s community at the local, national, and global level,” he explained. As these four objectives were integrated into academic programs, he added, service-learning was included as a degree requirement for every major. Students are required to participate in at least 30 hours of service that takes place outside of regular course time, he explained, pursuing objectives tied to course content.
Service was recently made an explicit part of the college’s formal vision statement, Berthelote added, because it has become a key element of the student experience:
Salish Kootenai College aspires to be the pre-eminent educational center of excellence for American Indian students, grounded in the cultures of the Sélis, Ksanka, and QÍispé people of the Flathead Nation. The college will empower students to improve the lives of their families and communities through research, leadership, and service.
“Undergraduate minorities will flock to the earth sciences” when they see them as a means to serve their communities, Berthelote concluded.
Hampton University, Ben Cuker explained, was founded in 1868 with the mission of serving newly freed slaves in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. The site where the university was founded had been a destination for approximately 50,000 slaves who took refuge there and obtained their freedom. The federal agency formed to aid former slaves, the Freedmen’s Bureau, set up many schools and colleges, of which Hampton University was one. The school’s mission—to prepare its students to take a full part in American society—focused on development of “the head, the heart, and the hands,” Cuker explained. “That is service-learning,” he added. In the early years the students not only learned academic subjects, but also raised their own food and built and maintained the college build-
2 See http://compact.org/ [May 2016]. Berthelote also pointed participants to the University of Southern California site mentioned earlier, at https://dornsife.usc.edu/history-ofservice-learning/ [August 2016], for background on service-learning.
ings. Thus, service-learning and sustainability are integral aspects of the school’s heritage, though they did not always go by those names.
As Hampton University was growing, Cuker went on, changes in the philosophy of education were influencing the structure of academic departments and objectives for learning. An “industrial model,” in which the emphasis was on preparing students for work, began to supplant a broader intellectual approach that had guided many institutions, Cuker suggested. Disciplines were increasingly taught in “silos” as this model took hold, he continued, and one consequence was a growing demarcation between applied and “real” science. The connection between knowledge and practical applications was de-emphasized. Today, however, he suggested, college students are very interested in connecting what they learn with real-world issues.
Students tend to come to Hampton University with a strong focus on their role in the community and are very amenable to service-learning projects. These projects benefit all types of students, in Cuker’s view. He and his colleagues have assessed the results of these projects and their impacts on students, but have attempted to do so with a minimum of paperwork. It is important to embrace “other ways of knowing,” he added, which cannot always be measured on a metric scale.
Committee member Sue Ebanks highlighted key points from the discussions of diversity. “Perception is a big deal,” she noted, adding that it appears that there is a widespread misconception that the geoscience community is a closed society that is not welcoming to underrepresented students. Improved marketing is a promising strategy for reaching these students and helping them understand the benefits and opportunities in the geosciences, but new approaches are needed to invite in more students from varied backgrounds, she noted. A diverse faculty, like that at her own institution, Savannah State University, can be extremely helpful in figuring out effective strategies for reaching these students, she added.
Geoscience programs could significantly improve their marketing, Ebanks added. Students are likely to have a range of both positive and negative impressions of the sorts of work that geoscientists are involved with, such as the clean-up efforts associated with the Environmental Protection Agency, preservation of the environment, or the opportunity to do field work outdoors, Ebanks noted. Highlighting the full range of possibilities that are available in these fields—including indoor opportunities such as bench science and the chance to address urban issues—can also help draw students in, she noted. “To be relevant,” Ebanks continued, “you have to know the audience” and address the concerns of the
students the program would like to attract. This challenge goes beyond marketing, she continued, noting that “we need to ask students what they are interested in,” she said, and “listen to their answers.”
Participants followed up on several of these points. Several pursued the question of marketing the geosciences. “We’ve known we have a PR problem for more than 20 years,” one commented. The fact that there is still a problem may be signaling that students need more than marketing strategies to show them how the geosciences can be relevant to their lives and incorporate activities they truly want to engage in. Service-learning is an ideal opportunity for students to experience the possibilities for themselves and see if they are interested, this person suggested.
Another participant commented that progress in increasing the diversity of geoscience students has lagged “because we haven’t changed how we do things.” Waiting until students get to college is too late, another person noted. Recruiting students for an introductory college class is critical, but it is challenging when they have many competing interests and limited experience with the range of what the geosciences offer. Elementary school is not too early to begin, another person noted, and service-learning projects that involve younger students are excellent ways to “work on the pipeline.”
Another set of comments pointed to the key role service-learning can play in showing students the values that are inherent in the geosciences. “The message regarding sustainability is really not out there” one person commented, adding that service-learning can address students’ interest in directly helping their own communities.3
Service-learning can have many benefits for students that last long after the program is completed. John Gierke of Michigan Technological University and the Peace Corps Master’s International Program,4 Amy Cohen of George Washington University, and Eric Riggs of Texas A&M University offered their thoughts about the connections between service-learning and employment. They drew on their experiences in research and in service with such organizations as Learn and Serve America at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the American Geosciences Institute, and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers.5
3 This participant referred participants to David Orr’s 2004 book, Earth in Mind, for a detailed discussion of this point.
4 Shortly after this workshop, the Peace Corps announced the end of its Master’s International graduate school programs.
5 Materials shared with participants before the workshop and available at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/CurrentProjects/DBASSE_169060 [October 2016]
Participants then separated into groups to discuss ways service-learning can help students be more competitive in the workplace and summarized their ideas.6
Evidence of Impacts on Employment
Gierke, Cohen, and Riggs were asked to address four questions.
- Is there evidence that service-learning helps students get jobs?
There is considerable anecdotal evidence that service-learning experiences help students gain employment, in Gierke’s view. Employers tend to value skills that have been developed in a real-world context, he added, and there is some indication that among employees at federal agencies, people with these experiences tend to progress faster than others.
Cohen concurred and added that there is some research showing that students who have been involved with service-learning or other volunteer activities tend to find jobs more quickly than students who have not participated in service-learning and also to earn slightly more in their first jobs (Eyler et al., 2001). She suggested two possible explanations. First, these experiences can help students build social capital—professional contacts, job leads, and social relationships—that help them secure employment and progress once hired. Second, they also develop human capital; that is, students gain knowledge and skills, have leadership opportunities, and work experience that all help them to be successful in interviews and in the workplace. Cohen has often observed students finding jobs with organizations that they had worked with as undergraduates, she added.
Riggs’ answer to the question was a “qualified maybe.” It is very difficult to distinguish the effects of earning a geoscience degree from the effects of service-learning experiences students have while pursuing such a degree, he pointed out. He agreed that developing networks can be very helpful in finding employment, and that service-learning can shape students’ aspirations and career development. In his view, however, it is difficult to establish a causal relationship between service-learning and later outcomes.
- Does service-learning help create a sense of professionalism among students?
Gierke said he was “floored” by the professionalism of the students
were chosen to provide background for this session. See, in particular, Battistoni and Longo (2006).
6 Background materials for this topic are posted on the project Website at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/DBASSE_171829 [September 2016].
who participated in the Washington trips Szymanski had described (see Chapter 1). He said he had rarely seen students performing at quite that level, but that he has seen students demonstrating improvements in efficiency and planning and the capacity to handle travel and other logistics. They develop confidence through the “school of hard knocks” that can be an aspect of service-learning, he added. He also said service-learning activities “are contagious” in that they tend to attract able and energetic students to geoscience departments.
Cohen agreed that service-learning can have this effect, but she cautioned that the benefits come when the program is designed specifically to develop them. “If you have the intention to develop writing and communications skills,” she suggested, “you are more likely to achieve that result.” Among the most common outcomes she has seen are improvements in the ability to cope with strangers, team work, communication and presentation skills, and the capacity to draw on expert knowledge to solve problems. It is important that students be encouraged to reflect on what they have learned, she added, to help them solidify those benefits.
Riggs has also observed students developing skills that can help them in professional settings, though he noted that collecting evidence to document such benefits is tricky. Nevertheless, he has seen students improve in “cultural competency”: They learn to behave appropriately in different environments, how to “read people” and not to assume that the scientific knowledge they bring is necessarily superior to other kinds of knowledge that are relevant to the project. Opportunities to write about science topics in nonscience settings, or to address social and political issues in a science context are all ways that students broaden their understanding, he added. As they check the knowledge and understanding they gained in the classroom against real-world challenges, he added, they develop in ways that cannot easily be taught in the classroom.
- Is there any evidence that service-learning can help create a more positive impression of a college or university within the local community?
Gierke said that he had seen some indications of possible benefits to an institution’s reputation but did not suggest that any evidence is available on this question. Cohen agreed that it is difficult to find empirical evidence of benefits. She noted that surveys of community partners may not be very informative, since their staffs are usually very grateful for all assistance they receive and tend to rate the experiences positively regardless of the outcomes. It can be challenging to find objective sources of data to use in the evaluation of service-learning projects, but indications of a project’s impact might include informal feedback or actions taken by a local government entity following a service-learning project. In general, she has observed that service-learning is perceived as helpful.
Riggs agreed that general perceptions are positive, but that the nature of the feedback depends in part on which communities are asked. Some groups within communities may feel ignored, he noted, adding that service-learning projects that engage community members in a collaborative way may counter negative impressions of the college or university. If students and faculty invest time, they will get trust and access from the community partner in return, he added. Relationships between schools and communities need to be maintained over time, so perhaps the best evidence of success is reciprocal engagement that is sustained.
- What can be done to create more service-learning opportunities?
Capstone experiences that require service-learning for geoscience majors are “a natural fit,” commented Gierke. He advocated making such experiences a requirement for accreditation—like the requirement that engineering programs have capstone experiences for students—and that institutions provide resources to support it. The resources needed include faculty time as well as funding to cover expenses such as travel costs, so institutions and departments would need to consider ways to make this work. It would also be helpful, he added, if institutions could streamline the administrative process so that obtaining approvals and other necessary steps were not obstacles for students or faculty. Gierke would also like to see institutional leaders articulate the value of service-learning to help inspire faculty to promote it.
Cohen added that involving more potential employers would be a good way to boost participation. Nonprofit employers would likely fit better with academic institutions, she acknowledged, and any such relationships would help to “get the word out” about the benefits of service-learning. It can take long-term effort to form productive relationships with businesses, agencies, and institutions, she noted.
Riggs noted that many faculty are already organizing activities that are close to meeting the criteria for service-learning, and that it would be relatively easy to adapt them so they do meet service-learning objectives. There are few human enterprises that do not involve the geosciences in some way, he noted, so there are many cross-disciplinary opportunities. He also noted that involving graduate students and preservice teachers in undergraduate service-learning projects increases the possibilities for spreading the word: Participants who tell others about their own activities may inspire potential students. Weaving service-learning into the undergraduate experience would be easier, he added, if institutions modified institutional procedures to facilitate these experiences and awarded credit for service-learning.
Participant discussions covered three themes: the outcomes of service-learning that can benefit students and institutions, ideas for measuring those outcomes, and implications of these points for the design of service-learning programs.
Possible Outcomes for Students and Institutions
Participants identified learning outcomes for students that help them develop in their careers and thus benefit their institutions as well.
There are intellectual benefits for students. Students may learn to apply the tools, habits, and knowledge of the geosciences to societal problems. The experience of dealing with uncertainty and complexity or with ethical issues, as well as the chance to see how material they have studied can be applied in the real world, are all likely and important outcomes.
Students develop increased professionalism. Service-learning provides students with the chance to lead and manage projects. They learn from seeing models for designing and running a project that can be applied in other situations. They also develop self-confidence and self-efficacy and may begin to view themselves as professionals. The dedication and effort required for service-learning projects are recognized by many employers, and students also gain access to resources and networks through their involvement with organizations outside the college or university.
There are numerous benefits for institutions. Service-learning programs may have positive effects on the relationship between the school and its community. Participants suggested that the effects are most likely to be positive if the faculty members involved understand the history of the relationship, paying attention to negative incidents that may have damaged it. Faculty should also communicate clearly with community members (beyond the partners directly involved) about the nature of the project they propose, who will be involved, where it will take place, how it will work, and what its goals are. They should be specific about how possible concerns, such as the privacy and safety of individuals involved, including the students, for example, will be addressed. Expectations—including the possibility that the project will not be completely successful—should also be addressed from the beginning.
Using data to evaluate and improve programs and courses is important, several participants noted. Data can be used for spreading the word about their benefits and generating support within institutions and
TABLE 3-1 Example Assessment Models Suggested by Participants
|Many assessments can be aligned with existing communication, team, and project-based learning||http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/assessment/index.html|
|Assessments that consider collaboration and relevance to partner||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/134864.html
|Implementation tips: SERC Service Learning Assessment
NOTE: All above links were accessible as of January 2017.
beyond. Using data to demonstrate benefits are invaluable in making the case for allocating resources or expanding a program, and it is most useful to have information about both learning goals for students and project outcomes.
The assessment tools used for most academic courses will provide useful information about many outcomes, participants noted. Some outcomes that are particular to service-learning experiences are difficult to measure, but participants suggested possibilities and identified some models that could be useful examples (see Table 3-1). One possibility, several participants suggested, is that assessments could be used at the beginning and end of a program to measure growth in technical skills or civic knowledge. Surveys and site visits by faculty could be used to solicit feedback from community partners. Surveys and assigned reflection papers could collect information about students’ attitudes and perceptions of what they learned from the experience. Professional skills, such as communication, leadership, and management, as well as other
objectives such as increasing awareness of diversity, may be more difficult to assess, it was noted.
One breakout group suggested possible outcomes for students (see Box 3-1) and also suggested possible ways of assessing the kinds of objectives that are specific to service-learning:
- Site visits for quality control, such as checking progress and proficiency with skills or tools
- Surveys of community partners
- Progress checkpoints for documentation of incremental progress;
- Project preparation obligations, such as reading assignments
- Peer review of products before they are released to partners, with special attention to alignment of product with community partner needs
- Review of assignments from partner information sources (fact sheets, Websites) or other relevant sources, such as local news or scholarly literature
- Assignments that explore data collected from geoscience databases (e.g., local watershed, climate, or other data) that students will use to understand trends important to framing the problem
- Reflection activity in which students characterize topics, such as their own role in solving problems, or their role in lifelong stewardship and decision making, where evaluation criteria could include incorporation of examples or writing quality
- Reflection in which students consider issues that might be sensitive in the community before a site visit (to guide them to present what they are undertaking in ways that are not offensive to the audiences they serve)
- Assessment activities embedded—designed to fit into—the stages of the project. For example, students might be asked to write a piece about the diverse audiences involved in the problem, or to explicitly incorporate diverse disciplinary perspectives into their documented introductory research or in a class discussion
- Assessment of leadership based on the level of engagement of the audience. For example, if students design a project to reach or support particular groups, individuals who engage in the project could be counted or surveyed. Community partners or mentors could also be asked to evaluate students’ performance at, for example, sharing initial project ideas and soliciting early feedback, or describing and supporting new ideas or changes
- Literacy or competency assessments aligned with particular disciplines (e.g., national literacy standards). Faculty could modify these to suit the service-learning context, by adding challenges
- Student demonstration of understanding of systems by diagramming the kinds of interactions that played a role in the project (e.g., interactions between human processes and environmental cycles)
- Evaluation of online forums through which project partners interact
such as characterizing the importance of the issue addressed by the service-learning project and its relevance at the local, national, or global scale, or discussing trends in relevant data
Implications for Program Design
The design of service-learning projects should take into account both goals for student learning and goals for meeting community partners’ needs, several participants observed. They identified several elements of
strong design. Formally involving graduate students and others as mentors to undergraduate participants was identified as very useful. Mentors are not only a resource but also a conduit for expanding outreach. The experience of serving as a mentor is also valuable for graduate students, participants commented, though they also need support in finding time for these efforts. Attention to the professional development that mentors and faculty may need to succeed is also important, and research on the roles they may play could be used to improve this kind of support, it was noted. Participants also advocated scaffolding, or identifying and describing the nature of and goals for the stages and elements of the project, is likely to make it easier for students to understand what is needed and to enhance their effectiveness. Support from the institution was also identified as a key ingredient of success, and participants advocated that this be built into the plans to the extent possible. Plans for assessing outcomes should also be integral to the project design, several participants emphasized. Information collected should be used to evaluate and improve both courses and programs.