The discussion turned next to the nature of service-learning experiences that are currently available in geoscience disciplines. An overview of research and other information provided a look at the nature and reach of these activities, and this was followed by a detailed look at two ways of incorporating service-learning into undergraduate geoscience courses. Participants then broke into groups to reflect on the primary elements of service-learning from the perspectives of different geoscience disciplines, types of institutions, and types of students.
Suzanne Savanick Hansen of Macalester College and committee member Sarah Fortner of Wittenberg University reviewed the available research and analysis that bears on the implementation of service-learning in the geosciences. They looked for information about the types of activities that are used in such programs, information about desired goals and outcomes, best practices that have been identified, and resources such as handbooks and toolkits.
Savanick Hansen began by cautioning that the review she and Fortner conducted was not a comprehensive analysis but a synthesis of available resources. They reviewed a preliminary literature survey conducted by staff, explored examples from the Science Education Resource Center site and Campus Compact, and reviewed abstracts from a Geological Society of America (GSA) conference to develop a broader sample of the cover-
age of service-learning. Savanick Hansen identified some themes from this literature.
With respect to the variety of experiences available to students, she observed, the material they reviewed addressed programs that may or may not have been identified as service-learning. These programs did, however, involve key elements of service-learning, such as interdisciplinary research, real-world problem solving, and development of skills likely to be useful to students after they begin their careers. Many gave students the opportunities to develop informational materials using geoscience research and present them to community members, but not all included an opportunity for reflection. Figure 4-1 illustrates the kinds of student experiences that overlap with service-learning.
Savanick Hansen noted that the service-learning projects they found generally fell within four areas of the geosciences: geology (hydrology/
water quality, soils); atmospheric sciences (climate change); oceans; and the polar sciences. Issues related to sustainability are a particularly common focus, and these programs are likely to be interdisciplinary and to involve applied research. They created a word cloud (a computer-generated image) to depict the frequency of terms used in these abstracts; see Figure 4-2.
The learning outcome that was best documented in the literature, Savanick Hansen went on, was an increase in students’ engagement with the academic material they were studying. Students also improved in technical and other skills, such as communication, collaboration, project management, and the capacity to be aware of and reflect on their own learning. Community partners also generally reported receiving benefits from their involvement in service-learning programs.
Savanick Hansen highlighted a few examples that illustrate points in the literature. One finding was that geoscience service-learning projects are particularly likely to deal with water and soil quality, oceanography, atmospheric science, and the polar region; see Table 4-1. Arsenic on Main Street, for instance, was a water quality fair held in Unity, Maine, at which students analyzed water samples for residents. In another example, a course at Macalester College, students collected data on greenhouse gas
TABLE 4-1 Geoscience Service-Learning—Sample Programs
|Arsenic on Main Street||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/39589.html|
|GLISTEN (Great Lakes Innovative Stewardship Through Education Network)||http://ncsce.net/glisten/|
|REU on Sustainable Land and Water Resources||https://reuslawr.wordpress.com|
|Monitoring Lead in an Urban Community Garden||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/135228.html|
|Marine Environmental Geology||Bowdoin College Course|
|Campus Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, Climate Action Plan||Macalester College Course|
|Local Solutions to Global Climate Change||Wittenberg University Course|
|Juneau Icefield Research Program||http://juneauicefield.com|
|Local Hydrogeology in the Classroom||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/hydrogeo/activities/10042.html|
|Wastewater Treatment for a Polluted Harbor||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/39020.html|
|Investigating Contaminant Transport with Local Sierra Club||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/39016.html|
|Geoscape of Bozeman, MT (intro level example)||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/39375.html|
|Bridging Undergraduate Learning, Teaching and Research (advanced level)||University of Connecticut|
|Oceanography Beach Cleanup||http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/activities/129095.html|
|Hydrology Service Learning||University of Vermont|
|Fostering Our Community’s Understanding of Science (FOCUS)||http://compact.org/resource-posts/focus-fostering-our-communitysunderstanding-of-science-service-learning-experience/|
NOTE: All above links were accessible as of January 2017.
emissions and used these data to help the college develop a climate action plan.
Fortner described another example that demonstrated some of the benefits of service-learning to students and community partners. In an introductory geology class taught at Wittenberg University, she explained, students learned about climate change issues from community experts—such as watershed managers and facilities personnel—and produced learning modules in collaboration with experts at a local science museum. Students reported in surveys that the experience had increased their awareness of the relevance of climate issues in many fields, she noted. Several also benefited from ongoing relationships with community partners after the course by doing internships and other activities. The museum developed the model for use in training graduate students in science communication.
At Wittenberg University, Fortner went on, community-based research has become an explicit focus in geology and environmental science courses. The university has documented benefits of this type of research for students, including research experience; access to resources, internships, and other opportunities; and increased understanding of the real-world relevance of their academic studies. Faculty have benefited from the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and community partners, and those partners have reported improvements in their environmental decision making and management and increased public awareness of their work.
Public outreach about relevant science issues is a particular hallmark of programs that address climate change in polar regions, Fortner explained, and the Juneau Icefield Research Program—a science and education program initiated in the 1940s in which students and scientists live for 2 months in the Juneau Icefield to conduct glaciological research—is an example of that. The students receive training in public communication and share what they learn both in a public blog and in a presentation to the community.
Fortner noted that service is highly valued by many colleges and universities as a marketing tool. Institutions recognize the benefits for students who participate, but there is little evidence that institutions demonstrate the value they place on these programs by providing tangible support and rewards for the faculty involved. For example, interdisciplinary service-learning projects require extra time—for developing partnerships, locating funding, and getting the resulting work published—all critical for earning tenure. Collaboration that involves policy makers and the public adds to the complexity of the challenge of institutional arrangements, she noted.
Despite the challenges, Fortner explained, she and Savanick Hansen
found from their review of GSA abstracts that interdisciplinary efforts have become more common in the geosciences, and that the focus on applied problem solving has increased. Fortner concluded by reminding the group that the primary message from anecdotal evidence, course evaluations, and reflections is that these experiences tend to increase students’ engagement with the material they are studying.
Caroline Davies of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and Bob Gilbert of the University of Texas, Austin, each described ways they use service-learning in their own teaching.
Service-Learning at the University of Missouri, St. Louis
Davies includes service-learning in all of her classes, she noted. Her four goals for these experiences are that they:
- emphasize the integration of geoscience and social challenges,
- engage students in hands-on interactions with the community involved,
- develop students’ science communication skills, and
- develop students’ skills as “change agents.”
She used an example from an upper-level class in environmental sustainability to illustrate how she pursues these goals through a required community engagement project. The course content for this class changes from year to year, Davies noted, but the students have the opportunity to select, design, and implement their own projects. In a recent year, the course focused on urban agriculture. The students worked with community members on plans to grow food in their neighborhoods. Davies engaged colleagues from within and outside the institution with expertise in environmental urban planning, historic preservation and community development, farming, and the geosciences to collaborate with her in encouraging the students to think broadly about the issues associated with urban farming. The students worked with community members to develop neighborhood assessment plans for growing food that included assessment of the environment before and after a garden was installed.
In another project, students developed a plan to help the University of Missouri reduce its energy consumption by installing occupancy sensors that activate lighting only when it is needed. The students found that installing the sensors would cost about $7,000 but save the university $13,000 annually. The poster they used to present their findings is shown
in Figure 4-3. Other students tackled topics such as affordable sustainability practices for a local YMCA and a local prison, a textile recycling drive, and a campus-wide forum on improving sustainability within the university. Each year students present their final projects at a juried symposium, in which city officials, architects, neighborhood leaders, and others participate.
The students’ reflections illustrate the enthusiasm many of them feel for their projects and their appreciation for what they had learned about sustainability, Davies noted (see Box 4-1). Since 2008, she added, the number of students participating in these projects in a given year has grown from 80 to 410, and the number of projects has grown from 35 to 327.
Service-Learning in an Engineering Course
Gilbert identified key objectives he has for a required senior-level civil engineering course, one that engages students in geotechnical engineering:
- Apply ethical reasoning and leadership in the practice of engineering.
- Discuss the roles of science, technology, and the needs of society in conceiving engineering solutions.
- Understand the importance of leadership in successful project implementation.
- Explain the need for lifelong learning.
- Give examples of the legal and business aspects of professional engineering practice.
He noted that these are among the most important goals for professional engineers, and yet are rarely taught well at the undergraduate level. Gilbert and his colleagues had found that a straight lecture format was not effective at preparing students in these areas, so they converted the senior course to a service-learning model. Each year the students tackle a new set of projects that meet genuine needs in the community and may be implemented. The faculty turned to the city of Austin, as well as the university’s facilities staff, to identify local needs that the students could address. Recent projects have addressed, for example, trails and sidewalks, rain gardens, and accessibility for people with disabilities.
For each project, Gilbert explained, students work in teams of three or four, with the guidance of volunteers from the Austin branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers—in 2016, 40 mentors worked with the students. Each team develops a plan to solve a particular problem and presents it, both orally at a public meeting and in writing to the clients who had requested the assistance. In 2016, 93 students were involved,
working in 24 teams. Three teams planned rain gardens for an elementary school. They assessed the site and its drainage patterns and presented their designs at a meeting of teachers and the parent-teacher association. The students whose design was selected by the school adapted it in response to questions raised at the meeting, and in a subsequent semester, the students constructed the garden in collaboration with school volunteers (see Figure 4-4).
Students reflect on their experiences after the course, and give the service-learning component high ratings and positive comments, Gilbert reported (see Table 4-2). Many have later been hired by project clients or serve as mentors themselves. The stakeholder meetings are excellent opportunities for engagement between the university and the community, often bringing together groups who rarely collaborate. Many of the project designs have been implemented, he added.
Gilbert closed with an overview of some of the challenges he encountered. Coordinating approximately 140 students engaged in 35 new projects each year is difficult, he noted. Coming up with new projects each year can be challenging, and he said it is important to accommodate different sorts of experiences and to allow students to learn from their mistakes. It can be hard to be sure the project experiences strike a good balance between learning by doing and “catastrophic failure,” he observed,
and to confirm that all the students benefit from their experiences. Gilbert is also mindful that he and the students relied heavily on the clients and mentors throughout the projects. It was easy for the workload to become unmanageable, both for faculty and students, he added.
Lessons from These Examples
In follow-up discussion of these examples, Fortner summarized some benefits of service-learning experiences. These experiences give students the chance to develop new skills, as well as access to resources and opportunities not available in the classroom, she observed. They often integrate academic disciplines and people from many sectors and jobs in pursuit of a shared goal. This integration, in turn, benefits institutions’ relation-
TABLE 4-2 Sample Student Reflections after University of Texas Service-Learning Project
|What did you do well?||What was the outcome of what you did well?||What would you like to have changed that did not go so well?|
|We adapted to the change of our project. The elementary school is constantly working on our habitat area and building new projects, such as butterfly gardens, in the area. We found a way to work around that and keep much of the school’s existing amenities.||We changed our location of the rain garden. This also changed our size, design, and swales. We were able to address the flooding problems the school has been having at the same time.||It took us a long time to decide what we wanted to do. By the time we changed the location of the rain garden, we had already done a lot of work for our previous location. We had to work a little more just to make this project work out.|
|We communicated the information in a clear and consistent manner.||The stakeholders seemed very excited about our idea and had relatively few concerns about the project.||I would have liked to have been better informed on the species of plants that we’d selected. I’m admittedly a little lacking in my knowledge of plant selection for gardens so answering questions about what other plants we might recommend proved to be difficult. So I guess a little more background research to better prepare for questions and not just giving the information that was planned for the presentation.|
SOURCE: Gilbert (2016).
ships with their communities and also opens students’ worlds and their sense of the contributions they can make. Fortner also noted the many challenges in coordinating these activities, and participants shared their perspectives on those. The challenges include institutional limitations on flexibility that hamper service-learning projects, one noted. Another agreed, pointing out that institutional cultures are difficult to change and some institutions need encouragement to treat service-learning as a valuable part of the academic experience. In many cases, it falls to individual faculty members to make a pitch to a provost or university president, one
participant pointed out, adding that it is especially effective to provide written documentation and data demonstrating outcomes and benefits to students. A participant also noted the difficulty of sustaining these programs and transferring their stewardship to new faculty. Coordinating and articulating procedures and expectations across classes and semesters is challenging, and establishing useful archives is “a nontrivial problem,” this person noted.
In a second breakout discussion, participants met in small groups to discuss elements that are common across service-learning experiences and aspects that are unique to particular circumstances. The three groups were each asked to consider the issues from one perspective, that of:
- different geoscience disciplines, for example, oceanography or atmospheric science;
- different types of institutions, for example, community colleges, primarily undergraduate institutions, comprehensive universities, or research universities; or
- different types of students, for example, students at the honors or introductory level, members of historically underrepresented groups, local students or those attending school far from home, and first-generation college students.
Looking Across Geoscience Disciplines
The group assigned to consider the perspectives of geoscience disciplines identified several elements that are shared:
- Service-learning projects provide an opportunity for people who may not have done so to reflect on the role of science in their environment or surroundings.
- Themes, such as hazards, resilience, sustainability, and economic issues, arise through community problems regardless of the discipline through which they are addressed. The interaction of built, natural, and human systems is likely to come up, as are the connections between public health and the health of ecosystems. Environmental justice is another shared theme.
- The explicit focus on interdisciplinary collaboration that is frequently an element of service-learning projects is valuable for every discipline.
- The full engagement of community members of all ages and roles is an asset to service-learning projects, regardless of discipline.
- Safety issues—related to work in the field or in the laboratory or to interactions between participants—are important regardless of discipline.
The group also identified a few features that are unique to particular geoscience fields. They observed that the courses that are most easily adapted to include service-learning projects tend to rely heavily on measurement and to focus on communication, and to be ones that already incorporate material from more than one discipline. Other points concerned specific topics likely to be suitable for service-learning projects. For example, the private sector is in need of weather forecasts with immediate economic use and impact, as well as information about short-term hazards, which are in the purview of the atmospheric sciences. Communities’ needs will vary depending on their geographical location, but those that rely economically on the ocean ecosystem, for example, may have great need for analysis and other services that students of oceanography could provide. Students of geology and geophysics may provide valuable insights about long-term hazards, and students of environmental science, geophysics, or hydrology can assist with monitoring or mapping of pollutants.
This group also noted that many of the good ideas for structuring group service-learning experiences apply across disciplines. Regardless of discipline, it is important to incorporate and honor the knowledge the community members bring, and also to think carefully about the long-term implications for the community of the findings and conclusions the service-learning project yields. Ethical considerations the project may raise deserve careful consideration. A concern that may not always be obvious is that the students involved in the project should be allies, not competitors, with professionals who could do the work.
It is important for faculty to consider the skills and experiences students are likely to need in the workplace as they match students to projects, and also to be aware of safety, risk management, and liability concerns. Regardless of the discipline, it is also important to have a well-planned communications strategy, and faculty in all disciplines benefit from institutional support in planning and overseeing successful projects.
Looking Across Types of Institutions
Faculty at all types of institutions have many of the same reasons for including service-learning in their courses, the second group found. Faculty members want to provide engaging learning experiences that will
help to recruit and retain students to their disciplines and that will provide value to the community. They also share many of the same goals for the students who participate in these experiences: they gain communication skills, civic awareness, and the capacity to use what they have learned in the classroom to bring about positive changes. They use these experiences in part to help students to develop a connection with the communities in which the project is done. Faculty who offer service-learning experiences also go about it in much the same way, regardless of institutional type. They help their students plan and prepare, support them as they implement their plans and synthesize what they have learned, and guide them in reflecting on the experience. Faculty at any type of institution benefit from having support from that institution, yet shortages of resources—time, money, and space—needed for successful service-learning projects are issues at all types of institutions, the second group found.
On the other hand, the group observed that service-learning projects need to be designed to suit the needs and constraints of the institution in which they take place. Institutions serve different types of students so there is variation in the kind of involvement students have time for outside of class, how easily and far they might be able to travel, and the goals they have for their undergraduate years. Institutions vary also in their priorities and in their relationships with the communities in which they are situated. Those that serve primarily local students, for example, may have a more pronounced focus on their immediate surroundings than those that serve a more geographically diverse student body. Institutions have different structures for supporting activities such as service-learning and use different terminology to talk about programs of this nature (e.g., experiential learning, civic engagement). Some have centers dedicated to facilitating such experiences, but institutions vary significantly in their resources—in terms of finances, faculty time, availability of graduate students, and other elements that contribute to successful service-learning programs.
The group suggested that service-learning programs be structured in a way that suits the number of students involved and the level of support available from mentors and the administration. Many students at community colleges, the group noted, work full time and simply are not able to commit significant time to a project that requires travel, but they can still benefit from one that permits much of the work to be done on campus or independently. Scaffolding the elements of the service-learning experience (e.g., development of proposal, progress updates, collation of data) so it is not overwhelming for students is likely to be helpful regardless of institution type, and grade weights should reflect the nature of the commitment being asked of students. Regardless of its type, any institution would benefit from developing long-term relationships with community
partners that can be the basis for different types of projects across courses and disciplines, the group suggested.
Looking Across Types of Students
All students face challenges in dealing with the unpredictable nature of real-world service-learning projects, the third group found. Students who perform well in these projects are often not those who perform at the highest levels academically, the group noted, but those who bring other valuable skills to the experience. Regardless of the kinds of students involved, faculty need wisdom and judgment as they guide students, steering them toward collaboration with community partners (as opposed to volunteering to help those less fortunate), and also knowing when to step back and when to intervene.
The third group’s suggestions for designing programs reflected the view that guiding students also requires understanding of differences among students. Faculty should plan in advance how they will guide students to value the culture, values, and ways of knowing they will encounter as they work with their community partners. At the same time, the group reported, it is important to focus on areas where partnership is requested from the community, as opposed to imposing ideas on community partners. The group advised that faculty set clear expectations for students about following norms and customs they encounter, and be explicit in encouraging students to be sensitive and open to new ways of thinking. The involvement of peers as well as seasoned scientists can be very helpful in providing credible guidance and perspective to undergraduates, but mentoring should be flexible and responsive to the strengths and traits of the students involved and the needs of the community.
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