The final workshop session was an opportunity for reflection on the future of geoscience service-learning and the primary messages from the presentations and discussions. Committee chair Cathy Manduca offered her thoughts on the answers offered by workshop participants to the guiding questions for the workshop. Committee member Susan Sullivan suggested ways that future research could support the growth and improvement of geoscience service-learning programs, and committee members each identified their primary take-away messages from the workshop.
Manduca offered her own impressions of the key ideas presented in answer to the guiding questions for the workshop (see Chapter 1). One question was about how geoscience service-learning should be defined. Fundamentally, Manduca suggested, service-learning is an experience in which students partner with others to address issues of communal importance using skills and knowledge that are integral to the learning objectives of the geoscience course. Yet, she added, these kinds of projects are done in many contexts, with students at different levels, in different kinds of institutions, in all geoscience disciplines, and at a wide variety of scales of implementation.
Service-learning programs have numerous benefits, Manduca went on. They may support students’ intellectual development by engaging
them in higher-order thinking and helping them develop the desire and the capacity for lifelong learning. Surveys of students involved in these programs and the faculty who work with them indicate that the students are highly engaged, and there is reason to believe that they learn more and at a higher level than they might without that component, she commented. By involving students in situations in which they can have an impact on real-world problems and interact with adults in a variety of roles, these experiences may build students’ confidence in what they as individuals can accomplish. They may also help students to explore ideas for their future careers, develop skills that will be attractive to employers and a portfolio of experiences that demonstrate those skills, and expose them to resources and opportunities beyond their institutions.
These experiences also may bring benefits to the institutions, Manduca noted. For institutions that include service to the community or society or the development of citizenship in their explicit missions—as many historically black colleges and universities and those with a focus on serving Native American students do—service-learning is an educational experience that actively promotes that mission. The intellectual development these experiences promote is a benefit not only to students but also to their institutions. Successful service-learning projects can enhance an institution’s visibility and reputation, and also make it easier for it to recruit and retain students. Service-learning projects can also enhance the institution’s reputation by demonstrating the expertise of its faculty and students and by making that expertise available to meet societal needs. These projects can also help develop the institution’s relationship with its community and open up new resources for its students and faculty. Faculty members, in turn, have the chance both to learn and to have their own opportunities to make a contribution. The question of benefits to faculty generated some discussion, Manduca noted. The burden on them can be high, and the degree of support and recognition they receive for this work varies significantly across institutions. She suggested that many faculty members who use service-learning in their courses report finding the experience extremely rewarding but also have concerns about how to use service-learning most effectively in their teaching.
In terms of best practices, Manduca noted, there is relatively little documentation. Published papers and examples provide some insights, and handbooks and toolkits also provide guidance and ideas (see Appendix C for examples). However, because service-learning is very context-specific, any examples and ideas will need to be adapted to circumstances, she emphasized, and used as the basis for innovation in a local context. One strategy that may be valuable in any context, she noted, is to structure and explain the tasks and stages necessary to successfully complete the project, so that students fully understand the expectations and can reap
benefits from each aspect, even if the project is not 100 percent successful. Mentoring, opportunities for reflection, and assessment and evaluation also seem likely to be beneficial regardless of the context, Manduca added.
Other less concrete factors are no less important in the design of service-learning projects, Manduca observed. The selection of projects that are suitable for partnerships between students and communities requires careful thought. As the projects take shape, faculty should guide students in thinking about both intended and unintended consequences, taking into account practical and ethical issues, she observed. The projects should be opportunities for true partnership, where the need being met is one that is of genuine importance to the community or group, and that will make use of the expertise of students and community partners, she added. Faculty should be ready to offer guidance as the interactions within student groups and among students and community partners develop, with an eye to helping group members appreciate the sensitivities of others.
Service-learning experiences are intended to draw students, and especially those from historically underrepresented populations, into geoscience disciplines. Manduca commented that service-learning has the potential to meet those goals by demonstrating the contributions the geoscience disciplines can make to solving community challenges, and the professional opportunities open to students who choose geoscience majors. The opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary problem solving can be a draw for students—as can the opportunity to address issues they care deeply about—particularly those associated with protecting the environment. However, there is little research to document the effects of these opportunities on efforts to recruit students from historically underrepresented groups into geoscience majors. Peer mentors and role models are likely to help draw students in and support them, she noted. Attention to obstacles that may deter some students, and to the nature of the experiences they have, can help strengthen the appeal of geosciences among these groups, she added.
There are also many reasons to believe that service-learning builds skills that are needed and valued by employers, Manduca said. Problem solving, communication, and teamwork are among the skills employers often prize that are developed through service-learning. She noted that service-learning experiences seem to contribute to success in students’ undergraduate studies and in their first postcollege employment experiences (see Chapter 3). Service-learning is also an opportunity for students to explore potential careers and develop portfolios they can use to demonstrate their expertise to potential employers.
In closing, Manduca noted that the workshop presenters and participants had identified many obstacles to implementing service-learning
programs and expanding access to successful ones. She noted that the importance of support from both the institution and the academic department was highlighted throughout the workshop as a key to helping faculty and students succeed in these experiences.
The body of research that is relevant to service-learning in the geosciences is scattered and incomplete, Sullivan commented, so the need is great. She offered her priorities for research, structured around the benefits service-learning can have for addressing complex problems and for benefiting students, communities, and the faculty and institutions who support them.
To promote and support the kinds of projects that address challenging and important social issues, Sullivan suggested, it would be helpful to learn more about how to support faculty in taking on problems that are of importance to communities and draw on multiple disciplines. Given that students are still developing their mastery of relevant skills and knowledge, she added, it would also be useful to learn more about the kinds of contributions they can realistically be expected to make. Identifying service-learning goals that serve both students’ and community partners’ needs, while also addressing complex societal problems is another area in which further research could be helpful.
Sullivan also suggested specific research questions related to benefits for students, faculty and institutions, and communities:
Questions Related to Benefits for Students
- What are the benefits and costs of service-learning projects for different student groups, including historically underrepresented groups?
- How do precollege experiences support or hinder undergraduate service-learning readiness?
- How does service-learning affect students’ workforce experiences?
- How does service-learning deepen student outcomes in the geosciences?
- Are there ways to match particular geoscience students and types of experiences that maximize the benefits of a service-learning project?
- How does student engagement change?
- What service-learning outcomes are valued by employers?
- How might service-learning increase diversity in the geoscience workforce?
- What geoscience workforce skills may be deepened through service-learning?
- How does service-learning experience affect students’ later experiences in the workforce?
Questions Related to Benefits for Faculty and Institutions
- What support, training, and rewards systems are most likely to yield programs that demonstrate best practices?
- What are the costs and benefits of service-learning programs for faculty and institutions?
- How can faculty use service-learning activities to deepen rather than distract from course learning?
- How do faculty members’ research agendas change as a result of their service-learning programs?
- How do best practices vary by type of college or university?
Questions Related to Benefits for Communities
- What types of opportunities or challenges are associated with different kinds of community projects?
- How should all participants be prepared to develop effective partnerships?
- What types of community-based projects are suitable for the geosciences?
- How do previous experiences with the geosciences or with educational institutions influence community expectations for service-learning projects?
Linda Silka (see also Chapter 2) volunteered additional ideas and research questions, based partly on the workshop discussions and partly on her own observations. She suggested several types of analyses that would be valuable in the context of geoscience service-learning (see Box 5-1). Silka also suggested some questions about geosciences service-learning that researchers might explore.
How are service-learning partnerships initiated? Research on partnerships between communities and universities has focused on the logistical, ethical, and power issues that influence the way such partnerships are initiated. Additional research in this area could help support successful partnerships.
Which faculty members might be well suited to participate in service-learning? There are a number of possible reasons why some faculty members are more interested in or have more successful experiences with
service-learning, Silka noted. Some have suggested that tolerance for ambiguity is an important asset for faculty members undertaking a complex, multiparty, multidisciplinary initiative such as service-learning, but additional research would be helpful, in her view.
Where do service-learning projects tend to take place? A service-learning project that can be carried out near campus is easiest for students and faculty but projects that require a modest amount of travel can work well. Alternatively, remote participation is a possibility, though some approaches might only work face to face. Better understanding of these factors could be very helpful to faculty and administrators, Silka noted.
How can service-learning projects be responsive to “abrupt problems”? Often, new problems or issues come into the public eye unexpectedly, Silka commented. Events such as earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, or water quality problems such as those in Flint, Michigan, might be valuable service-learning opportunities, Silka commented. However, setting up service-learning projects often takes considerable advance planning, and she suggested that sharing of information about ways to structure service-learning programs to be flexible enough to accommodate last-minute needs could be very useful.
The workshop ended with closing thoughts from committee members and from Amanda Adams of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the workshop sponsor. The committee members were each asked to identify a single point brought out in the workshop that he or she regarded as particularly important.1
Ed Laine identified the importance of training faculty members to do service-learning as key. This can be done through external institutions such as Campus Compact,2 he noted, or through mentoring by colleagues in the geosciences or other departments within the university. Colleagues from beyond the department and the discipline can be extremely helpful, he emphasized, as many aspects of the experience are relevant across content areas. “People just need access to ideas that work,” he noted, and he suggested that a Website or other clearinghouse—not for best practices, since needs and circumstances vary so much, but for ideas and methods that are applicable across fields—would be very useful.
Sue Ebanks also emphasized that service-learning is “not a one size fits all.” There are not models that will fit all circumstances and each experience needs to be customized. The process is “messy and dynamic,” she added and all participants, including faculty and graduate student mentors, need to be flexible and “ready for anything” if the project is to be a successful experience for all. Programs that are set up this way, she suggested, build community trust even when outcomes are not exactly as expected. If students believe their teachers and mentors “are with them whether it goes well or not,” they will learn more from the experience. This also should be the goal for assessment and evaluation—to learn from experience, she commented.
For Sarah Fortner, the most important point was that the geosciences
1 Not all of the committee members were present for this final discussion.
teach skills and ideas that are ideal for addressing “wicked problems,” and service-learning experiences are opportunities to directly engage those ideas and skills. Thus, she explained, the importance of the issues these projects address helps to expand the diversity of the audience that is engaged with the geoscience fields.
Art Goldstein pointed out that many workshop speakers stressed that administrative support for service-learning projects is vital, but that “we haven’t been very specific.” He said he hopes the field can provide clear guidance about what support is needed and how it will help expand service-learning. Clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of students, faculty members, the administration, and the host site, he noted, would be valuable.
Susan Sullivan noted that geoscience service-learning has the potential to be “transformative” for individuals and communities, but that more work is needed on how to use assessments, course evaluations, and research to improve and expand access to these experiences.
In discussion, participants offered additional thoughts. One expressed the hope that geoscience service-learning would play a key role as society addresses “the grand challenge of sustainability.” Another commented that service-learning is key to the future of the geosciences, noting that enrollment has already expanded significantly and that service-learning has “a ripple effect” that can reach broad audiences and engage them in protecting the earth. A final thought from a participant was that “service-learning is a hidden gem—there is so much interesting stuff going on that broader communities would want to know about.”
The workshop closed with thanks from Adams. Interest at NSF in service-learning grew out of its commitment to both increasing science literacy and promoting community-relevant science, she explained. NSF staff hoped the workshop would identify answers to their questions about the nature, extent, and contributions of service-learning in the geosciences and also identify key questions that still need to be answered. She expressed her appreciation to the committee for a productive set of presentations and discussions.