April 22, 2016

Day 2 AM – Service Learning in Undergraduate Geosciences: A Workshop

Posted by Laura Guertin

This post is part of a mini-series where I share my experience at the Service-Learning in Undergraduate Geosciences workshop (pre-meeting, Day 1 AM, Day 1 PM, Day 2 AM)

The second and final day of Service Learning in Undergraduate Geosciences: A Workshop kicked off Cathy Manduca (Chair of Organizing Committee) presenting some summaries from the previous day. Then, we shifted to Session IV: Understanding how Service-Learning Experiences Could Enhance the Competitiveness of Geoscience Students in the Workforce. The panelists (John Gierke, Michigan Technological University; Amy Cohen, George Washington University, Eric Riggs, Teams A&M) had four questions to answer:

(1) Is there evidence that service learning helps students get jobs?

The evidence is anecdotal. The panelists all agreed that service learning can help students establish networks and connections, but a direct line cannot be drawn for this cause to this effect.

(2) Does service learning help create a sense of professionalism among students (such as in the way they write, speak and/or present themselves)?

Amy did a great job responding to this question – it depends on the intention/focus you as a faculty member put in the project – “what you put in, is what you get out” (if you want students to develop good speaking skills, then put that in as part of the project). John sees his students develop a more effective planning/habit of work, and Eric stated that students see themselves as ambassadors in a new way for the institution. Students also develop a general cultural competency (learning how to behave in environments different than your own), and service learning challenges students to explore their own knowledge base and how what they are doing is relevant.

(3) Is there any evidence that service learning helps create a more positive impression of a college or university among townspeople?

Eric shared that service learning projects can increase trust, aspiration, and a positive image in the community beyond an institution being locally known for partying and football. He emphasized the need to find community champions for you/your school. John said that at Michigan Tech, their international service learning program helps build their national reputation, and the university highly brags about this program with perspective students.

(4) What can be done to create more service-learning opportunities?

John suggested making service learning a capstone experience, and to streamline the processes for administrative approval. He said that the biggest challenge may be to inspire faculty to get started. Eric suggested we might be doing proto-service learning already, as geoscientists are often involved in the community to begin with. As many departments have an outreach activity in place (Earth Day, open houses, etc.), it isn’t that much of a step to take outreach and make it service learning


We then moved into our final break-out teams to address the following questions:

  • What roles are appropriate for students, faculty, community partners (consider on-site and oversight), campus administrators, funders, and implementation of service-learning projects?
  • Which learning outcomes (both geoscience content and more general topics) of service learning would be most helpful in preparing students for employment? How can they be assessed? How does this impact the design of service-learning experiences?

The challenge we found answering both of these questions is that there is so much variation – the type of project, the type of institution, etc. There are multiple roles that are necessary, appropriate, and that may change during a project. Different employers also look for different skills and knowledge, so it is difficult to group everything together into one defined outcome. We all agreed that there needs to be more assessment, both by the university and by/on the community partner.


Susan Sullivan (CU-Boulder/CIRES) was the final speaker of the day, with “What key research questions must be addressed to understand the potential contribution of service learning in the geosciences?” Some of the questions she posed included:

  • What support must faculty have to address long-standing, multi-disicplinary problems?
  • What contributions can be expected from students across novice-mastery continuum?
  • What are the benefits and costs to different student groups, including historically under-represented groups?
  • How do pre-college experiences support or hinder undergraduate service learning readiness?
  • Are there particular opportunities or challenges in geosciences service learning with different kinds of community projects?
  • What support, training and rewards systems engender best practices?
  • What are the costs and benefits to faculty and institutions?
  • What service learning outcomes make our students resilient in the workforce?

We clearly didn’t have answers to these – but maybe, someday…

Some closing comments were provided by Amanda Adams from NSF. She stated that community relevant science and increase of science literacy are the two biggest areas NSF geoscience undergraduate education is focusing. As service learning is one method to address both, especially for addressing the misinformation of science in society, NSF is looking at service learning – but they have a lot of questions (which is the list of questions for this workshop to start the dialogue).  Clearly, we have our work cut out for us to find answers that are grounded in discipline-based research.



Here, I present some of the pieces of the conference that I think are important takeaways for individual faculty as well as departments, centers, and institutions.

  • Too often, we define the nature of the “community” we work with as local, even our campus. However, we need to keep in mind that the “community” global.
  • Each of us should think about the established definition of service learning, and how geoscience reflects that definition or not. We should not set up a separate geoscience definition, but the definition can be customized for our programs, institutions, etc. For example, Penn State Brandywine as a campus came together and defined how we as a campus use the terms volunteering, service learning, civic engagement, and public scholarship.
  • Innovation is essential for service learning that can take place in the geosciences. In fact, the “challenges” presented at this workshop are actually opportunities for innovation.
  • Service learning is not a “drop in” component in a course – it needs to work for your discipline, your context, your students, your community. And the community partner needs to be a true partner, that the partnership is not one using the other as a “lab” (not research “on” them but “with” them). To develop true partners, you have to be part of the community, as it needs to start with trust between you/institution and the community.
  • Service learning has many parallels to undergraduate research (building content knowledge and skill sets, for example).
  • Students don’t know how to “sell” the skills they have learned through service learning. Students are unclear how to share what they have done with employers, and some students are not confident that they actually have built skills – after all, “class projects are not a real experience.”
  • Reflection is an essential component of service learning, and several models exist (InTeGrate website, DEAL model for critical reflection, ORID (what/gut/so what/now what), etc.). When we ask students to write their reflections post-project, a challenging question we could pose to introductory non-science majors to senior geology students… can one person make a difference? And does that person have to be a geoscientist?
  • And to wrap up my comments with the very first comment Cathy gave on Day 1… we should think about how to integrate learning into society by getting students to move from “thinking beings” to “doing beings”.


But I have to admit… my favorite discussion was during a break-out session, where we defined service learning like improvisational jazz. There is a leader of the music group, and an overall direction/theme/lead melody. But then, there are multiple players needed to make the song. And different instruments are in the background to play supporting roles, while some come in at different times to have solos and take the lead. Without prior communication among the band members and plan for how to move forward, the entire song could fall apart. The audience provides you the feedback after the song is over. I may not listen to a jazz piece – or view service learning – the way same again.