Environmental Service-Learning: Social Transformation through Caring for a Particular Place

Article excerpt

Service-learning offers exciting opportunities for pedagogy that can enhance natural science education. However, historically service-learning has been underrepresented in natural science courses at institutions of higher education. Our campus, like many others across the country, has seen considerable growth in academically based Service-Learning in recent years. Service-learning is now woven into the curriculum in almost every discipline and major we offer. But it has been especially challenging to integrate service-learning into the natural sciences. Part of the difficulty to engage natural science faculty in service-learning has been perceived time constraints imposed by course content. The subject matter is not easily organized around a service-learning component. In addition, labs must cover particular techniques and topics.

The Calvin Environmental Assessment Program (CEAP) was first developed to address the need to increase service-learning in Calvin College's Natural Science Division, but has grown to encompass transforming the institution itself and its relations with the surrounding community. The program involves faculty across the college, but mainly in the sciences, who each dedicate regular lab sessions or projects to collecting data that contribute to an overall environmental assessment of the campus and surrounding areas. These activities often provide a meaningful bridge to the community and more fully integrate the campus with the surrounding community. The CEAP service-learning model directly addresses service-learning's weakness in general as Zlotkowski articulated (1995)--the need to ensure its full integration into American higher education through addressing individual disciplines' needs and allying service-learning with particular academic interest groups.

Much has also been written in recent years about the need for higher education to play a more active role in addressing our society's most pressing problems. Ernest Boyer (1996) is often quoted as a leading voice advocating that the academy must become a more vigorous partner in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic, and moral problems (p. 13). Higher education has been heavily criticized for its

lack of connectedness [which has] resulted in the compartmentalization of knowledge by discipline, preventing students from experiencing relationships among various modes of knowledge; subject matter [has been] walled off behind disciplinary borders and not applied in any integrated way in academic study or to social issues. Students also experience[d] a lack of connection between classroom learning and their personal lives and between classroom learning and public issues and involvement in the wider world. (Giles & Eyler, 1999, p. 13)

The national dialogue on this scholarship of engagement has created a framework for faculty, staff, students, and community to work collectively to confront this lack of connectedness and to begin making important connections that "make a difference in people's lives and, at the same time, to generate new insights, discoveries, ways of knowing and acting" (Rosaen, Foster-Fishman, & Fear, 2002). For some of these connections to happen, a broader understanding of service-learning and the scholarship of engagement may be needed. For example, the scholarship of engagement may need to expand to include service to a place, not just a people. As Steinke and Harrington (2001) have found, Service-Learning projects developed in natural science courses may not always involve building the kind of one-to-one relationships that often typify service-learning, and thus its very definition may differ.

CEAP is increasing how we understand what it means to be embedded in a natural and social system. Calvin College is situated in an environmental context, sharing its watershed with the surrounding community, as well as existing in an urban context, subject to several municipalities' zoning regulations. …