Service-Learning Practice in Upper Division Geoscience Courses: Bridging Undergraduate Learning, Teaching, and Research

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Service-learning practice has been implemented in a number of upper division geoscience courses taught at the University of Connecticut. These courses include engineering geology, environmental geophysics, exploration seismology, and geology and geophysics field schools. The objectives for implementing service-learning practice are (T) to foster student interest in earth sciences through community service; (2) to enhance university outreach through interactions with communities by helping solve local geological and environmental problems; (3) to enhance students' learning ability by applying course knowledge to real-world problems; and (4) to encourage the student-centered learning process and team-work as cooperative learning. The response from participating students and local community leaders to this practice shows that service-learning is an effective way to improve geological undergraduate learning. It has the capacity to foster learning, teaching, and undergraduate research, and facilitates multi-lateral interactions among students, faculty members, and local town public work professionals.

INTRODUCTION

Service-learning is a method by which students learn and develop skills through active participation in thoughtfully organized community service experiences. Service-learning practice has been widely adapted in higher education in the social and humanity disciplines, far more than in the natural sciences. It is even rarer in geoscience. For example, a search for 'service-learning' on the Internet using AltaVista returns 20,451 entries. In contrast, searching service-learning in geology' returns only 5 items, and each of these refers to a few articles in the Journal of Geological Education. Only one of these specifically refers to geological service-learning. Mogk and King (1995) adapted the service-learning approach in lower division geology classes taught at Montana State University. Other papers (e.g., Revetta and Das, 2002), do not explicitly refer to their practice as service-learning, though they do discuss service to the community through field projects. The service-learning discussed in this paper differs from those implemented in the humanities, social sciences, and lower-division geology courses in having a heavy scientific kernel emphasizing undergraduate research, rather than simple community service. It also differs from projects simply involving local field projects (e.g., Tibbs and Cwick, 1994; Tinker, 1989) by its well planned and organized systematic approach with phases of planning, implementation, reflection, summarization, and seeking feedback for future improvement.

The implementation of service-learning in upper-division geoscience courses can be justified on several grounds. First, it is well known that undergraduate enrollment in the physical sciences in higher education institutions nationally has reached an historic low (Revetta and Das, 2002). Without exception, all geoscience departments face a serious challenge to attract undergraduate students. One major reason is the lack of interest in the physical sciences and the weakened basic training in mathematics and sciences at high schools. To stimulate students in the physical sciences, numerous learning and teaching innovations have been proposed and tested in geoscience classrooms: (i) information technology has provided virtual field trips and tele-education through the Internet; (ii) new pedagogical practices include student-centered active learning and collaborative learning in both low- and upper-division geological classes. second, it is not uncommon for universities to be quite isolated from their surrounding communities. A university's athletic programs are more likely to be recognized by the local community than its academic programs. Service-learning in the natural sciences, with real science and engineering at its center, raises the awareness of the scientific program while disseminating useful scientific knowledge. …