Integration of Service Learning in Online Geoscience Courses

Jennifer Nelson, Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis
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Students in our online, introductory geoscience courses are given the opportunity to participate in an environmental service learning project, led by the Center for Earth and Environmental Science (, and reflect on the local and global impact of their service in a short writing assignment. The goals of the optional service learning participation are to (1) provide hands-on field experiences to students in online classes, (2) allow opportunities to connect course concepts to real-life environmental issues, and (3) increase students' environmental awareness, and (4) apply an understanding of sustainability to participation in environmental restoration projects. As part of a larger study with CEES, students complete a pre- and post-environmental awareness survey.

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Learning Goals

Content/concepts goals

  • Connecting prior learning to the goals of environmental restoration projects.
  • Explore the local and global impacts of environmental restoration projects.
  • Increased awareness of local and global environmental issues.

Higher order thinking skills goals
During the service learning project, students make connections between course concepts and the environmental restoration project. Project leaders work closely with students to discuss local and global impacts of restoration work. At the end of the project students complete post-project reflections to assist them in making connections to their classroom learning.

After the project, students use their post-project reflection to write a short paper addressing ideas of sustainability, local and global connections to their service learning project, and connections to overall course concepts.

Other skills goals
In our introductory geoscience courses, students continue to develop their writing and research skills. Students are required to format their reflection as a write-to-learn essay, and practice researching and synthesizing primary sources into their writing. As part of their requirements for this activity, students identify and integrate primary research to support their discussions of sustainability and environmental problems and solutions.

Context for Use

Type and level of course
Introductory Oceanography course for non-majors. Introductory Indiana Geology (physical geology focus) course for non-majors. Also implemented by other instructors in introductory physical geology and environmental geology courses for majors and non-majors.

Skills and concepts students should have mastered
Students have completed the bulk of the learning materials of the course prior to the project and paper and therefore arrive at the project with a foundational understanding of the concepts presented at the service learning activity. For example, students in Oceanography have learned about Gulf of Mexico hypoxia and understand the connectivity of Indiana's waterways to the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. With this foundational knowledge, they are prepared to make connections between the local environmental work of their project, and larger environmental issues.

How the activity is situated in the course
This activity is integrated as an option in students' final course writing assignment. Students are given the option to research and write about an environmental issue (ocean issue for Oceanography, local issue for Indiana Geology), or participate in an environmental service learning project and write a brief reflection on the project. This activity is assigned in the last several weeks of the semester, so students are able to apply their understanding of specific course concepts in the context of their chosen environmental problem.

Description and Teaching Materials

The attached files are the activity guidelines for students in Oceanography and Indiana Geology. Page 2 of both documents provides the description of the Service Learning Option for each class.

The third file is the post-project reflection that students complete at the end of their project. Students work with other project participants, and project leaders, to complete this reflection. CEES scans and sends these reflections back to the students' instructor after the project. 

Teaching Notes and Tips

Ideally, all students in the introductory course should participate in a hands-on environmental restoration project to have the opportunity to see first-hand the concepts they learned about in class. But, in the online classroom, we have found it impossible to require all students to participate in an environmental service learning project. Students may be taking the class from a location far from where the projects are conducted, or personal limitations or time constraints may prevent the student from being able to participate in a scheduled project. For these reasons, this activity cannot be assigned to all students – we give students the option of the service learning project or a more traditional researched writing assignment on similar topics.

The service learning outlined in this activity are led by our Center for Earth and Environmental Science (CEES), a campus center that conducts environmental service learning projects on the IUPUI campus and other Central Indiana parks, greenways, and natural areas. CEES is responsible for scheduling projects, making connections with local community groups, and all logistics associated with student sign-up and project completion. Because CEES handles most all aspects of the service learning experience, faculty members have very little demands on their time for integrating service learning into their classroom.

Interested faculty meet with CEES service learning coordinators early in the semester to identify the learning goals they have for their students, and CEES makes an effort to address these goals in their projects. Students are specifically asked to make connections to their learning during the projects, and in their post-project reflection. CEES provides the faculty with copies of their students' post-project reflection sheets, so the faculty member has tangible evidence of the students' involvement and learning.

The activity presented here can be used for any types of service learning project in the geosciences – the implementation portion would be different based on the type of service learning project used. We are fortunate to have such a center on campus to design and implement student service learning projects. If no such center of office exists on your campus, consider working with local environmental groups who regularly run service projects. In our local area, several environmental groups and local state parks run regular service days for volunteers. The challenge with these types of projects is making certain that the "learning" portion of service learning is taking place – this may mean that the faculty instructor will need to attend the project with their students, or have de-briefing sessions shortly after student participation to help them make connections.


The bulk of students' grades for this activity come from confirmation that they participated in a CEES-led service learning project and the discussions of sustainability and local and global effects of their work that they provide in their essay. A student has effectively met the goals of this assignment when they can articulate an awareness of how their service learning project work effects both the local and global environment.

References and Resources

IUPUI Center for Earth and Environmental Science, Service Learning Program:

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