Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011

Undergrad Research and Service Learning: Community-based research in the geosciences

By Dave Mogk, Montana State University, Bozeman

Service learning is a mode of instruction that directs course activities toward issues or problems of societal concern. Components of a successful service learning experience include a clear articulation of community needs, orientation and training of students, meaningful action, and reflection upon and evaluation of the activity. Service learning activities yield tremendous benefits to students, faculty, institutions and the community at large. The tenets of service learning, advice on how to design and implement a service learning project, and examples of service learning projects from across the geosciences have been more fully developed in the Starting Point module on Service Learning, and in the On the Cutting Edge module on Service Learning.

Components of a Service Learning Project

A well-designed service learning project includes:

  • Connections to course content (or if not done in a course, connections to geologic knowledge and skills)
  • Meaningful service done for the community, addressing real needs.
  • Partnership with community sponsors
  • A development plan that meets clearly defined objectives
  • Preparation of students so that they can successfully meet project objectives
  • Opportunities for student growth as a scientist and citizen
  • Assessable outcomes
  • Critical reflection on the part of students about the impacts of the experience on their own professional development, and on the larger community.

A more complete description of Service Learning can be found in the Starting Point module on Service Learning, and in the On the Cutting Edge module on Service Learning.

An Example of a Research-Based Service Learning Project

Seismic Hazards in Southwestern Montana

An introductory Environmental Geology class presented a public forum on Seismic Hazards in SW Montana, recognizing that their community was set dead center in the Rocky Mountain Seismic Belt. Small groups of students developed presentations on: Principles of Seismology; Lessons learned from Global Earthquakes; Geology of the Northern Rocky Mountains; Seismic History of Montana; Building Design Principles; Public Health Issues; Emergency Preparedness; Developing a Personal Plan. Students researched the literature, websites, and interviewed professional experts to obtain the best possible information to disseminate to the public. Details of this project can be found in Mogk, D., and King, 1995, Service Learning in Geoscience Classes, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 43, p. 461. Although the students did not do de novo research in the sense of collecting new data, they did aggregate and organize a comprehensive amount of information from publications, web resources, and through interviews; they organized, prioritized, and synthesized this information and provided an important public service for the citizens of SW Montana.

Suggestions for Research-Focused Service Learning Projects

  • Hazards Assessment: Undertake a regional mapping project, and inform the public through forums, poster sessions, public service announcements, etc. about hazards related to
    • floodplains,
    • areas prone to mass wasting,
    • potential for damage related to seismic events
  • GIS Studies: GIS-based spatial representations are powerful tools that can be used to serve and inform the public. Students at Montana State University have completed independent study projects that used GIS to produce:
    • maps of radon hazards in the surrounding communities, and correlated radon values to bedrock geology in collaboration with our College of Nursing;
    • mapped the distribution of surface waters (creeks, stock ponds, etc.) and transportation routes as a guide for our rural fire departments to find available water in the event of having to fight a fire in a remote rural setting, in collaboration with our county Disaster and Emergency Services department.
  • Geochemical Analytical Instruments:
    • use polarizing microscopy, X-ray diffraction, SEM imaging and EDS elemental analysis to identify potential asbestos minerals from historic buildings on your campus or in your neighborhood.
    • use AA or ICP to undertake regional water quality analyses of surface or groundwater
  • Geophysical Instruments
    • use ground penetrating radar to locate buried (and possibly corroding) fuel storage tanks

Given the breadth of research interests in the geosciences, you will see that there are abundant opportunities to apply geoscience research, knowledge and skills to undergraduate service learning projects.