Perfect Partners: Environmental Literacy and Service-Learning


Can I effectively teach environmental science and not include a service-learning component? I have decided that this is just not possible. In order to effectively develop students’ environmental literacy they need to engage in service-learning.

After several years of teaching “Introduction to Environmental Science,” I finally created a course design that situated service-learning wholly into a framework of environmental literacy. A description of the course, environmental literacy framework, service-learning projects, assessments of student learning, and student reflections demonstrate how environmental literacy and service-learning are natural partners.

The “Introduction to Environmental Science” course meets several objectives in the overall curriculum. It is the gateway course for students majoring/minoring in Environmental Science and fulfills a General Education lab science requirement for any major. Students in the course range from first-year students to seniors, with a mix of science majors and non-science majors. Most students have not noticed that the course has a service-learning designation when they enroll. They are definitely surprised at the first class meeting to discover that the service-learning component comprises 30% of the course grade!

Environmental Literacy

Various definitions for the concept of environmental literacy exist. Having knowledge and taking action in ways that protect, conserve, restore, and replenish the earth generally defines an environmentally literate person. The framework that shapes my course focuses on four contexts: natural, social, valuing, and action (Cunningham and Cunningham, 2012). A concept map accompanies the syllabus to demonstrate to students how the course topics, activities, and service-learning contribute to their becoming more environmentally literate citizens.

The natural context focuses on an understanding of the scientific concepts that underlie environmental issues. Students think of this as “the science” behind the topics we cover in class. The social context promotes understanding of the relationships between human society and the environment, including areas such as economics, law, political science, sociology, media studies, history, marketing, public relations, and business. The valuing context addresses values in relation to environmental issues, including the philosophical, religious, ethical, and moral aspects inherent in environmental problems. I point out to students that this context is the “so what does this mean to us and what responsibility do we have” part of environmental literacy. If these three fall into place, then the fourth context, action, comes logically as we are compelled to actively maintain and restore the environment. Service-learning plays a significant role threading together these environmental literacy contexts for students.

Types of Service-learning

Having taught service–learning courses for six years, I categorize students’ experiences into three types of service: science, education, and earthcare. In the course, students are required to have at least ten hours of hands-on work with a local organization. Their work should meet a community need and they complete several reflective assignments.

· Science service-learning projects include those in which students are collecting and/or analyzing data for a partner organization. These types of projects occur less often in this course, but have included locating trees on a city map, creating a database of tree species, and collecting water quality samples from a local stream.

· Environmental education service-learning occurs frequently when students teach environmental lessons to children in an afterschool program, work with a nonprofit to teach high school students and neighborhood groups about home energy conservation, lead middle school students in hands-on environmental activities, and set up environmental awareness displays.

· Earthcare (restoration/management) service-learning projects often take the form of organizing creek clean-up events, removing exotic plants, caring for injured animals at a wildlife rehabilitation center, maintaining trails at a local state park, gardening in community gardens, preparing community-garden food for residents from low-income neighborhoods, building backyard rain gardens, and planting trees.

At the beginning of the semester, I present a list of community partners for students to choose from, although they can suggest a partner/project be added to the list. Students then complete internet research on each organization. I encourage students to reflect on the skills they possess and could share with a partner organization as well as the skills they would like to personally develop through this project. Given that students in the course represent a broad range of majors, they bring a variety of talent to the course in areas such as public relations, art, music, business, social media technology, and science. Students submit their top three choices of partner organizations and projects. I then negotiate with each student as to which project they will work on, ensuring that all of the community partners are matched with at least two but not more than six students. Students appoint a spokesperson for their group and make all the necessary arrangements with the community partners to define their service work and set up the times to meet. At this point in the semester the students are typically overwhelmed, and a little excited, about completing this seemingly daunting project.

Student Reflection and Assessment

Throughout the service-learning experience, students have multiple opportunities to learn, practice, and reflect on the four components of what it means to be an environmentally literate citizen. Students keep a “blue-book” journal of their work, recording the date, hours, and description of activity each time they meet with their community partner. They also write a reflective paragraph, describing how their work connects to at least one of the environmental literacy contexts. Students are encouraged to draw and include photos in their journals.

Some sample journal comments include:

“I enjoyed the service project on Saturday, not particularly because the work was exciting or fun, but because it seems that this organization is doing good work in under-served communities. The cause of planting trees has grown increasingly important to me, especially in light of this course. Trees are the key to the health of many ecosystems …, we can never have too many.”

“I am proud of the work I completed and am excited that I have the knowledge to complete a rain garden. I plan on utilizing this skill in my hometown at my parent’s and grandparent’s houses.”

Four essays require students to deepen their learning by connecting the service-learning work to the concepts covered in the course. In the 1st essay, students describe the work they expect to complete with their community partner and reflect on what they hope to gain from the service-learning experience. Essay 2 requires students to look at the website and promotional materials of the partner organization to connect the organization’s mission to content covered in our course. For essay #3, students choose four concepts covered in class and describe how they see them exemplified in their service-learning work. Finally, the 4th essay asks students to reflect on how the service-learning work benefitted the community and how they were personally impacted by the experience.

Some sample comments from essays include:

“I didn’t have any sort of gardening background, nor did I understand how much work went into it. After volunteering, I have a greater appreciation for gardening as well as composting. Seeing firsthand the intricacies of gardening was mind blowing to me. It was fascinating and refreshing to witness fruits and vegetables growing out of the earth. That sounds so silly, but it really was a beautiful thing. I found myself reflecting on how we truly do need this earth, and I don’t think we are aware of that sometimes. Conservation, recycling, composting, and food security are a handful of the concepts I saw exemplified while working…”

“Showing them [the children] the magnitude of symbiotic relationships really seemed to speak volumes as they felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves. One girl even told me she convinced her family to start recycling. This was a huge success for me personally, because up until this year I never took recycling very seriously, and within this semester I managed to convince at least one other person of its relevance and importance…”

“The watershed encompasses a huge area and many people depend on this source of water for drinking, bathing, cooking, irrigating, and many other uses. Pollution in every water source of this area drains into a single river and negatively impacts the quality of water. By cleaning the trash and debris from this waterway, we helped improve the quality of the water that ends up in the river.”

“Knowing that I helped create those gravel steps, mulched that specific trail, or aided in the aviary cleanup will emotionally link me to the park forever. I hope my work will help hikers enjoy a safer, more accessible hike on the trails.”

In addition to the essays, students work in their groups to develop a PowerPoint presentation describing their service-learning work, connections to course content, examples of the environmental literacy contexts, and community benefits. By working in groups to develop the presentation, students have an opportunity to practice networking, team-building, collaborating, and communication skills. The presentations are given during the last lab class of the semester. Students are impressed with the work they have accomplished and surprised that this seemingly daunting task ended up being fruitful, engaging, and fun! The conclusion of this session provides an opportunity for me to genuinely thank the students for their meaningful and important work in our community.

Teach environmental science and not include environmental literacy? Teach environmental literacy and not include service-learning? Definitely not!

Cunningham, W.P. and Cunningham, M.A. 2011. Principles of Environmental Science: Inquiry and Applications, 6th Ed., McGraw-Hill Publ., NY. P. 380.

Darlene Panvini, Ph.D., is a Professor and Department Chair in Biology at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches biology and environmental science courses. Several of her courses include service-learning projects and all include substantial hands-on, in-the-field activities for students. Her research with undergraduates focuses on the impact of exotic species on native ecosystems.

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