through the application of disciplinary knowledge to project-based
community work (Rutti et al., 2015). A meta-analysis of 62 studies
involving 11,837 students found that service learning improved
attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic
engagement, social skills, and academic performance (Celio et al.,
2011). Brail (2013, 2016) found a relationship of service learning
to deepened disciplinary expertise and increased grade achievement
in an urban studies course.
Creating a Customized Bird-Watching
To accomplish academic and community goals, we integrated a
service-learning project into an animal natural history course, an
upper-level undergraduate elective for biology majors. Students
created a bird field guide as the “deliverable” to address eco-literacy
goals and provide a tangible, sustainable benefit to the community
partner, its staff, and park visitors.
We developed a cyclical process for continuously assessing and
improving service-learning projects, as described in Figure 1. This
process captures the essential elements for developing a project of
quality and impact, assessing the effectiveness of the project, and
improving future projects.
Our first step, even before choosing a community partner, was to
define and clearly articulate the academic learning goals that service
learning can accomplish, both disciplinary and professional/personal.
While developing our project, we considered how the service-learning
work could address major or college-wide goals, as well as the specific
goals of the course (see Supplemental Material with the online version
of this article).
We are fortunate enough to have a dedicated Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, which has developed broadly
focused “civic engagement learning goals,” applicable to a wide range
of course subjects (see Supplemental Material). These goals were
guided by the AACU Civic Engagement VALUE rubric (Association
of American Colleges and Universities, 2009). These goals, along with
course-specific goals (see Supplemental Material), were used as the
foundation for the project goals.
We decided that a field-based service project in a natural history course would align best with three of our six civic engagement
learning goals: intellectual engagement, application of knowledge,
and communication. Furthermore, we felt that several of the course
learning goals could be addressed effectively with such a project:
identification of local species, biodiversity survey techniques,
experimental design, and communicating scientific data.
With our learning goals formulated, we were ready to seek an
appropriate community partner whose mission and goals fit with
the subject matter and who had an identified need that translated
well into a service project (Figure 1, step 2). Fitting partners for nat-
ural history courses are typically nonprofits or other NGOs, but they
can also be local or state park agencies, zoos, museums, schools, or
conservation programs. First, begin by making a list of potential
organizations. We recommend inquiring about existing partnerships
between your school district or administration and local organiza-
tions. You may be surprised to find they already have a list of part-
ners. Utilize your own personal contacts and network to seek
recommendations. Finally, local outdoor or environmental events
and festivals often invite organizations to set up outreach tables or
activities and are a great way to discover potential partners.
We partnered with Ganondagan State Historic Site, located in
Victor, New York. It’s Environmental Field Office, which manages
the site, served as an ideal community partner for this course. They
were located within a short drive, and the staff were highly knowl-
edgeable about the flora and fauna of the site. They also had a
strong education and outreach focus, in addition to their environ-
mental stewardship mission.
Our association with Ganondagan began through existing
research partnerships. During the summer prior to the course, we
approached park staff and proposed a service project. We met with
them and discussed the mission of the Environmental Field Office,
which is to “preserve, restore and enhance natural resources . . . by
aiding state parks and historic site in meeting commitments to
responsible stewardship of natural resources for current and future
generations as laid out by the mission statement of OPRHP”
Our next step was to discuss the goals and needs of both the
community partner and the course (Figure 1, step 3). We began
these discussions well before the start of the course. Our goal dur-
ing the initial meeting was to listen to our partner organization and
understand its needs, while acknowledging the assets of the partner
and its capacity for self-sufficiency when provided with needed
resources. Service learning must be rooted in mutual cooperation
and collaboration (Desmond & Stahl, 2011). Shared decision mak-
ing and goal accomplishment results in meaningful, genuine, and
sustainable relationships (Tinkler et al., 2014).
Our initial meeting with the partner organization was focused on
discussing the needs of the park and helped us better understand
their long-term environmental protection and habitat restoration
plan as well as their education and outreach goals. We considered
gaps in resources that may have affected the feasibility of potential
projects. We learned that their primary goal was to better under-
stand the biodiversity within the park. Together, we decided that
our field observations would be used to generate educational and
interpretive materials as the deliverable product of the project.
Figure 1. Cyclical process for developing a service project.