During subsequent meetings, our focus was on choosing a specific project (Figure 1, step 4). We created a project plan that helped
clarify and document expectations and desired outcomes, as well as
the roles and responsibilities of the instructor, the community partner,
and the students. In subsequent semesters, we have used these meetings to incorporate feedback from prior-semester partnerships into
our project plans. The project plan included a project summary,
course and community partner goals, faculty and community partner
roles, and a tentative schedule with benchmarks. Certain details of the
project, such as the exact dates and times of field visits, were the
responsibility of students to communicate directly with the park staff.
The bird field guide project that we ultimately chose addressed
four of the main learning goals of the course (for sample pages, see
Supplemental Material). Students would conduct bird biodiversity
surveys. The species identified would be added to an existing list
of species known to inhabit the park, and this list would be used
to write a customized bird-watching guide.
Once a project had been identified, we adjusted the curriculum to
include material that would align with the project (Figure 1, step 5).
Lectures, class activities, homework assignments, and quizzes established familiarity with the natural history of the organisms, ecosystems,
and techniques the students would be working with. We spent a significant amount of time in class discussing the organisms, their ecology,
how to identify them, and other relevant information.
Our introduction of students to the project started even before
the course began. We emphasized the service component of the
course as early and often as possible: in the course description (prior
to registration), prior to the start of the course, and during the first
week of the semester. The syllabus provided a definition of service
learning and clearly described the project and the time commitment
involved. This is especially important in a college-level course, where
students may be expected to schedule their own site visits and provide their own transportation.
During the first week of class, we invited representatives of the
partner organization to speak to the class and organized a field trip
to orient the students to the project site. Environmental Field Office
staff presented students with an overview of the program’s mission
during the first week of class and led a class discussion of expectations
and desired outcomes. Students were also shown an orientation video
that overviewed principles of the college’s service-learning program,
followed by the signing of a student agreement form (see Supplemental
Material) confirming their participation in the orientation. The student
agreement form contained a list of project parameters and expectations
and served as a release form. Students also received a list of tips to
make the most of the experience (see Supplemental Material).
For our project, we organized the class into groups of three or
four, but this could vary depending on the nature of the project.
Groups met and prepared a project plan (Figure 1, step 6) detailing
how they would meet their goals. Students were required to research
their community partner and their needs and summarize the project
goals and deliverables. Groups assigned each group member specific
roles and tasks and developed a timeline of the project, including field
visits and assignment deadlines.
The project plan specified roles for each group member. One
student in each group was a communication coordinator responsible
for relaying questions to the staff and course instructor (this avoids a
deluge of emails from every group member). A record keeper was
responsible for recording notes during meetings, managing data sets,
During the implementation of the project, communication was
critical (Figure 1, step 7). Although we frequently discussed the proj-
ect with students, we never relied entirely on these discussions when
monitoring the status of the project. Direct communication with the
community partner helped identify gaps between the project plan,
reports by the students, and actual events. While site visits can be time
intensive, student observations and on-site communication with com-
munity supervisors provide a wealth of information.
Well-designed service-learning projects contain structured and
rigorous course assignments that link course content with service, foster critical analysis of the experience, and then connect conclusions to
broader learning goals (Kalles & Ryan, 2015). Our project incorporated four assignments (Figure 1, step 8) designed to guide our students as they planned, implemented, and reflected on their project.
These course assessments were built around learning objectives and
connected the service work with the course content: a project plan,
due before the start of the project (Table 1); a progress report, due
at the midpoint of the project (Table 2); the final product (the bird
field guide in our case); and finally, a reflection paper, due after the
completion of the project (Table 3). These accounted for 40% of the
total class grade (10% per assignment).
The field guide progress report was due approximately halfway
through the semester. Students compared the actual progress of
the project to the goals described in the proposal, evaluated their
group progress and their own role in the group, and, if necessary,
revised goals and plans. This assignment was a chance for students
to take a step back and reflect, remind themselves of the big picture,
and make course corrections. Students reported that this was a helpful checkpoint, and several groups made modifications to their plan
based on their progress report.
Students conducted bird surveys, as groups, under the guidance of
the instructor and park staff. Student observations were then combined with data from previous surveys, and a list of bird species was
assembled. The species on the list were divided among the students,
and each produced an equal number of bird species profiles (six per
student), which were assembled as a customized bird identification
guide (for sample pages, see Supplemental Material). Because the guide
was compiled from contributions from the entire class, one group’s job
was to gather the pages produced by each student and assemble the
guide. They acted as editors and were responsible for maintaining consistent formatting, spelling, and grammar. Because of the scope of this
task, this group only wrote three pages per student.
Students were given the option of applying for a Civic Engagement Grant, a competitive grant sponsored by our college’s Center
for Civic Engagement, open to students enrolled in service-learning
projects. This was an optional “above and beyond” part of the project.
Several students worked together to write the application, and they
were awarded $107 to fund printing of the bird guide. The end result
was a spiral-bound, laminated booklet with pictures and information
about birds that had been identified at the site (see Supplemental
Material). Several physical copies were printed and delivered to park
staff, and the files were made available so that park staff could add
pages as additional bird species were identified.