Service learning in ecology courses increases student and stakeholder engagement
Experiential learning is common in ecology courses where students have the opportunity to explore and apply course concepts first-hand in a laboratory setting. Service learning gives students an opportunity to apply concepts from the course within their own communities to address some greater issue or community need. Wittenberg University is embedded within the city of Springfield Ohio, which is facing many environmental challenges. The city’s combined overflow sewers are contaminating streams, invasive species have decreased native biodiversity of local parks, and disease outbreaks such as West Nile virus are threatening human health. To increase student engagement within the class as well as the community, I have integrated a service learning component into two courses: Biol148: a non-major’s biology course focusing on biodiversity and Biol 241: an upper level freshwater ecology course. The service learning component requires students to interact with a stakeholder, identify focus areas for research, and work to generate solutions to address stakeholder concerns while emphasizing concepts covered during the course.
Students in Biol148 in collaboration with the local park district and students from an afterschool program worked on a semester long project to design and facilitate a bioblitz of a local park. Their work provided the first comprehensive species list and mapping of invasive species in the area. Biol 241 students were paired with stakeholders to address a specific community concern. Projects included evaluating, researching, and testing potential solutions to problems such as eutrophication of a local park’s lake driven by a nuisance goose population and investigating the functioning of a newly constructed wetland to reduce bacteria and nutrient loads from the city’s combined overflow sewer. Student evaluations showed an increase in student engagement within the course, in comprehension of course content, and a better understanding of the applicability of course content to real world issues. Additionally, stakeholders indicated an increase in their own engagement on these topics and expressed an interest in working to find practical solutions to problems facing the community. Service learning and student engagement in research are considered high impact learning practices. Incorporating these into ecology courses can increase student engagement, increase retention of knowledge, as well as retention of students in the field.