Case Study: Is Service Learning worth the effort?

September 9, 2015

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In his recent article in Directions Magazine, Dr. Wing Cheung made a compelling case for using service learning experiences in GIS classes. In this article, I will share my experience with implementing service learning in an undergraduate introductory GIS course, with the aim of providing considerations that might help you decide if service learning is suitable for your own context.

Why is service learning particularly useful in GIS courses?

Service learning projects can develop the skills needed to be successful in GIS and other careers; they allow students to develop higher order thinking skills by applying the knowledge they've acquired through tutorials to a different issue. The scaffolding approach with GIS assignments—providing more support in early stages and gradually increasing students’ responsibility to work independently, culminating in a service learning project—encourages students to exercise their analytic, synthesis and evaluation skills. In addition, service learning is among the effective pedagogies that promote student engagement.

With these benefits in mind, let me share with you how I recruited organizations, and oversaw and evaluated student projects in my course at Chapman University. At the end of the article, I'll discuss the benefits and challenges of service learning, and make a few suggestions for those of you who are considering a service learning project for a GIS course.

Case Study: GIS and Service Learning at Chapman University

This service learning project was developed for an undergraduate introductory GIS course at Chapman University, a private regional university in Orange County, California. The class consisted of 19 students, ranging from sophomore to senior level, in majors including environmental science and policy, marketing, political science and education. I take a multi-disciplinary approach to the course, with a substantive focus on environmental health and policy. We met for 15 weeks, with two and a half hours each week for lecture and four hours for laboratory time. The course was structured in two parts:

  1. The first ten weeks focused on learning GIS fundamentals and ArcMap, and becoming familiar with GIS research in the area of environmental health.
  2. The final five weeks were largely dedicated to completing the service learning projects in class, with a few short sessions dedicated to project-specific topics, such as creating and delivering a professional presentation.


I used the instructor-initiated model of recruitment for several reasons:

  • To make sure the organizations focused on issues broadly related to our course’s substantive interest in health and/or environment in the local area;
  • To allow students to focus on the critical knowledge acquisition in the first weeks of the course;
  • To minimize potential inequities in students’ ability to find organizations due to access to resources.

I began outreach two months in advance of the start of the semester. I planned to recruit four organizations for a maximum of four to five students per group— an ideal size for effective problem solving.

I leveraged my professional networks to identify potential organizations. After approximately eight to ten hours of sending emails and sometimes cold calling, and having a few phone interviews, I successfully recruited four community partners who were enthusiastic and were a good fit based on their focal areas and potential spatial questions and interests. During our conversations, I asked the organizations if they had any research questions relating to location, and told them their time commitment would be to come meet with the class two times during the semester—once to introduce their organizations and again at the end of the semester to see the students’ final presentations. They would be given the presentations and data at the end of the semester. Although the process of recruiting organizations can be time consuming, once relationships with several organizations are established, it becomes easier to implement the project in subsequent semesters.

Project details

During the ninth week of the semester, students were provided an in-depth introduction to the projects, including detailed project guidelines, an evaluation rubric and a timeline that included deadlines for weekly updates, rough draft maps and practice presentations. Representatives visited during one class period to introduce their organizations’ scope, aims and research interests, which ranged from broad to specific. Students were assigned to groups and each group was assigned to an organization.

Broadly, each group was expected to formulate a cohesive analysis addressing the topic or research question put forth by their assigned organization and to create a presentation that effectively conveyed the results. Each student was required to produce, individually, three analytic maps using certain skills learned in the course— for example, geocoding, intersecting layers, selecting by location or attributes and exporting data, and creating an index— along with a brief written analysis of the methods, findings and limitations of each map.

Students worked in groups to decide how to address the organizations’ needs and interests, and to determine which maps and/or topics each group member would be responsible for. I encouraged an iterative approach, alerting students to anticipate potential challenges with certain topics. As is common in the research process, sometimes students started on an idea, but after a brief preliminary search found that data availability or time constraints rendered the initial idea infeasible.

The process built on knowledge and skills that were introduced earlier in the semester. Students drew on research articles presented in the course as inspiration for topics and data sources. They also learned how to find spatial and attribute data from sources such as federal and state agencies, so many students used U.S. Census Bureau data, which we had worked with earlier on.

During the last class meeting, students from each group gave a professional oral presentation to the organization’s representatives. The topics were diverse. One group examined local environmental health risks for a specific population of interest to the organization; in that group, a student estimated the population at risk of exposure to selected point sources of pollution, using data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Census Bureau. Another group, for an organization interested in potential areas for urban agriculture, digitized all the vacant lots within a local city and examined access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The third group, working for an organization interested in teenage births, compiled data on teen births in the surrounding counties to examine correlates of teen births and high need areas. All the organizations expressed enthusiasm for the final products and ideas for how to use the data.

Evaluation of learning

I evaluated the projects based on a rubric that assessed:

  • Quality of final maps and analysis,
  • Appropriateness of maps and analyses to research questions,
  • The clarity and accuracy of the results interpretation,
  • Whether deadlines were met,
  • The professionalism and effectiveness of the oral presentation.

To maximize group member participation, grades were based on individual work as well as group members’ contribution to group work, including developing project ideas, finding data and creating a cohesive presentation of results. Students were asked to rate their group members’ contribution, as well as their own, and this was taken into account in assessing group contribution. Finally, as Dr. Cheung suggested, projects should complement traditional modes of instruction rather than replace them. Thus, course grades were additionally based on an in-class final examination that assessed students’ comprehension and ability to complete basic GIS mapping and analysis.


Is it worth the effort?

Developing a service learning component for a GIS course can require substantial start-up time and requires consideration of institutional and other constraints. Based on my experience, do I think it was worth the effort? Unequivocally so, for several reasons:

First, informal student feedback indicated that the project helped solidify the knowledge learned during the first part of the course. Moreover, students were more dedicated to the project because they knew it would be presented to professionals and potentially used in the real world.

Second, the organizations gave us enthusiastic, positive feedback and a plan to use the data. One of the organizations presented the report during their visit to congressional offices in Washington, D.C. Another organization used one of the maps in a grant proposal, and plans to integrate the results into a policy brief.

Third, it provided an opportunity to establish relationships between our academic institution and the surrounding community. Partnerships often lead to fruitful and mutually-beneficial opportunities, potentially providing volunteer, internship or employment opportunities for students.

Finally, it addressed learning goals that are common to many undergraduate majors:

  • Communication skills;
  • Understanding complex scientific issues in multi-disciplinary perspectives;
  • Problem-solving skills;
  • Data analysis skills.

Implementation Suggestions

For those considering incorporating service learning into GIS courses, I offer a few final thoughts based on my experience:

  1. Begin outreach well in advance of when you plan to teach the course.
  2. Have back-up plans in case recruitment fails or an organization has to back-out mid-semester.
  3. Dedicate plenty of class time to the projects, rather than making the project homework, so that students —especially non-traditional— don’t face barriers to participation in group work.
  4. In class, spend time monitoring group and individual progress and providing support as appropriate.
  5. Reflect on potential challenges in implementing a service learning project in your specific context by considering class size, institutional expectations, etc.

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