Student Reflections on a Watershed Service Learning Project Reveal Four Key Findings

Helen M. Boylan, Associate Professor of Chemistry
Westminster College, New Wilmington, PA
“…for the first time the data we obtained in lab counted for more than just a grade”
–Advanced Laboratory Student


Chemistry students at Westminster College have partnered with a local watershed group for the last three years to test sites being treated for abandoned mine drainage. Students find this service learning project to be a powerful learning experience, and a review of the student self-reflection essays reveals why this is the case. Four key observations surface from an evaluation of the essays. The most significant finding is the critical role that positive interaction with the community partner has on the student experience. Other themes emerging from the reflection essays include “seeing” results, unplanned learning, and the relevance of the discipline in the community. Quotes from the student self-reflections, with support from the literature, provide evidence for the results. While the findings presented here are based on an advanced chemistry lab course, the information is relevant to all disciplines. The observations should be useful for faculty members designing a service learning project or planning its assessment.


For the past three years, the Chemistry Department at Westminster College has implemented, with great success, a three-week service learning project as part of the Advanced Laboratory program. In collaboration with a local non-profit watershed group, the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition (SRWC), junior chemistry and biochemistry majors tested the efficacy of passive treatment systems at sites contaminated by abandoned mine drainage. As a service to the community, the students provide laboratory-quality results on the water at the passive treatment sites. The SRWC uses this data to assess how the treatment system is working and to ensure that the effluent is not exceeding EPA limits. The students, in return, learn about environmental impacts of the coal mining industry and how applied chemistry can remediate these sites.

Abandoned mine drainage is a leading water pollutant in Pennsylvania, contaminating approximately 2,400 miles of streams in the state (Taylor et al. 2002). Weathering at abandoned mines leads to leaching of the minerals contained within. The water emanating from these sites is typically acidic and contains high concentrations of metals. Under extreme conditions, aquatic “dead zones” can occur in streams located close to an abandoned mine. The SRWC has successfully brought many “dead zones” back to life through implementation of passive treatment systems. Passive treatment systems rely on natural chemical and biological processes to restore healthy conditions to the water. In the case of abandoned mine drainage, passive treatment typically involves limestone channels to increase alkalinity and raise pH and wetlands and/or settling ponds to promote precipitation (and thus removal) of the metal contaminants.

The SRWC successfully treats 500 million gallons of contaminated water annually at its 12 passive treatment systems (Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition 2009). Periodic testing of the water at the sites ensures that the treatment is effective. The non-profit SRWC is not able to afford routine commercial lab services for this testing, and student lab results from this service learning project help fill this need. Student findings are also entered into a watershed database ( where the public and stakeholders can view longitudinal data on the influent and effluent of the passive treatment sites.

This mutually beneficial experience resonates with students and the community partner alike. Through an assessment of the reflection essays, we learn, from the students’ perspective, what makes this service learning project successful. Four common themes emerge, the most noteworthy of which is a positive interaction between the students and the community partner. Faculty members should be able to use this student feedback to aid in planning their own successful civic engagement experience for their courses.

Materials & Methods

The Project

Advanced Laboratory is a project-based, integrated lab experience in which students enrolled in the course complete a series of two- to four-week labs. These labs are designed to be cross-disciplinary in nature and/or to expose the students to skills and techniques not normally covered in conventional coursework. Traditionally our Advanced Laboratory projects are innovative. However, students complete each lab within the confines of the chemistry department and can miss the “big picture” rationale associated with the project. With a little groundwork, as well as networking and planning with a local nonprofit organization, it was fairly straightforward to modify an existing three-week lab into a service learning experience. Through this service learning Advanced Laboratory project, the students were able to practice chemistry out in the “real world” and recognize the value in the work they were doing.

During week one of the project, students researched the topic of abandoned mine drainage and visited the passive treatment site to perform field tests and collect samples. Two volunteers from the SRWC, the community partner on the project, aided with the site visit. They explained the history and chemistry of the passive treatment site and helped the students perform field tests and collect water samples appropriately. Weeks two and three were dedicated to laboratory testing of the collected water samples. In the laboratory, students worked in pairs to analyze the water samples. Partners were assigned the analysis of two different analytes (one metal and one non-metal) in each of the 10 to 12 samples collected. Standard methods of analysis (Clescerl et al. 1999) were used for all analyses, and students were required to maintain proper field and laboratory notebooks throughout the duration of the project. At the culmination of the project, students completed a report of analysis for the SRWC and presented their findings at a monthly meeting of the watershed group.

This service learning project on abandoned mine drainage aligns well with the objectives of our Advanced Laboratory course. It is a cross-discliplinary investigation involving environmental chemistry. Additionally, it introduces the students to field sampling and analysis and the use of standard methods, three skills not normally taught in our chemistry curriculum.

Self-Reflection Essay

Each student was asked to write a 2-3 page reflection paper that addressed what he/she learned about: (1) the relevance of chemistry; (2) himself/herself as a professional chemist; and (3) himself/herself as a person as a result of the service learning project. A structured reflection activity is considered a key element in service learning (Eyler 2002). It is also an effective tool for assessment (Ash et al. 2005) as the student’s own voice is a powerful way to capture student learning. Common responses from the students in the self-reflection essays were tabulated and are presented in Table 1. Supporting quotes used throughout this manuscript were taken from the student essays.

Table 1. Common themes in student self reflections. Shaded rows indicate topics discussed by more than 25 percent of students.



75.0 (30) Revelvance of chemistry
72.5 (29) Positive partner interaction
62.5 (25) Chemistry content/lab techniques/skills
50.0 (20) Career plans
47.5 (19) Environmental Awareness
42.5 (17) Satisfaction/pride
35.0 (14) Observable results
27.5 (11) Learning from mistakes/problem solving
22.5 (9) Motivation
22.5 (9) Confidence
20.0 (8) Communicating results
15.0 (6) Recommended to do it again
12.5 (5) Future volunteering
2.5 (1) Negative outcome

Results & Discussion

Observation #1: Positive feedback from the partner is key to success

“The gratitude the SRWC extended toward us made it all worth it.”

The dialogue between the community partner and the students has surfaced as the key element of success for this project. This is an interesting finding for this study as the students had limited direct interaction with the community partner. Initially the students spent approximately three hours with two volunteers from the SRWC at the site visits. At these visits, the volunteers talked about the history of the site and assisted in the sampling and testing of the water. As this is a hands-on and time-restricted activity, there was not a lot of opportunity for “feel good” dialogue at this stage of the process. Over the next two weeks, the students worked in the lab and had no interaction with the community partner. It was during this time that the students began to doubt themselves and their abilities in the lab and to question whether they were really helping in some way: One student wrote, “Most of the data had no known trend and I felt bad going to the watershed and presenting our lack of results to these people that were hoping to see how their methods were working.” Another recalled that “upon presenting our results to the scientists at Jennings, we believed that we lacked the findings that would be helpful for the study.”

The real turn-around in this process occurred when the students made an oral presentation of their findings at the meeting of the SRWC. Between 10-20 volunteers with the SRWC greeted the students upon arrival and thanked them for their work. In pairs, in the form of a professional oral presentation, the students described the methods they used for testing and presented their specific findings. Many noted that they were uncertain about their results. An amazing dialogue ensued. The watershed professionals asked questions, helped interpret the data, and generally expressed a sincere gratitude for the work the students performed. This positive interaction with the community partner made a powerful impression on the students. One recalled that “the audience seemed so grateful of what we had done for them, that I felt good about myself that I could be apart (sic) of something positive and something so helpful.” A second described how “they [the SRWC volunteers]. . .were genuinely interested in our methods and our results. The greatest pleasure came from how impressed they were by all of our work.”

The interaction was also an opportunity for the SRWC to reassure the students about their data. A member of the class wrote, “I was amazed when we got there and they told us that, in fact, we did have good results and that most of our graphs did follow trends even though we may not have noticed it in the first place.” Another student added that”when they told us that the graphs looked good, it gave me a sense of accomplishment and I was really happy about that. Before going there, I wasn’t sure what they would say about the trends in our graphs, and I wasn’t even sure what our results even showed. After presenting, they told us a lot about what our results really meant and why we saw what we did.”

An assessment of the student reflections emphasizes the universal impact this positive interaction had on the students. As part of the assignment, the students were directly asked to comment on the relevance of chemistry, a task which only 30 out of the 40 students actually completed due to some students not following instructions. In contrast, the students were not asked to comment on the community partner, yet almost the same number of students (29) described the impact the positive interaction with the SRWC had on them (data provided in Table 1). Taken together, the compelling student quotes about the SRWC and the tabulated results reveal the significant influence the partner interaction has on the student experience.

As it turns out, the dialogue between the students and the SRWC is beneficial to both parties. A written evaluation from the community partner asserts, “For the SRWC, having the students present the data at our monthly meeting is a fun and energizing event that leaves the participants excited, hopeful, and invigorated.”

The role of partner feedback has limited presence in the service learning literature. A large study by Subramony, however, confirms that quality feedback from the client (in a counseling setting) does positively impact student learning (2000). The results from this manuscript, with support from Subramony, suggest the critical role that positive feedback from the community partner has on the service learning experience. Additional research is needed to fully evaluate this correlation.

Given the important role of favorable feedback, faculty members should design into their service learning projects a venue for a positive dialogue between the students and the community partner. This could be achieved through a culminating event that brings the students and community partner together. Here students could talk about their work through oral presentations or poster displays or informally via a networking session. By letting the community partner know how critical their feedback is, faculty members could encourage the supportive dialogue needed to validate the student experience.

Observation #2: “Seeing” results is important

Abandoned mines often leave observable pollution. On the visit to the site, the students were struck by the glaring evidence of that pollution–the characteristic orange color that coats all surfaces as the iron precipitates out of the water. Students were equally struck by the nature of the final effluent from the site. After passive treatment this water, which feeds a local tributary, is clear and teeming with life. It is a compelling visual indication that the passive treatment site is working.

Back in the laboratory, the students can also observe the effects of passive treatment in their data. At the early sampling points in the treatment site, the metal content is high, and the pH and alkalinity are low. In the final effluent, metal concentrations are significantly reduced, and the pH is close to neutral. The laboratory data confirms what the students visualized at the site, that the passive system effectively treats the abandoned mine drainage. Pictures and data that capture the observable changes are provided in Figure 1.

Figures 1A & 1B. Pictures and select student data from DeSale I passive treatment site. (A) At beginning of treatment process. (B) Final effluent from treatment. Passive treatment successfully raises pH, increases alkalinity, and reduces metal content. (Photos courtesy of

Figure 1A Figure 1B

The ability to “see” a result was a common theme among the student self- reflections. Thirty-five percent made note of the power of observation. For one student, it left her wanting more out of her experiments. “The result of the applied chemistry is visible in the change in the water. . .Now that I have physically seen what simple applied chemistry can do, I do not want to just inform people of the information I obtained from an experiment. I want to apply it and see a result.” Another student wrote about how the site visit made the abandoned mine drainage chemistry real. “I believe it was very beneficial for us to see the site first-hand. . .It was neat to actually visualize the effects of the oxidation of pyrite as opposed to just looking at the chemical equations.” For one student, seeing the lab data made the project significant. “I did not appreciate what we were doing until I saw the outcome of the experiment.”

Students can become frustrated with service learning when they do not see any evidence of their work. According to Grossman and Cooper, “when projects did not have an observable outcome. . .students felt frustrated and felt that their time was not well used. . .” ( 2004). Certainly not every service learning project can have an actual visual component like the abandoned mine drainage project. However, efforts should be made to design a project where there is a tangible outcome, one where the students can “see” the impact that they have had.

Due to the real-life complications encountered in service learning, designing a project with a guaranteed outcome is an improbable task. The faculty member, however, can work closely with the community partner on the development of multiple goals for the project. Instead of having one final objective for the students, many milestones throughout the duration of the project are recommended. In this way, the students can “see” their mini-successes along the way and not experience frustration if the end result is not achieved.

In hindsight, the abandoned mine drainage project worked well because there were multiple stages with observable results. These stages included the site visit, data collection in the lab, creation of a professional presentation and report of analysis, and attendance at the SRWC monthly meeting. Observable results vary among disciplines and can take a variety of forms, such as tangible creations (brochure, website, etc.), data that is collected or measured (surveys, lab data, etc.), and marked improvements (cleaned and freshly painted park area, improved test scores for tutored students, etc.), to name a few. With a variety of observable outcomes designed into a service learning project, students are more likely to “see” the impact that they have had.

Observation #3: Unplanned learning abounds

Faculty members, especially those in the sciences, may be hesitant to implement service learning into their coursework for fear of loss of course content. A carefully planned service learning project, however, can integrate course content in a meaningful way. Service learning has the added benefit of numerous opportunities for unplanned learning.

The abandoned mine drainage service learning project was designed with specific student learning objectives in mind. These included working in a field setting, following a standard method of analysis, and presenting technical results to a broad audience. Pre- and post project surveys were used to assess these learning goals. Statistically significant gains were reported by the students for all of the learning objectives tested.

The more interesting finding, however, was the learning that went beyond the planned learning objectives. This “deeper learning” (Romack 2003), revealed through reading the student reflections, was not quantifiable, but it was truly invaluable. Some students noted deeper learning about the actual practice of chemistry. “One thing I learned to do, which a chemist does daily, is how to take an established procedure and make the necessary adjustments,” wrote one student. Another described the complications built into the practice of chemistry: ” . . . even though there were detailed methods for how a specific analysis was to be performed nothing seemed to work without some type of complication.” A third accepted the open-ended nature of many scientific problems, writing that “I learned that chemistry is not about going into the lab to find a known answer to a problem. Rather, it is going into the lab to figure something out that you didn’t know before.”

Other students developed problem-solving skills. “I have encountered simple mistakes and learned from them,” recalled a student. Another highlighted the importance of a particular sort of problem-solving–trouble-shooting: “This [the service learning project] helped us become more familiar with . . . troubleshooting whenever problems arose during the experiments.” A third recalled grappling with scientific equipment, a common problem in scientific work. “I even learned a few basics concerning how to problem-solve when an instrument experiences technical malfunctions.”

Finally, student reflections also described self-discovery. One student learned that “I am a chemist who truly enjoys working for a purpose that benefits others.” Another discovered a dislike for parts of environmental chemistry: “. . . I have discovered that I do not intend to pursue a career that involves the physical outdoor collection of samples.” A third found satisfaction in the responsibility that the service learning project placed on students, writing, “I liked having the pressure to finish the results on time. I liked having the validity of the results rest on my shoulders, knowing that if I produced flawed results, the SRWC would receive flawed results . . . This pressure for significant results made me excited about the work I was doing.”

The self-reflection has important implications for both the students and the faculty member. It is a metacognitive tool for the students and compels them to connect learning with their service experience. For the faculty member, reviewing the self-reflections serves multiple purposes. As discussed above, the essays reveal the deeper, unplanned student learning. Reading the reflections also reinforces the value of the experience, helping the faculty member realize that the extra work required to organize the service learning project was truly worth the effort. (Using student quotes from the essays in written communication to the community partner can reinforce for them that it was worth the extra effort on their part as well.)

Ultimately, the reflection essays are a great tool for both formative and summative assessment. A qualitative review of the essays quickly exposes what works well and what does not work so well for promoting student learning. By tabulating common themes in the reflections, as done in this study, key learning concepts are highlighted. Higher level assessment of the essays can also be performed using a rubric as recommended by Ash and colleagues (2005).

From a practical standpoint, faculty members in the planning stages should anticipate the deeper learning associated with service learning and decide if/how they want to measure this learning. All projects must include a structured reflection activity, and faculty members can use reflection essays as an assessment tool. The essays should, at a minimum, clarify for faculty members the quality of the learning that comes from service learning experiences.

Observation #4. The discipline matters in the real world.

Service learning by definition aims for relevance. To the participating faculty members and community partners, the relevance is obvious. As one community partner explains, the project provides “opportunities for college students to gain ‘real world’ hands-on experience in the environmental field.” Through this real-world experience, the students become empowered by doing science with a purpose. Their words truly capture the relevance of service learning. One student put it this way: “Doing the field work was a great hands-on experience with something that had a bigger impact to the surrounding community and not the college. This made me feel like I was a part of something big and meaningful . . . It was the first time I used my chemistry background to help people out.” Another was more succinct, pointing out that “I was doing work that actually mattered in the real world.”

Making science relevant through service learning can motivate students (Simmons 2000) and enhance student engagement (McDonald & Dominguez 2005). Connecting course content with science in the real world inspires student learning in a way that traditional laboratory experiments cannot. Regardless of the discipline, making connections to the real world is important. Service learning is an excellent way to engage students in their disciplines and communities.


An evaluation of a successful service learning project on abandoned mine drainage has been achieved using student reflection essays. Four themes have emerged from the students’ voices which should help guide those planning service learning projects. Noteworthy among the themes is a positive dialogue between the students and community partner which gives the students a “sense of pride” and “makes it worthwhile.” Providing a venue for doing science that matters really empowers and motivates the students. The service learning model allows students to engage in a meaningful experience that connects their discipline with real-world issues in the community.


I am grateful to Cliff Denholm of Stream Restoration Inc. and Wilbur Taylor of Jennings Environmental Education Center for helping coordinate the project and for assisting with the site visits. A special thank you goes to all members of the SRWC for making my students feel so good about the work that they did.


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About the Author:

Helen M. Boylan is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA. She incorporates service learning and other experiential learning techniques routinely in her coursework.    Email:     Phone: 724-946-6293

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

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