Transformative Education: Creating a Generation of Environmental Leaders

Donald A. Rodriguez and Pilar Pacheco
California State University Channel Islands, USA


Creating a culture of engagement has been the focus of the Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) Program at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI). Established in 2002, Channel Islands is the newest addition to the CSU system. This article describes a progression of engagement from freshmen through senior year as a strategy for creating an engaged program. Utilizing Furco’s (1996) Service Learning Distinction Model, the ESRM program has worked university staff and community partners to provide meaningful student experiences.


Today’s students need to be well prepared for our increasingly diverse and global society and its complex societal issues. They must be able to develop the skills to work collaboratively across difference and the technical expertise to examine the complex intersection of issues. Critical thinking and problem solving are not simply skills that are gained through practice. Rather they rest on attaining advanced levels of cognitive development (King, 1992). More often than not traditional academic programs have not resulted in moving students to the levels necessary to cope with complex issues and information (King and Kitchener, 1994).

Over the past two decades service learning has become a powerful pedagogy to engaging students in our communities and contributing to the resolution of complex societal issues (Eyler and Giles, 1999). However, a more-recent approach currently gaining momentum is combining service learning with interdisciplinary learning (Connors and Seifer, 2005). As noted by Battistoni and Longo (2005), “one of the most important lessons learned in the service-learning field is that civic engagement across the curriculum offers an interdisciplinary approach to public problem solving by enabling the many resources of higher education to be used to address some of the most pressing issues facing our society.” A growing body of evidence identifies promising and lasting outcomes associated with their integration. Collaborative problem solving and exposure to diverse ways of thinking, for example, contribute to the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills that benefits students’ learning, civic development (Connors and Seifer, 2005), and professional development (Battistoni and Longo, 2005).

Another emerging direction in service learning is departmental engagement. Based on insights gained from the reflective experiences of departments involved in Campus Compact’s Engaged Department Institutes, several key characteristics have emerged that are reliable predictors of successful transition to becoming an engaged department (Battistoni, Gelmon, Saltmarsh, Wergin, Zlotkowski, 2003). Departments must have a cadre of experienced faculty dedicated to community-based education and faculty must have a comfort level with involving community partners in reciprocal relationships. A third characteristic is an institutional commitment and culture of engagement that includes supporting infrastructure such as an office of community engagement to facilitate community based teaching and scholarship. Moreover, support from the department chair is a key indicator of the success of the engaged department efforts (Saltmarsh, Gelmon, 2006).

The Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) discipline at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) exemplifies many of these attributes. The ESRM program is a true interdisciplinary major spanning the life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. Seventy-three percent of the courses taken toward degree are outside the program. This results in a variety of unique interdisciplinary course offerings involving water, international field studies, history, geography, chemistry, communication, biology, and political science.

Since the major is rather diffuse, integrating student effort into a cohesive program of study has been challenging and requires careful structuring to ensure students “get what they came for.” A strategy that we have used effectively in this effort has been the integration of service, in its various forms, throughout each level of the curriculum. Through service integration the ESRM program has extended student learning beyond the classroom and into the community by involving community providers as co-instructors and full partners in the educational experience.

Utilizing a concept advanced by Andrew Furco (1996) that distinguishes an experiential education continuum determined by its primary intended beneficiary and its overall balance between service and learning, the ESRM discipline has created a stepwise progression of service that begins at the freshmen introductory course and continues throughout the students’ tenure in the program (See Figure 1).

Figure 1 

The concept of an experiential education continuum was originally identified by Robert Sigmon (1979) as “reciprocal learning” and has been adapted here to include unique program elements at each level in the curriculum. As one progresses through the curriculum each element is defined by the intended beneficiary of the service activity, its degree of emphasis on service and/or learning, and whether the activity is initiated by the provider (extrinsic motivation), or by the student recipient (intrinsic motivation).

The result of this design is an engaged program with a focus on increasing levels of community-based learning and civic engagement (Erlich, 2000) that enhances a student’s educational and civic development. As noted by Michael Allen (2003):

A good understanding of the democratic principles and institutions embodied in our history, government, and law provide the foundation for civic engagement and commitment, but the classroom alone is not enough. Research shows that students are more likely to have a sense of social responsibility, more likely to commit to addressing community or social problems in their adult lives as workers and citizens, and more likely to demonstrate political efficacy when they engage in structured, conscious reflection on experience in the larger community. To achieve these outcomes, they need structured, real-world experiences that are informed by classroom learning.

Program Description

Currently the ESRM program has adapted the range of Furco’s service typology throughout the curriculum (See Figure 2).

Figure 2

In the freshman introductory course volunteerism is used as a strategy to introduce students to service in the community based on their environmental interests. Students select their volunteer experience by choosing from a list of partnering organizations. Each of the partnering organization’s mission ties to one or more of the chapters in the text. Students are expected to complete 15 hours of service in the environmental community. Students may choose to work with local Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) to monitor water quality in local streams, clean up local beaches, provide K-6 classroom instruction, or to work on local wildlife related projects. Each service experience closely articulates with course content (i.e. water quality, solid waste, or endangered species), and students are given latitude and the responsibility to select the organization, topic, and type of service that is of interest to them. This program element emphasizes the service being provided. The intended beneficiary is the provider. Many programs have come to depend on student involvement to reduce delivery costs i.e., California State Parks “Whale Festival” and trail maintenance efforts with the National Park Service. These opportunities are initiated by the provider through a menu of volunteer opportunities provided to each student through the community partner.

In the sophomore year students are provided more structure and are directed to a range of community service activities in the Resource Management course that builds on their freshmen volunteer experiences and interests. Students are organized into community service activities with the National Park Service (NPS) that directly articulates with the course components. The instructor works with the NPS to design a variety of community experiences that resolve management issues within the park units. Students may work on wildlife monitoring, water quality measurement, and biological assessment projects under the supervision of the NPS. The emphasis at this stage is clearly to articulate directly with course elements. Students gain an appreciation of the importance of the service as it relates to class elements (biological restoration and a clear understanding of threats to biodiversity from invasive species). The benefits of the service to the community partner are understood within the context of the course and the theoretical framework that drives these management decisions enhancing student learning. The service experience is instigated by the course instructor (working closely with the community partner) to insure the intentional nature of the service learning experience.

During the junior year students are engaged with a range of field work projects that reflect individual and group efforts including wildland and coastal restoration, water quality assessment, riparian corridor improvement, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping for a range of community partners including the Coastal Conservancy, National Park Service, the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Forest Service, local water districts, and a range of county and municipal governments. Also the environmental field studies concept is integrated during their junior year (University 392 and ESRM 492), allowing students a level of immersion in national and international settings where community engagement is an integral part of the course (see ESRM program website at: The level of student commitment during the junior year is quite extensive, often requiring from 2-10 days of in-residence instruction. Students may be required to devote an entire weekend to field experience (biological monitoring, inventory, and assessment). Students also participate in extended 10-day field excursions where they are engaged with local communities to accomplish specific projects (post-Katrina wetland restoration in New Orleans Louisiana, coastal mangrove restoration and monitoring in the state of Jalisco, Mexico). Here students consciously select opportunities that are more closely related to career goals and interests. Students, faculty, and community partners are equally engaged to provide meaningful learning opportunities and student specific experiences that are relevant and meaningful. The beneficiary of these experiences is more often the student, often leading to senior capstone topics and ultimately, a preferred career direction.

There are a variety of senior level courses that build on the experiences of the junior year into specific areas of study (water resources, ecological restoration, land use planning, and GIS) that allow the student to develop their focus within the discipline. While these courses add to student professional development and expand their mentor networks, the culminating senior capstone serves to bring the students’ educational experience into sharp focus. These experiences are usually service learning projects that require students to fully engage with a local community partner to address a significant environmental community need/issue. Students shape their capstone projects in combination with faculty and community partner mentors. This capstone experience reflects a complete immersion and often results in a community-based service learning/research project that responds to a specific need of the community partner and/or the community. Essentially the student moves from a model where the program directs the student experiences, to the student taking initiative for the learning experience. While the benefits of the senior capstone experience are often important to community partners (responding to a management problem or concern, conducting research involving a contentious issue, or designing outreach strategies to involve the public), they flow primarily to the student learner. Students are able to apply their academic experience to “real world” situations that are personally relevant, intellectually grounded, and serve a community need.

Underlying the ESRM program of engagement is the community advisory board. This board (selected by program faculty), is made up of community professionals that reflect the diverse nature of environmental science and resource management. Members include local land use planners, park superintendents, environmental consultants, engineers, local government environmental program leaders, and representatives from local community colleges. The board provides counsel to the ESRM program in curriculum decisions and career development. Board members provide a professional mentor network for students, serves as peer reviewers for student research projects, and support program efforts directed at student engagement.

This stepwise progression model allows us to move the service paradigm from “me and I” to “we and they.” Our students’ increasing level of engagement provides built-in exposure to the community. The intimate nature of this growing commitment to service often changes community partners’ perception of students from willing learners and service providers to potential employees. This new program of engagement has served to transform the community perception of the University as a drain on community resources (requiring community professionals to provide guest lectures and tours of their facilities), to a new view of University as engaged community partner and resource.

One of the ancillary benefits from this type of program has been a much clearer career development focus within the discipline. Since the discipline offers students a multitude of career options, immersion in the field and development of one’s expertise is critical to a successful school-to-work transition. Often students have reported that the professional network they have created through their community engagement has been pivotal in securing work in the field once they graduate (currently 80% of the ESRM graduates are employed in the environmental field).


Table 1 below illustrates the outcome and methods of assessment utilized within the program. This assessment structure is embedded in the program design and the data serves to evaluate the programmatic impact on student’s academic performance and civic behaviors.

Student outcomes are measured using various methods. Reflection activities, surveys, project development and poster sessions all allow stakeholders to reflect on what has happened, is happening, and will happen. Following is an outline of the assessment methods and their usefulness to the ESRM program.

Reflection and critical thinking exercises are used throughout the semester, providing an opportunity for students to think broadly about service experiences, examine and challenge personal values, beliefs, and opinions. It provides a platform for students to ask questions, share ideas and experiences, challenge current solutions to community issues and develop plans to address community needs. In turn, reflection provides faculty the means to assess the experiential learning that occurs outside the classroom.

A student service learning survey is administered at the end of each semester providing summative data. The survey is designed to measure general attitudes and perceptions of student’s community experiences. Specific to this outcome students are asked on the survey, “As a result of my service learning experience, I have a clearer idea of my educational/career goals.” This data provides student information and information on the program’s utility.

Table 1

Student Outcomes Assessment Method
1). Students will become increasingly knowledgeable about environmental issues and engaged in local, national, and international communities.
Students complete ongoing classroom reflection and critical thinking exercises throughout the service experience. (For a complete description of CSUCI reflection techniques and exercises see the center’s website at):
2). Students will engage in a high level of community involvement where the goals include leadership roles in designing, initiating, implementing, and assessing environmental community based projects. Professional peer mentors work with students and program faculty to design meaningful learning experiences (i.e. identify and analyze the community problem, be trained and oriented by professional peer mentor and select and plan the project), and provide faculty with assessment and unique perspective on student performance.
3). Students will move from a program directed model to the student taking initiative for the learning experience. Professional mentors attend student poster sessions and act as outside reviewers for student assessment. Rubrics are used to evaluate level of student performance
4). Students will have a clearer career focus within the discipline. Student Service Learning Survey is administered at the end of each semester. Specific to this outcome students are asked, “As a result of my service learning experience, I have a clearer idea of my educational/career goals.”
5). Students will find a professional network through the ESRM program, allowing them to secure work in the field once they have graduated. Outcomes assessment survey administered to program graduates at 3 year intervals to identify valuable program elements, and curricula strengths and weaknesses.


Building trust with community partners and forging active working relationships takes time and requires effort that is both deliberate and transparent. While many community partners see the university as an equal partner and are willing to consider the idea of creating a unique university-community learning cooperative, there are potential partners that are unwilling to invest the time, resources, and energy needed to create new learning communities. Breaking barriers to community involvement has proven to be one of the most challenging elements in creating an engaged program. The creation of the community advisory board for the ESRM program has helped create mutual respect and trust between our community partners and the institution.

A second major challenge for the program has been in the area of assessment. Since CSUCI is a very young institution (est. 2002), we have yet to institutionalize many of the planned assessment practices that will be integral to program evaluation and success over the long term. Creating feedback loops that allow service providers to critically review student contributions and commitment to community service will be a critical element moving forward. The ESRM program will work closely with the Center for Community Engagement to develop on-line assessment instruments for various community projects. Again, the ESRM community advisory board will provide valuable input into the content of the instrument to insure constructive feedback. Student feedback regarding the value of an engaged education will also be an important assessment element. The ESRM program is currently working to develop an outcomes assessment for all graduates that will ask them to reflect on their service experiences from freshmen through senior year to determine overall impact. While students have provided considerable anecdotal evidence that supports the value of engagement (see ESRM program website for student profiles at, a more robust analysis is needed. Lastly, finding sufficient internal resources to support student engagement has been an on-going challenge. Often, agencies and community partners are eager to work collaboratively with the University but lack sufficient manpower, programmatic development, and economic resources to facilitate meaningful student experiences. In these instances the ESRM program has worked closely with the Office of Community Engagement, University Development, and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to find external funding opportunities to support engagement efforts. One recent example involves the National Park Service and the ESRM program co-authoring a Park Service Challenge Cost Share Grant to facilitate a restoration project in Channel Islands National Park. The grant pays for transportation to the islands, staff time to coordinate the project, and logistical support for students in the field. Given the current condition of state budgets, these types of collaborations will continue to be critical to insure the future of meaningful student engagement.


Utilizing Furco’s model of service as a continuum for experiential education has allowed the ESRM program to build an engaged program. This cohesive infrastructure allows the major to develop a learning environment that builds upon itself, become incrementally more student focused, create an environment conducive to learning and growth, and give students the skills to be leaders in promoting and managing their own educational and civic growth within the program and the environmental community.


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 About the Authors:

Active in community based research and service learning for over a decade, Dr. Donald Rodriguez was drawn to the newest California State University campus (opening in 2002) since its mission statement includes service learning and civic engagement. Don is an Associate Professor and Program Chair of the Environmental Science and Resource Management Program at CSUCI.   Email:

Pilar Pacheco is the Assistant Director for the Center for Community Engagement at California State University Channel Islands. In her position with the Center, Pilar has been charged with providing administrative and programmatic oversight to foster the growth and strategic development of academic service learning.

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.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.