Geoscience policy and civic engagement through undergraduate service-learning

David Szymanski
Bentley University
Dave Szymanski, Bentley University
Author Profile
published Apr 6, 2017 5:00pm
Strengthening the role of the geosciences in policy development is challenging work. It's often time consuming, resource sapping, and generally frustrating for earth scientists to advocate for science policy, especially at the federal level. And even then, we can't do it alone. We need our undergraduates - majors and nonmajors alike - to see the value of science in public decision making. Working with professional geoscience organizations as community partners in service-learning, students can learn to communicate the critical need for geoscience in policymaking. In the process, students become de facto advocates for data-driven policy and not just advocates for science funding, which can often be the simplistic message heard by nonscientists.

Over the last seven years, I've developed and taught a course at Bentley University called Science in Environmental Policy. The course focuses on how basic science concepts, politics and economics are balanced in federal policymaking on energy and the environment. Bentley is one of only a few U.S. universities with a primary focus on business education. While 90 to 95% of Bentley undergraduates major in a business field, the curriculum is integrated with a liberal arts and sciences core and experiential opportunities through undergraduate research and a nationally recognized service-learning center.

In the course, a subset of students have the opportunity to earn an additional course credit by performing primary policy-related research for a non-profit organization in the Washington, D.C area involved in geoscience policy. At the end of the semester, students travel with me to Capitol Hill to present their work and make policy recommendations to lawmakers. During each course offering, I accept 4-8 students to work as consultants for the non-profit partner, routinely working 40+ hours each on a project throughout the semester (in addition to the trip to DC). After initial meetings with the partner to define the research question, the students typically undergo training in qualitative research methods, including interviewing skills, survey design, human subjects, and institutional review, etc.

In 2010, 2012, and 2013 we partnered with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), and more recently, in 2015 and 2016, with the American Geosciences Institute (AGI). The goal of each project is to answer a question for the partner that helps them advocate for the use of science in policymaking. After conducting the research, the group travels with to Washington, DC, where they present the results to the partner organization. The students then devise a "message" and "ask" to take to meetings in the Senate and House of Representatives.
The results of the research and the visits to Capitol Hill have been highly impactful – for the students, the non-profit partners, and the actions they have spurred.

For example, based on their research, the 2010 group of students convinced a group of U.S. senators to send letters to the EPA and the Small Business Administration, asking them to better coordinate their efforts in promoting energy efficiency incentives on behalf of small business owners.

In 2015, the group researched technical and conceptual barriers for policymakers in accessing geoscience information for AGI's evolving Critical Issues Program. While AGI was thrilled with the utility of the research, the students also made a remarkable impact on Capitol Hill. While the group was in DC, among other policymakers, the group met with Congresswoman Katherine Clark (MA-5), to discuss the long-term economic benefits of U.S. investment in geoscience research. Rep. Clark was so impressed with the students' work that she cited their argument in floor speech in the House of Representatives during debate on reauthorization of the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science) Act. (Video of the floor speech can be found here:

The projects have lead to media coverage as well as publications and presentations, including several with students and/or non-profit collaborators as co-authors (e.g. Szymanski et al., 2015; Markow et al., 2011). This further reinforces the value of civic engagement for students, regardless of where their majors and careers take them. That's the kind of amplification we need.

Pedagogical aspects of two of the projects have been described in articles published in CUR Quarterly (Bouldin et al., 2015; Szymanski et al., 2012) and at a recent National Academies Workshop (NAS, 2017).


Bouldin, R.M., Hall, G.J., Oches, E.A., Szymanski, D.W., and Ledley, F.D., 2015, Connecting business and STEM education through undergraduate research, Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) Quarterly, 35: 17-23.

Markow, W.*, Adams, V.*, Bucci, G.*, Green, D.*, and Szymanski, D.W., 2011, Closing the Energy Efficiency Information Gap for Small Businesses, The Sustainability Review, vol. 3, no. 2, May 23, 2011.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017, Service-Learning in Undergraduate Geosciences: Proceedings of a Workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/24621.

Szymanski, D.W., Boland, M.A., Gonzales, L.M., and Wood, C., 2015, Teaching non-majors to communicate the importance of geoscience for policymaking through service-learning and civic engagement, Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, Vol. 47, No. 7.

Szymanski, D. W., Hadlock, C. R., Zlotkowski, E. A., 2012, Using Public Sector Research Projects to Engage Undergraduates, Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) Quarterly, 33: 19-26.

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