Research Summary

Student Outcomes of Eco-Restoration Service-Learning Experiences in Urban Woodlands

Lasting Impacts of Urban Woodland Restoration on College Students

Journal of Experiential Education

Community environmental restoration, or eco-restoration, projects have the potential to lead to positive environmental impacts and affect student learning. Such projects can supplement in-class learning and, in the process, enhance students’ academic outcomes, teamwork skills, personal development, civic engagement, and pro-environmental behaviors. However, past research has not addressed how long those outcomes last, especially for projects that take place in urban green spaces. Concurrently, urban restoration projects are becoming increasingly relevant, as 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This study worked to address that gap by focusing on the long-term impacts of an urban woodland eco-restoration service-learning project for college students.

In this study, researchers worked with 12 college students who were part of a service-learning project with the Bloomington Urban Woodlands Project (BUWP) in Indiana. Researchers recruited potential participants by sending email invitations via the course web forum of three biology classes. The authors studied the BUWP urban restoration project as it included two primary activities: first, it included direct service , such as removing invasive species and planting native species. Second, it included project-based service , such as designing interpretive signage for the park. The researchers conducted telephone interviews with the students 4 to 14 months after they completed their service-learning projects. The interviews, which were between 13 and 27 minutes in length, addressed the students’ woodland experiences, service-learning accomplishments, classmate interactions, opinions on invasive species and native restoration, and changes in environmental awareness.

To analyze the results, the researchers categorized terms and phrases into themes; then the researchers verified that those themes matched with the speakers’ intent. The authors found six primary themes. First, students mentioned specific classroom content; nine students also emphasized the ways in which place-based education added to their learning. Second, students felt satisfied that the project provided a real-world impact. Third, students felt an increased appreciation for, awareness of, and sense of ownership of urban green spaces. Fourth, students expressed a desire to continue volunteering, spread awareness about the woodland, or join the email list. Fifth, students described the importance of teamwork. Sixth, students emphasized the importance of student and adult leaders in driving the project forward.

Overall, the study’s results demonstrated that the college students experienced lasting cognitive (knowledge related) and affective (emotionally related) outcomes from participating in this eco-restoration service-learning activity, including retention of course content, as well as appreciation and stewardship of local urban woodlands. The researchers concluded that, similar to more traditional rural outdoor learning programs, urban eco-restoration projects can be effective in achieving sustained learning and pro-environmental outcomes. This study also suggests that college-aged students, not just younger audiences, are receptive to service and eco-restoration learning outcomes.

The Bottom Line

Environmental restoration programs can offer students in urban settings an opportunity to experience hands-on environmental education in their local environment. Such programs can provide a range of short- and long-term benefits, which include, but are not limited to, retention of course-related content; greater appreciation, awareness, and sense of ownership of local urban green spaces; deeper understanding of environmental topics; enhanced teamwork skills; and a sense of empowerment for undertaking environmental actions. To develop effective programs, educators should ensure students know about local environmental history, create leadership and teamwork opportunities, and suggest ways for participants to continue the work after the program.