Service Learning in Introductory Astronomy and Physics

Michael P. Orleski, Ph.D. – Misericordia University, Dallas, PA

Service Learning is an instructional technique where students enrolled in a course use the course’s content in a community service project. The students write a reflection piece after each service activity to analyze how they used the course material when performing the service activity. The analysis done in the reflection piece(s) is a key part of the process. Performing the service and creating the reflection piece(s) are incorporated into each student’s grade for the course.

Service Learning at Misericordia University
The Sisters of Mercy founded Misericordia University in 1924. Service is one of its four guiding principles, called charisms. To help support this mission, Misericordia has a support system for faculty who want to incorporate Service Learning into a course. The Service Learning office will assist in finding and contacting an organization to schedule a service project and can also help to design the service project if the faculty member does not already have a service plan in mind. To aid faculty in designing their Service Learning project, Misericordia has a faculty guide2 that is available on the university website.

Misericordia has a minimum of ten hours, in addition to the reflection, that students must fulfill in the course of the project. The students need to keep a log of the time spent since the project may encompass several weeks or months. Any work supporting the service project may be counted in the total hours with the exception of travel time. Travel is often necessary because the project must serve a group outside the university community. The Service Learning office prefers to have the entire class involved in the service project as opposed to something more akin to an extra credit project where the students decide whether or not to participate.

At the conclusion of the course the students fill out two surveys from the Service Learning Office. The surveys gauge the students’ opinions on how successful the service and the course were as well as their attitudes regarding performing service to the public in the future. At the end of the semester the students receive a certificate stating the number of hours they spent over the course of the service project. They also receive a service leadership transcript detailing all of their service learning work when they graduate from the university.

Service Learning in Introductory Astronomy
The author has incorporated Service Learning into an introductory Astronomy course. The students have hosted observation sessions for local elementary schools. The attendees get to observe the Moon near to first quarter and whichever bright planets are visible. They also have the prominent constellations indicated in the sky with a green laser pointer. The astronomy students are required to research their assigned celestial object(s) so the students can talk to the viewing audience as they rotate to each viewing station. The observations have been held on Misericordia’s campus so the audience consists of the elementary students, their parents and siblings and their teachers. The Astronomy students must be prepared to speak appropriately to the different age groups in the audience. For example when speaking to a younger audience the astronomy students must describe their target using simpler language, as compared to older audience members who can understand more complex descriptions. All members of the audience, regardless of age, are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the observation.

International Observe the Moon Night3 presents an opportunity to host an observing session with only one observed object. The students have only the Moon to research in preparation for the event. Depending upon the scheduling of IOMN, to date near the first quarter moon in September or October, this may be the first observation of the semester. The crater activity described below also fits well with a Moon-themed event.

Since Service Learning has a minimum time commitment from the students of ten hours and the success of observations depends on good weather, alternative activities must be prepared. The students prepared presentations explaining the Zodiac constellations and the planets as an alternate activity. They also prepared an activity4 that illustrates how impact craters form. The activity starts with a pan containing layers of flour, cocoa, and other colored powders. Participants then drop or toss various sized objects into the powders in the pan, creating craters complete with ejected material. Characteristics of the craters such as depth and how wide the ejected material is spread can be observed and discussed. The colored powders serve as an indication of how deep into the layers of powder the impacting object penetrated. Varying the shape of the impacting object and its entry angle can change the shape of the crater.

Presentations created for the general public are another possibility. For example, the Chemistry Club hosts an annual Halloween show for the public. Some of the astronomy students created a shorter presentation on the Zodiac constellations that they presented before the Chemistry event.

Service Learning in Introductory Physics
Lynn Aldrich, Ed.D.5 has incorporated Service Learning into algebra-based introductory physics courses. The primary organization is Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for underprivileged families. Students work with the organization for one day. For the reflection activity the students explain, at an appropriate level, the physics they used in the work they performed. Another organization that is utilized is Rails to Trails. This group converts unused rail lines into walking and biking trails and maintains those trails. Again the students perform some type of physical work and explain the physics involved in that work. Most students will spend about seven hours with Habitat for Humanity and three hours with Rails to Trails to make up their ten hour requirement. Additional options include working with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) doing gardening or working with the local Council on Economic Opportunity (CEO) packing Thanksgiving boxes for the less fortunate. Since the students must be able to write about the physics they used in the work they performed, they must perform some form of manual work. The students are required to write two to three pages of analysis for each service activity. Occupational Therapy students form a large portion of the students in this course, so Dr. Aldrich tries to have the students focus on the different types of levers they used during their work in at least one of the reflection pieces. Levers are a key concept those students must understand for their chosen career.

Service to the community is a founding principle of Misericordia University. To support that mission, the University embraces Service Learning. Service Learning puts course content to use in service projects for the general public. Students then analyze the experience via reflection activities. The Physics Department has incorporated Service Learning into an introductory physics course and an introductory astronomy course. The physics students engage in manual work with a number of organizations and reflect on their use of physics in written reflection pieces. The astronomy students host astronomy observation sessions for local school students. For their reflection activity, they write about how teaching others about astronomy has affected their own learning in the course.


  1. Richard J. Kraft, “Service Learning: An Introduction to Its Theory, Practice, and Effects,” Education and Urban Society, 28, 2, 131-159 (February 1996).
  2. Misericordia University Service-Learning Faculty Guide, Dallas, PA
  3. International Observe the Moon Night.
  4. Ronald Greeley, “Cosmic Collisions,” The Universe in the Classroom, 23, (Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1993).
  5. Lynn Aldrich, Private Communication.

Additional General Service Learning Resources

Janet Eyler, Dwight E. Giles, Jr., and John Braxton, “The Impact of Service-Learning on College Students,” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 4, 5-15 (Fall 1997).

Robert G. Bringle and Julie A. Hatcher, “Implementing Service Learning in Higher Education,” The Journal of Higher Education, 67, 2, 221-239 (March-April 1996).

Robert G. Bringle and Julie A. Hatcher, “Resources on Service-Learning and Faculty,” Journal of Community Service Learning.

Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Where’s the Learning in Service Learning? Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series, (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1999).

Disclaimer–The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.