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special feature

Service-Learning Through Citizen Science in a COVID-Adapted Classroom

Journal of College Science Teaching—November/December 2022 (Volume 52, Issue 2)

By Joanna J. Cielocha

Classrooms were turned upside down amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, which began approximately halfway through the spring 2020 semester. A service-learning project was implemented in my section of a general biology course for majors. With the shutdown of academic institutions and other businesses or government agencies, service was not achievable. Instead, students were offered the opportunity to complete service through citizen science using Zooniverse ( Given that the pandemic extended into the 2020–21 academic year, course content and delivery continued to be adjusted. Service-learning was fully adapted to citizen science for spring 2021. Students surpassed the service requirement, with more than half of the class performing at least 100 entries more than the 200-entry requirement. Students reflected on their service and tended to move from a state of apprehension to a state of appreciation by the end of their service. Service through citizen science offers increased flexibility for diverse student learners.


Service-learning is a high impact practice employed in academic classrooms to enhance or support student learning outcomes. Service-learning can positively affect academic performance, leadership skills, activism, and civic identity (Astin et al., 2000; Brail, 2016; Brubaker & Ostroff, 2000; Hemer & Reason, 2017; Leege & Cawthorn, 2008; Markus et al., 1993; Morgan & Streb, 2001; Packer, 2009; Stokamer & Clayton, 2017; Warren, 2012). Service-learning can also help prepare students (Haines, 2003) or influence students’ choices (Astin et al., 2000) of service-related careers. The purpose of service-learning should be to meet a community need directly related to course concepts while solidifying those concepts and increasing civic engagement (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996). Many service-learning projects have been successfully implemented in biology courses (e.g., Abu-Shakra & Nyein, 2000; Bernot et al., 2017; Brown & McReynolds, 2000; Brown, 2000; Collins & Donahue, 2019; Kennell, 2000; Kinnes, 2000; Lortz, 2000; Northcutt, 2016; Prentiss, 2000; Raflo, 2000; Robertson, 2000; Salem, 2012; Simmons, 2000; Tucker & Moran, 2018; Webb, 2016) or biology departments (Marx et al., 2021; Segarra et al., 2015).

I developed and implemented a service-learning project for an introductory biology course for majors in fall 2017. The project had been implemented in my section of this course through spring 2020. In March 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, most institutions of higher education closed campuses, and faculty were forced to pivot to fully online delivery of course materials for the remainder of the semester. In this abrupt about-face, in-person–based classroom requirements had to be adapted so faculty could continue to deliver engaging material and fulfill student learning objectives laid out at the beginning of the semester. This adaptation was necessary to ensure fairness and student success in the classroom. The service-learning component of this course shifted to citizen science using Zooniverse ( As the pandemic and teaching and classroom restrictions persisted through the 2020–21 academic year, this service-learning–turned–citizen science approach was further optimized and implemented for a semester-long project in the same course in spring 2021.

Course design

Spring 2020: Original service-learning design (prepandemic)

A service-learning component was implemented into the course General Biology II, a first-year majors’ course for students pursuing a bachelor of science degree in biology at Rockhurst University (RU). The course covers four units with the following topics: (i) ecology, (ii) evolution, (ii) plant and fungi diversity, and (iv) animal diversity. The service-learning requirement was worth 100 points out of an 800-point course total (12.5%). A service-learning syllabus was provided to students during the first week of class in January 2020. Our community partnership was with the Missouri Department of Conservation Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center (DC), which is located approximately 0.75 miles directly north of the RU campus. The DC is an educational facility with both indoor and outdoor resources focused on conservation of natural habitats and organisms in Missouri. Educational conservation programming is offered to the general public and elementary students throughout the year, serving thousands across the Kansas City, Missouri, metropolitan area. An example of a school-age educational program is Acorn to Oak, which is tailored to students in kindergarten through second grade and focuses on the life cycle of a tree. Students learn about Missouri’s native trees and their habitats. This program fits into the General Biology II curriculum units 1 (ecology) and 3 (plant and fungi diversity). RU students might help guide elementary students on a nature walk or through a hands-on creative activity and assist the educational specialists delivering the program. General public events might focus on native plants, pollinators, or urban environments, which could be applicable to all four units.

The service-learning project is designed to reinforce three of the five RU Biology Department student learning objectives: (i) describe unifying tenets and concepts of biology, (ii) articulate scientific information both orally and in writing, and (iii) work and communicate effectively as part of a team in a laboratory or field setting. The overall service-learning objective for this class is for students to learn how to effectively communicate biology with others. While scheduling, engaging in, reflecting on, and discussing their service, students work toward achieving all three departmental objectives and the course-based service objective.

Requirements for the service project include the completion of 5 service hours during two of four units. In each unit service is completed, students are also expected to complete an exit ticket (Figure 1) and reflection (Table 1). Students could participate in classroom service discussions in any two of the four units. All students completed an end-of-semester reflection (Table 2). An orientation was offered at the beginning of the semester, and while it was required, some students (n = 20 of 48) were unable to attend because it interfered with other courses. There was no penalty if they could not attend orientation. All students were encouraged to ask questions about what to expect, where to go, and how to schedule their service hours numerous times during the semester. I created a shared calendar populated with possible service opportunities and shared it with the class. Students were offered the option to complete two additional hours of service and a third reflection for 5 bonus points.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Exit ticket used for in-person service-learning.

Exit ticket used for in-person service-learning.

Table 1. End-of-semester reflection questions.



1. Where did you participate in service?


2. What service opportunity/program did you participate in?


3. What was your comfort level about the service before, during, and after? Elaborate on your general attitude about service at each of these stages, such as if you were nervous or excited. Include how you perceived the students (rambunctious, attentive, etc.) during each of these time periods.


4. How did you interact with the students/the public during this service, and what kind of role did you take? 


5. How did you interact with the staff supervising this service? 


6. Discuss at least two (2) topics covered during your service that relate to [select current unit: ecology/evolution/plants and fungi/animals]. Use appropriate terminology. Reference the text when appropriate. 


Note. Unit reflection questions asked students to make connections between their service and the current unit topics. Full credit was awarded if answers were answered in entirety.

Table 2. Number of student participants and entries for each Zooniverse project in spring 2021.



1. Discuss your overall impression of using service to supplement your learning. How did you feel at the beginning of the semester, throughout your service, and after completing your service?


2. Which service opportunities did you most enjoy, and which ones did you least enjoy? Why? 


3. What was the biggest challenge for you during this service? What was the most rewarding aspect of this service? 


4. Discuss how service supplemented your learning in BL 1300. Make direct connections to the service and the course material. You can discuss the single most important connection or one connection from the different units. Your response must be well reasoned and logical and use appropriate terminology to fully explain connections between service and course content.


Note. These questions asked students to think about their personal experience throughout the semester. Responses were expected to be more detailed than unit reflections. Full credit was awarded if questions were answered in their entirety.

Spring 2020: Service-learning during COVID-19 shutdown

At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, several students had already completed at least some service hours, which made it necessary to find an alternative for service once the pandemic forced students to return home (across multiple time zones), campus to close, and our community partner to shut down. Three scenarios were proposed to students: (i) opt out of any service requirement, (ii) opt out of additional service beyond what they had already completed, and (iii) complete service through citizen science. Students who chose the third option were to keep track of the time they spent on Zooniverse to meet the 5-hour requirement. These students were then asked to submit responses via Canvas in the form of an exit ticket (Figure 1) and discussion board, as well as complete the reflection (Table 1) for the unit, which asked the students additional questions about the number of Zooniverse entries made and the estimated number of hours of work.

Spring 2021: Service-learning adapted for a classroom during COVID-19

For 2020–21, RU professors were able to choose from different course modalities, including fully online, fully in person, or a variety of hybrid options. I selected a hybrid approach for course delivery due to the reduced capacity of the classroom to ensure adequate spacing of students. This approach prevented all students enrolled in my section of General Biology II from being present simultaneously. Half of the class attended in person on Mondays, half attended in person on Wednesdays, and a sign-up sheet was available for those who wanted to attend in person on Fridays. Students not attending in person were expected to attend class at the scheduled time virtually using Zoom. The original service option was unavailable because our community partner remained shut down. Thus, the adaptation of service as citizen science was implemented in spring 2021.

The overall citizen science design was similar to the original service-learning project. Students were required to participate in citizen science in two of four units. They had to complete two exit tickets and two reflections and participate in two discussions. A final reflection was required at the end of the semester. Some modifications were made from spring 2020. Students were expected to make a set number of entries rather than record their time making Zooniverse entries. To account for the student learning curve using Zooniverse, students earned 1 hour of the required 5 hours of service by watching a few instructional videos on Zooniverse and browsing, trying, and selecting possible projects for each unit. Once a student selected a project, 50 entries were considered as equivalent to approximately 1 hour of service, for a total of 200 entries or 4 hours of service; coupled with the 1 hour of training, this resulted in 5 total hours of service. Students were offered the opportunity to complete 100 additional entries (e.g., 2 hours of service) for 5 extra credit points.


Spring 2020

Forty-eight students were enrolled in my section of this course. The course goal was to complete 240 service hours (e.g., 5 hours of service per student). Ten students opted out of service. Twenty-four students (50%) had completed some or all of their service hours (n = 4, 5+ hours; n = 7, 3.5–4.5 hours; n = 13, 2–3 hours), for a total of 81.75 service hours (34% of class goal) prior to March 2020. Of the 24 students who had completed service at the DC prior to the pandemic shutdown, 11 opted not to perform any additional service. Two of these eleven had already fulfilled the 5-hour service requirement, but the remaining 9 students had not. Twenty-six students chose to complete service through citizen science, so service was completed either entirely through Zooniverse (n = 13) or a combination of Zooniverse and the DC (n = 13). Of the 13 students who did service through both the DC and Zooniverse, 9 reached the 7-hour mark to receive extra credit. Of the 13 students who completed service only on Zooniverse, 7 completed the 5-hour requirement and 5 completed the 7-hour extra credit option. One student submitted service hours for volunteering at a local school handing out lunches.

Spring 2021

Forty-one students were enrolled in my section of this course. The course goal was to complete 8,200 entries (i.e., 200 entries per student). One student did not participate in the project. In total, nearly 12,000 total entries were recorded for 43 different projects on Zooniverse (Table 3). Five projects each garnered more than 1,100 student entries: Floating Forests (2,125 entries;, PollinatorWatch (1,627 entries;, Project Plumage (1,296 entries;, NestCams (1,223 entries;, and OceanEYEs (1,107 entries; More than half the class (22 of 40; 55.0%) reached or exceeded 300 entries, thus earning extra credit. Five of these students exceeded that mark by more than 100 entries, ranging from 427–638 total entries. Seventeen students (42.5%) completed 200–284 entries. One student who reported participating in service did not reach the benchmark of 200 entries.


Service-learning was modified in response to the immediate halt to in-person activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic in an introductory biology course for majors at a small private Catholic university in spring 2020. The project was optimized for a pandemic-restricted in-person classroom in spring 2021. The modification of service included adapting in-person, community-based service to online citizen science aiding a variety of global research projects.

Students can gain greater understanding and appreciation of science by engaging in service-learning projects embedded throughout their course curriculum. However, many students initially express apprehension about completing the service in their final reflection.

Spring 2020: Student perspective

Students who performed service fully in person, fully online, or as a combination of in-person and online activities were asked to respond to a series of prompts to reflect on the entire service-learning experience. Student responses on the final reflection were similar no matter how they performed service. In response to Question 1 on the final reflection (Table 2), student responses about their initial perspective on service included statements such as “forced,” “busywork,” “nervous,” “unsure,” or “required rather than applicable.” Many students expressed contrary statements after completing service, such as “benefitted my learning,” “glad to have participated,” “opened my eyes to many connections,” or “enlightened.” Longer excerpts can provide greater context:

  • One student who reflected on their own personal development wrote, “I tried to only get biology knowledge out of it, and that was wrong. I should have been looking at it more as a chance to grow as a person, and the supplemental learning would then follow.”
  • Another student made connections to how classroom material is relevant to the real world by saying, “Sometimes throughout my education, I feel like what I learned can never be applied outside of school. I like that I was able to connect things from class to somewhere outside of school.”
  • Given the bizarre situation the COVID-19 pandemic put us all in, this student said, “[C]itizen science was a welcome alternative given what is currently going on. I actually found that a really nice thing to do when I had free time (which I think we all have a lot of these days). Overall, I ended up really appreciating the opportunity of service to aid with our learning experience.”
  • Finally, given that many students start with apprehension or hesitancy about the service-learning requirement, this student provided great introspection by realizing the meaning of an age-old saying: “My number one piece of advice for students who are going to take this class in the future is to not judge a book by its cover when you hear the word service-learning. I did that and came in closed minded, but it was 100% worth completing classifications on the [Z]ooniverse.”
  • Students did report on the final reflection that they made course connections. Question 4 in the final reflection (Table 2) garnered the following responses:
  • One student said: “[O]n my laptop, I found a cool project that asked others for help in classifying marine animals. For the animal unit, I had just finished learning all the main characteristics of the first animals. The sponges (Porifera), Corals (Cnidaria), and starfishes (Echinodermata) were very prevalent in this activity. Since I know the prominent characteristics of each phylum, they were easy to classify. What I wanna point out is that if it weren’t for the lectures over these topics I would have overlooked the simplicity of the activity. The lecture in hand with the service certainly enriches one’s learning experience and helps build a higher insight into things we do every day.”
  • Another student reported: “Service helped me to deepen my understanding of what exactly was being taught in lecture. I am a very hand[s]-on learner, so being able to complete these projects on my own time and at my own pace helped me immensely. I am going to talk about one connection I made in the Cleveland Wildlife Watch project. The reason why I am focusing only on this one is because I learned a lot about myself during it and I had a total ‘come to Jesus’ moment. During the animal diversity lecture, you were teaching us about all the different phylums [sic] and their characteristics. I guess I had not heard you when you were talking about the Chordata phylum. I had written down the characteristics about it, but I honestly did not know what species it contained. This is where I learned something about myself. I did not look up what it meant. I just went about my day. It was not until I completed my last hour on the project that I decided to look up what phylum [these] animals were placed under. Then it all fell into place. I know that sounds silly, but if it weren’t for this service, I probably would have never looked it up and then probably get it wrong on the test.”

Spring 2020: Faculty perspective

Student responses were rewarding to read and offered genuine perspectives on the student experience during a global pandemic. People around the globe were struggling to maintain some structure or normalcy in their daily lives; thus, the option to continue service in the form of citizen science seemed appreciated by those who selected this option. Many others experienced high levels of stress and detachment during the early stages of the pandemic and additional work was too much to handle. Letting students opt out of service entirely or not complete additional service seemed to be a feasible and fair option. This approach did make grading challenging; having 48 students who had the option to do no, some, or all service requirements resulted in seven unique denominators ranging from 700 to 800 possible points. Students who performed service provided insightful feedback and introspection, prompting modifications from the service-learning to a citizen science project implemented the following spring.

All students were asked to respond to the same set of questions on the end-of-semester reflection (Table 2). Students expressed similar feelings to previous classes when asked how they felt initially versus after completing citizen science. Student responses to Question 1 on the final reflection (Table 2) describing their initial feelings again included words expressing apprehension, such as “confused,” “boring,” “waste of time,” “dread,” or “nervous.” Similarly, some of those same students described the conclusion of their service as “accomplished,” “wish I could do more,” “part of something really cool,” and “part of something bigger.”

One student explains the transition from a state of resistance to a state of appreciation: “At the beginning of the semester, I was honestly just confused as to what citizen science was. I have never done anything like it in any other classes or outside of school, so I was just unsure of what to expect. Once I understood the purpose of citizen science, I appreciated the assignment a lot more. It was cool being able to participate in something that was going to be used in a real-life study. In most of the labs I have participated in, all the experiments were for learning purposes strictly and did not have a positive impact on anything outside the classroom. I felt like this was a way to take what we are learning in the class and use it for something beneficial to people other than ourselves.”

Student responses to Question 3 on the final reflection (Table 2) regarding the challenges of citizen science included finding time, getting started, finding an appropriate project, or having a learning curve to understand what was needed for a project. Regarding the most rewarding aspect, students were thrilled by seeing a project reach completion, learning about different scientists and projects around the world, and being part of research.

Spring 2021: Faculty perspective

All components of the citizen science project were performed online and submitted through Canvas except for the in-class discussion. The absence of paper exit tickets (Figure 1) prevented faculty-student interactions as students handed them in. If I left comments on exit tickets or reflections on Canvas, students rarely (if ever) responded to those comments, preventing that dialogue from occurring. Students often turned in all service requirements simultaneously the night before in-person discussion, even if they may have performed the activities days before the discussion, leaving little time for self-reflection. However, in-class discussions were vibrant and engaging. Students built off others’ contributions, especially if they had worked on the same project.

Technologically, discussion was difficult. With half the class on Zoom and half participating in person, I navigated the classroom and held the microphone so in-person students could share and Zoom students could hear the discussion, and vice versa. Although the interactions were rich, they were lopsided, as I would have all in-person students share and then switch to all Zoom students sharing. I imagine the discussions would be enjoyable, robust, and more interactive in a traditional classroom scenario. Students always drew connections between their service and some topic discussed in class. It was most exciting to hear from students when they had taken it upon themselves to read more about the project and better understand how their work was advancing scientific discoveries.

Additionally, several students commented on how they felt about making real and meaningful contributions to advance scientific research, as they had not realized that their work would contribute to the advancement of science around the world. This was especially evident when students were working on projects that reached 100% completion and ran out of additional classifications for students to work on, such as Project Plumage, PollinatorWatch, and NestCams. Finally, on the date of the final exam, I gave students a round of applause for exceeding my expectations. Some of the highlights were shared on a slide so they could see their achievements (Figure 2), which garnered a round of much-deserved applause by the students for themselves. Luckily, all students were able to take the final exam simultaneously in a large auditorium, which allowed us all to be together after a semester when the class was divided into two sections.

Table 3. Number of student participants and entries for each Zooniverse project in spring 2021.

Zooniverse project title

Number of student participants

Total student entries

Penguin Watch



UK Tides



Nest Quest Go: American Kestrels



Nest Quest Go: Chickadee-dee



Notes from Nature - Capturing California’s Flowers



Fossil Atmospheres



Plankton Portal



Notes from Nature - Expedition Artic Botany



Sedimental Values, Digging in to La Brea’s Past



Star Notes






Focus on Wildlife - Cleveland Metroparks



Planet Four






Invader ID



Notes from Nature - Southeastern US Biodiversity



Nest Quest Go: Robins



Dolphin chat



Nest Quest Go: Mountain Bluebirds



Notes from Nature - Plants of Arkansas



The Koster Seafloor Observatory



Wild Mond-Blanc



Beluga Bits



Notes from Nature - Terrestrial Parasite Tracker



Cradle of Humanity



Notes from Nature - Herbarium



Manatee chat



Notes from Nature - WeDigFLPlants



The Arctic Bears Project



Notes from Nature - MI-Bug



Galaxy Zoo



Notes from Nature - Flora of Texas and Oklahoma



Whale chat



Monkey Health Explorer



Notes from Nature - Invertebrate Time Machine



Cedar Creek: Eyes on the Wild



Iberian Camera Trap Project



Nest Quest Go: European Starlings and House Sparrows









Project Plumage






Floating Forests





Figure 2
 Figure 2 Spring 2021 celebration of student accomplishments shared on the day of the final exam.

Spring 2021 celebration of student accomplishments shared on the day of the final exam.

Several students provided feedback that they would have rather performed service in person. However, optionality provides potential to expand students’ horizons on how, when, and where service can be provided. One major benefit of offering citizen science alongside in-person service-learning is to provide flexibility for a diverse student population. Students who juggle college coursework with jobs, families, athletics, or other obligations may not be able to take a morning, afternoon, or weekend to complete in-person service. Zooniverse can be done in short periods of time and from the comfort of a dorm room or home. Citizen science can therefore be incorporated into service-based courses to better support all student learners.


I would like to express my sincere thanks to Drs. Julia Vargas, Joan Delahunt, and Jessica Allen and the McMeel Family Faculty Institute on Service-Learning at Rockhurst University. Thanks to Steve Jacobsen, assistant manager at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center, for serving as my community partner and coordinating student volunteers for the past several years. Many thanks go to my students, who continue to inspire me. Student survey data and responses were collected under Rockhurst University IRB #2018-25.

Joanna J. Cielocha ( is an associate professor of biology at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.


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