Inquiry-Based Service-Learning
and the Internet


Angela M. Harwood and Jenel Chang

In this article, we present strategies for using the Internet to enhance service-learning projects. By having students access the multitude of information available through technology, teachers can guide powerful service-learning projects which combine rigorous academic requirements with authentic community service. Used in tandem, web-based learning activities and service to the community help students to meet civics performance expectations set forth by National Council for the Social Studies1 and the Center for Civic Education Framework.2

We explain below how technology-enhanced service-learning can help to meet national standards. Using environmental community projects as an example, we define a three-step approach to strengthening service-learning by using the Internet to help prepare students for service, reflect on their experiences, and take action by communicating their opinions with others. A list of web sites that support service-learning and environmental projects is included.


Civics Standards and Inquiry-Based Service-Learning

Technology-enhanced service-learning has the potential to meet many of the established goals for civics education. By using the Internet to conduct background research, reflect on service experiences, and share their opinions with others, students develop authentic citizenship skills. The Center for Civic Education has outlined content standards for elementary and middle-school classrooms that include developing a knowledge of the roles of state and local governments, learning how citizens can participate in their government, exploring personal responsibilities, and describing political and social participation.3 By defining carefully articulated service-learning projects teachers will help their students to meet these standards. Additionally, students can learn a valid form of political participation and may identify career opportunities in public service. Each of these standards is addressed in the service-learning approach described below.

Service-learning can also help teachers address the guidelines for citizenship education set forth by National Council for the Social Studies.4 Providing community service allows students to contribute to the common good of the community, while the inquiry approach to defining and researching problems helps students develop the skills to acquire and evaluate information.5 By sharing opinions with others, students learn to present arguments and propose policy solutions to problems they have identified. In addition, the major thematic strands presented in the NCSS Standards are directly related to many aspects of service-learning. Searching for types of organizations and the information they present helps students to explore the interactions of Individuals, Groups, and Institutions (Theme 5). As students research existing public policies and explore who makes those policies, they directly address the theme of Power, Authority, and Governance (Theme 6). Active involvement in the community also gives students a more complete understanding of Civic Ideals and Practices (Theme 10).


When teachers combine authentic citizenship experiences with guided academic instruction, their students can engage in powerful learning that meets many of the goals of standards-based education. Using technology to complement service-learning projects can add a depth of academic focus that will truly transform community service into a service-learning experience. In the following sections, we outline a three-step approach to integrating Internet use with environmentally-focused service-learning projects.


Initiating Service-Learning Projects and Preparing to Serve

Through service-learning, students gain a deeper understanding of community and national issues. To initiate the service-learning project, we recommend having students brainstorm lists of local issues of interest or concern. This focus will help students to see that they can make a concrete difference in their communities, and will give them a basis for understanding state and national issues which might otherwise be very abstract for them.6 Students are often concerned about animal rights issues, the environment, hunger and homelessness, the elderly, and health care. In this article we will focus on potential environmental service-learning projects.

The Internet will provide students with an important tool once they have identified issues of interest. To prepare for service they can use the Internet to research current issues, public policy, and the views expressed by a wide range of special interest groups. As students conduct background research, they engage in “reflective deliberation”7 by considering the following questions:

> What are environmental issues, and why are they important?

> Who is interested in environmental issues?

> What government regulations and policies about the environment exist?

To answer these questions, students can use the World Wide Web to locate local, state, national, and international news reports (see the sites listed under “media sites” in the box accompanying this article). Many large newspapers have searchable indices; students can also access news by using Internet search engines such as Excite or Yahoo!. Entering the term “environment” will produce several “hits” to get students started. Using more specific terms (e.g. “salmon habitat”) will help students locate news on particular topics.

In addition to browsing Internet news sites, students should begin searching for sites of organizations and government agencies that might contain information on relevant environmental issues. Organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Envirolink offer host sites that can aid students in identifying significant issues, gathering relevant background information, and locating links specifically tied to their area of interest. Government sites maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey are also quite helpful at this stage.

Several sites can assist students in identifying local issues of environmental concern. The Environmental Protection Agency site is particularly helpful. It contains a “State, Local, and Triba#148; button. Students can search the database by topic or by zip code. They may find information relating to pollution and hazardous waste sites or environmental conditions and trends in the county or watershed serving the selected zip code. State environmental departments can be located through the U.S. State and Local Gateway by selecting its “Environment/Energy” link. State Departments of Natural Resources (DNRs) are good sources of information about land management and the protection of water, fish and wildlife (see the Washington State DNR as an example). A site maintained by Prospernet contains an exhaustive list of links to environmental organizations, many of them local.

Although non-governmental agencies often contain policy information, students should consult government sites to read actual legislation. Environmental legislation can be located through the U.S. Congress web site by entering key terms such as “hazardous waste” or “old growth forests,” for example. Students can also access legislative information through the U.S. Department of the Interior.

As students gather background information and explore the role of government in policy making and enforcement, they might use the Internet to obtain additional information. Many of the government and non-government sites contain a “Contact Us” button which students can use to request additional information or schedule a visit from a guest speaker. Students may wish to contact state or local representatives directly via electronic mail. A directory of government officials is available through the U.S. Congress and Library of Congress web sites. The Library of Congress and Thomas web sites are excellent jumping-off points for study of the federal government. Each site contains numerous links to other sites of interest. Students might find legislation related to environmental topics at one site and then write and present their own bills in a follow-up activity. Teachers and students are encouraged to explore the web sites of their state and local governments which often include helpful citizens’ guides to state government and access to local and state representatives. These can typically be found by using a search engine and specifying the state’s name followed by “state government.”

Once students have established an understanding of the issues through their background research, they will be prepared to define and carry out service-learning projects.8 Students should identify a local problem related to their issues of interest and determine an action plan through which to address it. Students will be interested in a wide range of environmental issues, and teachers can work with local agencies or government bodies to help students define appropriate projects. Several of the sites maintained by environmental interest groups include “Take Action” buttons. This feature may help students generate ideas for service opportunities.


Using Technology to Facilitate Reflection

A central component of service-learning is reflection. Using technology opens up many avenues that will help students to process their experiences. They could keep on-line journals, or post their responses to field experiences on a class-wide list-serve. Posting e-mail reflections to their teacher or to their classmates could also facilitate reflection. Getting students to describe their activities, note what they learned during field visits, and raise questions for further exploration will help them to make sense of their experiences.


Taking Action Through Communication

The Internet can also be used in the final phase of a project by asking students to take a stand on a public policy issue and communicate it to others. After reconsidering the issues they researched at the beginning of the project, and incorporating their new experience-based knowledge, students will be ready to formulate their own ideas about issues. Students could write to students their own age, to local or national policy leaders, or to the community at large.

The Internet contains a number of forums that cater specifically to youth. Students may wish to share their positions by writing an article or poem for Midlink Magazine. This on-line magazine is written and edited by middle school students. There are a number of other sites that facilitate student interaction. The Kidslink site provides a forum for a global dialog for youth through age fifteen. If students want to contribute articles to sites specifically focused on service they can contact the Youth in Action network or Kids F.A.C.E. (Kids For A Clean Environment).

Students could also e-mail persuasive position statements to local or national political leaders. The names and addresses of government officials can be found using U.S. Congress and Library of Congress web sites in the box accompanying this article. Prior to writing these statements, students can review protocol for addressing members of Congress at the “Right to Write” web site.


Students who wish to reach their community at large could write letters to the editor of their local papers. Many newspapers have web sites through which students can submit letters. Those sites can be found by using a general search engine to search for the paper name.

In conclusion, the guidelines presented in this article provide examples of how technology can strengthen the academic components of service-learning projects. Students who use the Internet to find information about issues, to participate in electronic discussions and reflection exercises, and to communicate with classmates, community leaders, and other citizens practice a variety of essential citizenship skills. Service-learning provides an avenue for active involvement in the community which allows students to explore their role in making a positive difference to society.


1 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

2. Center for Civic Education (CCE), National Standards for Civics Education (Calabasas, CA: CCE, 1994).

3. Center for Civic Education.

4. National Council for the Social Studies.

5. National Council for the Social Studies, 5.

6. Samuel Totten and Jon Pedersen, “Issues-Centered Curriculum and Instruction at the Middle Level.” In Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, edited by Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe (Washington, D. C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996), 237-46.

7. Patricia G. Avery, John L. Sullivan, Elizabeth S. Smith, and Stephen Sandell, “Issues-Centered Approaches to Teaching Civics and Government.” In Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, 199-210.

8. For step-by-step help on how to define service-learning projects with your students, see “Excerpts from Service Learning in the Social Studies,” reprinted in The Social Studies (September/October 1997): 210-14.


About the authors

Angela M. Harwood is an Assistant Professor of Middle School Education at the Woodring College of Education, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA. Jenel Chang is a middle school teacher and a graduate student at the Woodring College of Education.

Web Sites Supporting Service-Learning Environmental Projects


Environmental Organizations


The Wilderness Society

Works for the protection, preservation, and wise management of the public’s lands. Site includes: search engine; links to environmental sites; kids links; hot issues; action orientation.


The Sierra Club

Promotes the conservation of the natural environment by influencing public policy. Search engine; action orientation.



Dedicated to the protection of the environment through peaceful means. Search engine; hot issues; action orientation.


Rainforest Action Network

Works to protect tropical rainforests and the human rights of those living in and around them. Search engine; links to environmental sites; kids links; hot issues; action orientation.


National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Works to safeguard the Earth, its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. Search engine; links to environmental sites; hot issues.



Dedicated to providing the most comprehensive, up-to-date environmental resources available. Search engine; hot issues; action orientation.



Provides extensive list of environmental sites, many local. Links to environmental sites.


Government Agencies


Environmental Protection Agency

Comprehensive “Student” link. Search engine; links to environmental sites; kids links; hot issues.



U.S. Department of the Interior

Search engine; links to environmental sites; hot issues.


U.S. Geological Survey

Search engine; hot issues.


Council on Environmental Quality (CEP)

Provides perspectives from the Presidential advisors. Search engine; links to environmental sites; hot issues.


Washington State Department of Natural Resources


Search engine; action orientation.


U.S. Congress

Search engine.


U.S. State and Local Gateway

Search engine; links to environmental sites.


Media Sites


The Washington Post

Search engine.


American News Service

A product of Knight-Ridder News. Search engine.


Time Magazine for Kids

Provides articles archived from 1995. Search engine.


Youth Forums


Youth In Action Network


Midlink Magazine

An on-line magazine written and edited by Middle Schoolers



Created by a child to provide a way for children to be involved in the protection of nature and to make connections with others.



A network for global dialog for youth through age 15. Text available in multiple languages.


Service-Learning Sites


National Service-Learning Clearinghouse

Search engine; links to environmental sites.*


National Society for Experiential Learning

Promotes experience-based approaches to learning. Site contains a resource center and links to other sites and environmental sites.


Corporation for National Service: Service Learning Page

Links to environmental sites.


Service Learning: “The Home of Service Learning on the World Wide Web”

Contains articles, bibliographies, manuscripts, handbooks, syllabi, etc. Links to environmental sites.


Bound Brook Public Schools: Service Learning Links

Links to environmental sites.


The Right to Write

Provides a protocol for addressing elected officials


To learn more about how to create and implement service-learning projects, we recommend the web site of the National Service Learning Cooperative Clearinghouse. The site provides useful information resources, including searchable data bases with descriptions of projects and service-learning sites.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.