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Service-Learning: Windshield Surveys

(CTE thanks Kenneth Havrilla, Physical Therapy, for his contributions to this Teaching and Learning Tip.)

Do you want your students to think more deeply about the community in which they are doing service-learning?  Do you want them to be able to connect how place impacts people?  You might want to ask your students to do a windshield survey to introduce students to the community where they will do their service-learning.  The survey requires students in groups of three to five to make an initial tour via car, bus, or foot through the community to gather impressions as casual observers.

What disciplines have used windshield tours for service-learning?

The literature shows a diversity of disciplines employing windshield surveys for service-learning.  An environmental science class uses windshield surveys for considering ground water protection by examining locations of wellheads in relation to gas stations, industrial sites and waste facilities (Guebert, 2005).  A health science program helps preclinical students learn about community-responsive medicine through using a windshield survey to understand community health needs (Blumenthal, et al, 2000).  Similarly, nursing programs use the surveys to train competent community health nurses in population-focused care (Drevdahl, et al, 2001).  An education course for social studies asks participants to consider how a school’s community situation affects student learning and teachers’ experiences (Todd, 2007).

At Duquesne, Ken Havrilla uses windshield surveys to help his Physical Therapy students to understanding the community where they serve.  He says, "It becomes extremely important to address any socioeconomic / sociocultural stereotyping that students may have developed through their own growth and development.  One very effective way is to have the students interact with the environment of the targeted population.  An initial step for the student is to use the 'Windshield Survey' prior to the actual service learning. The windshield survey I used consisted of a brief, four page checklist that asks questions about the neighborhood such as housing, open spaces, shopping areas, schools, transportation, available human services, protective services (such as police, fire and emergency services), and finally neighborhood life.  This information is ideally obtained from driving or walking through the neighborhood, but can be greatly supplemented by additional readily available information.  The additional information is available from local community resources including demographic profiles and historical data. Once the survey is completed, the student will have a much better understanding of the population and the environment.”

What can students learn from doing windshield surveys?

Team work

Windshield surveys can require students to work in teams to accomplish their survey.  Students will have to appoint members of the group to take notes, take photographs, sketch a map that highlights significant points related to the survey, present the groups finding at class, etc.

Action Research

The survey can help students to learn that observations generate significant questions for further research and problem solving.  If you require students to do a windshield survey, consider having students compare their findings with other data about the community or literature that treats the issues observed in the community.  Have students identify community assets and needs.

Cultural Competency

A windshield survey can be a first step in a student’s understandings about diversity.  It affords comfort in an unfamiliar community and a chance to gain an acquaintance in a nonthreatening way.  After the survey, you can help students grow in cultural competency by openly discussing their concerns and the systemic issues of the community.

What does a Windshield Survey assignment look like?

The example below comes from Todd (2007).


For this assignment, each small group will take about an hour to explore a particular school neighborhood. Open your eyes to the neighborhood that is home to the children you will teach. Share your observations with one another. Enjoy a meal together in the neighborhood and share any group expenses equally, including the tip for lunch and gas. After you have toured, taken pictures, eaten, and talked, synthesize your learning in the materials you turn in as a group project.

Learning Activity

1. Your group will take six pictures that show the school neighborhood through your eyes. (Avoid including pictures of people we might be able to identify because that would be an invasion of their privacy.) Put these pictures (no larger than 4 X 6) on a small display board (about 9 X 20). Categorize them and add brief titles/locations. We will then compare our observations in class. Submit them digitally as an attachment through WebCT email.

2. You will have lunch in the neighborhood. Find a place to eat where you sit down as a part of the community (preferably not a fast food chain) and attach the receipt to this assignment.

3. When you have observed the area, talk about your impressions of the school and its neighborhood. Write a one-page summary (typed and in paragraph form) that describes what you saw and some of the group’s conclusions. What will you want to learn more about?

4. Draw a sketch map of the neighborhood that shows major streets and places that are landmarks in the area. Show compass direction and approximate distances. Give the map a title.

Guiding Questions

Here are some questions to guide your windshield survey, though you are not limited to these. You may discover additional places that help you “see” the neighborhood. As you explore, look for features on the landscape and think about ways the school is part of this neighborhood.

1. Where are the boundaries of this school community? Are there additional boundaries within the neighborhood? Does the architecture or the use of buildings provide any clues?

2. What kinds of services for families are in the neighborhood? Could a family find everything they need on a day-to-day basis within this neighborhood? If not, how far would they have to travel to find such services?

3. Is the neighborhood safe for children to play and walk to school? Are there public signs in addition to landscape clues?

4. Are there other organizations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, or Head Start centers that might provide activities for children?

5. What jobs are available in the neighborhood? Are these jobs likely to be held by people in the neighborhood or would the employees come from another neighborhood?

6. Does the school serve as a community center for the neighborhood? Does it appear inviting to an observer?

7. Is there any evidence that suggests whether people are moving in and out or staying here for a longer time?

How can the windshield survey influence the semester?

A windshield survey can generate further assignments.  In subsequent assignments, you can ask students to compare their survey findings with other data including census reports, chamber of commerce information, or local agency data.  You can ask students to generate research questions based on their surveys that will turn into writing assignments.  From the initial windshield survey, students can identify key community stakeholders to interview.

To learn more, visit the Center for Community-Engaged Teaching and Research (CETR).

Blumenthal, D., McNeal, M., Spencer, L., Rhone, J., and Murphy, F. (2000).  An interdisciplinary service-learning community health course for preclinical health science students. In S. D. Seifer (Ed), Creating community-responsive physicians: concepts and models for service-learning in medical education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Drevdahl, D., Dorcy, K. and Grevstad, L. (2001). Integrating principles of community-centered practice in community health nursing practice. Nurse Educator 26 (5), 234-239.

Guebert, M. (2005).  Protecting local groundwater: An integrated environmental science service-learning project.  In M. Bellner and J. Pomery (Ed),  Service-learning: intercommunity & interdisciplinary explorations.  Indianapolis, IN: University of Indianapolis Press.

Todd, Reese. (2007). Place-based learning in teacher education: a windshield survey. Social Studies Research and Practice 2 (3), 390-402.