Transforming Digital Forensic Science Education with Service Learning

Photo of Dr. Mark McCoyWritten by Mark R. McCoy, Ed.D., Professor, Forensic Science Institute –

The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (2011) defines service learning as a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Service learning represents a potentially powerful form of pedagogy because it provides a means of linking the academic with the practical. There is growing evidence that having students apply theoretical material learned in the traditional classroom in a “real world” setting has a positive effect on student learning and interest in the subject matter (Astin et. al., 2000). Service learning projects also benefit the community by providing new perspectives into the work of universities and strengthening community relationships with faculty and students.

This article will provide examples of incorporating service learning into digital forensics course curricula. Service learning projects completed by University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) Forensic Science Institute students that integrate forensic science discipline knowledge with practical applications in the community emphasize the efficacy of service learning as a tool for transformative education.

The Oklahoma Tornado Victim Project

During the afternoon of May 24, 2011, several large tornados touched down in Oklahoma killing at least ten people and leaving a path of damage fifty miles long. Following the devastating tornados, the community pulled together to help tornado victims with their immediate needs of food, clothing and shelter. While those needs were the most urgent and critical following the storms; tornado victims began to take stock of what else they may have lost. Many had computers and other digital devices that stored precious memories in the form of digital pictures and videos that were damaged by the high winds and rain. Others lost important business and personal documents that were stored in digital format. Recovery of this information requires specialized assistance and could cost hundreds of dollars. Digital Forensics students, using the knowledge and skills they learned in class and the same high-tech equipment used to solve crimes, were able to recover gigabytes of treasured memories and important documents for tornado victims. This service learning project provided a rich learning experience for students allowing them to apply discipline knowledge to a real world problem, and it integrated meaningful community service while strengthening ties with the community.

UCO student restores digital memories as part of service project for Oklahoma community hit by tornado

Electronic Recycling and Data Destruction

Digital Forensic students examined hard drives for CDR Global Inc. an information technology asset disposition and asset recovery services company. The hard drives are recycled by CDR Global for companies and individuals that are disposing of their old computer hardware.  As part of CDR Global’s certification process, they must have the hard drives forensically audited to ensure that no private data remains on the hard drives after being run through their own wiping process. Students perform the examinations as part of their digital forensics class and instruction on validation and verification of forensic tools. The digital forensics students used the tools and techniques learned in class to examine the selected hard drives. This forensic audit process uses multiple methods to exam data at the lowest level to ensure all the data has been removed. Digital forensics students were again able to use discipline knowledge in a practical application that served a need in the community.

Service learning at the Forensic Science Institute offers a transformative learning experience to students by developing “beyond-disciplinary skills,” broadening students’ perspectives in relation to themselves and their community, integrating meaningful community service, and placing students at the “center of their own active and reflective learning experience” (CETTL, 2015). These projects are tied to UCO’s Service Learning & Civic Engagement tenet. Service learning integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Students’ reflections demonstrate beneficial growth from linking the academic with the practical. These ventures also benefit the community by providing new perspectives into the work of the university and by strengthening relationships with faculty and students (McCoy & Porterfield, 2016).


Astin, A.W., Vogelgesan, L.J., Ikeda, E.K. & Yee, J.A. (2000). How Service Learning Affects Students. Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles.

Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning (CETTL): The University of Central Oklahoma. (2015). Transformative Learning. Retrieved from

McCoy, M.R. & Porterfield, C. (2016). Service Learning in Forensic Science: A Tool for Transformative Education. Transformative Learning Conference, April 1, 2016. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (2011). Retrieved from:

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