Teach the Earth > About this Project > Project Description

Project Description and History

On the Cutting Edge is a comprehensive, discipline-wide professional development program for current and future geoscience faculty that offers an integrated workshop series, a website with topical collections of teaching resources, and a leadership development program. It aims to develop a geoscience professoriate committed to high-quality instruction based on currency in scientific knowledge, good pedagogic practice, and research on learning with the ultimate goal of improving student learning.

Initiated in 2002, the program was initially funded through Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics five-year grants awarded by the National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education to each of the PIs.

Underpinning On the Cutting Edge is the concept that, if faculty are engaged in a community where they can share and discuss their teaching and learn from others within and beyond the geosciences, then the quality of teaching will rise for individual faculty, ultimately improving student learning across the country. Our program, designed to develop and support such a learning community, has an integrated workshop series and a website of teaching resources. Workshops of different types, both face-to-face and virtual, engage faculty with different interests and at different points in their careers: emerging theme workshops accelerate introduction of new geoscience research or a new aspect of pedagogy; workshops about teaching a core geoscience topic bring together faculty who teach a topic that is part of the geoscience major; annual workshops that support faculty at various career stages, and large workshops disseminate best practices in teaching. The program also offers webinars, webinar series, and journal clubs. The program aims to expand to include advanced opportunities to encourage repeat participation. These experiences will enable ongoing learning for repeat participants at different stages in the evolution of their teaching skills.

This program builds on the emerging opportunities of the Web to support workshop participants before, during, and after the workshop, and to bring the workshop experience to a larger audience. Each workshop has a virtual component that supports participants by providing information about the workshop, a resource collection relevant to the topic, and opportunities for on-line discussion with other participants and leaders. Following the workshop, web materials based on the workshop experience are created to enable on-line learning by a broader community and workshop discussion lists are opened to community participation to enable broader discussion of the workshop content. A major focus of the project is to experiment with a variety of approaches for capturing workshop content in forms that enable faculty around the country to engage in the workshop experience on-line and to experiment with a variety of approaches for virtual professional development.

One of the aims of this project is to expand the network of people who are willing and able to offer workshops and to assume leadership roles in creating future professional development opportunities. We will use workshops both to identify and to prepare new leaders to take effective and proactive roles in workshop development. Extensive pre-workshop discussions on workshop content as well as strategies to promote active engagement by participants help prepare the workshop presenters for their leadership roles. In selecting leaders for future workshops including on-line mentoring activities, we aim for a diverse leadership pool, including those from underrepresented groups, from a broad spectrum of geoscience specialties, and from a wide variety of academic settings.

The project includes a research and evaluation component aimed at three fundamental questions: 1) In what ways does a shift to a student-centered teaching philosophy have an impact on teaching practice and on student learning? 2) What impact does repeated participation in geoscience professional development have on individual teaching practice and on geoscience education nationwide? and 3) What impact does participation in a community of geoscience educators imbued with a culture of innovation similar to that of the research community have on a faculty member's teaching? In addition to the ongoing evaluation of individual workshops (daily road-checks with daily reporting to workshop leaders, interviews with workshop participants during the workshop, and end-of workshop and longer term post-workshop evaluations by participants and leaders), the project also expands in two key areas that address classroom practice and student learning: 1) direct measurement of changes in teaching practice through the Classroom Observation Project, and 2) evidence of change in student learning and attitudes resulting from changes in teaching practice through the Embedded Assessment Project. To evaluate the current state of geoscience instruction, we administer a survey of undergraduate geoscience education to determine how faculty are currently teaching their courses, how they gain information for teaching, and how they engage in scholarly work. This survey was administered in 2004, 2009, and 2012.

The initial project management team included the PIs: Heather Macdonald (College of William & Mary), Cathryn Manduca (Carleton College), Dave Mogk (Montana State University), and Barbara Tewksbury (Hamilton College). The PI team was expanded in 2010/2011 to include Rachel Beane (Bowdoin College), David McConnell (North Carolina State University), Katryn Wiese (City College of San Francisco), and Michael Wysession, Washington University. In 2016, the project was shifted to NAGT.

  • Continued funding is managed by the On the Cutting Edge Management Committee, which includes representatives from the three primary contributing professional societies (AGU, GSA and NAGT), the NAGT treasurer, and the original Cutting Edge and Strong Departments grants.
  • The NAGT Professional Development Program Committee is responsible for managing and planning the professional development activities and the website content, including peer review of teaching activities. Committee members come from NAGT leadership and the former On the Cutting Edge PI Team.
  • The Teach the Earth Website Committee oversees stewardship of the Teach the Earth website and reports to the NAGT Professional Development Program Committee. Its members come from a variety of groups within NAGT that use, update, and manage the website.