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Providing Cultural and Regional Relevance to Issues of Global Sustainability

Mercer University

Mercer University's Penfield College and Tift College of Education are collaborating to improve Earth literacy among their students and among Georgia's in-service teachers. Mercer serves non-traditional, return-to-college students ("adult learners") who are invested in their communities through their family, work, and community service. Consequently, these learners bring unique opportunities for learning about Earth in the university setting.

To increase the Earth literacy of these students and increase their interest in addressing the societal issues of sustainability, we are developing virtual field trips to sites in Georgia and the southeastern USA to include in existing InTeGrate modules. To begin this process, we have implemented existing InTeGrate modules in Penfield College's undergraduate courses and in a Tift College of Education pre-service teacher preparation course. In Summer 2015, we developed materials for a virtual field trip to Providence Canyon, Georgia to align with "A Growing Concern" InTeGrate module.

Earth literacy currently is not an area of emphasis in K-12 classrooms, due in large part to the diminished emphasis in state standards. Pre-service and in-service teachers often lack understanding of Earth literacy or appreciation for the importance of Earth systems and there is little to motivate them to change this. Through our existing collaborative relationship with school systems in Georgia, we will offer professional development using InTeGrate modules and include the virtual field trip component to encourage teachers to develop Earth literacy and active interest in sustainability issues in their own students. By offering professional development opportunities to in-service teachers based on InTeGrate modules and the virtual field trips, combined with age appropriate materials to be used in K-12 classrooms, we expect to increase Earth literacy among the students these teachers serve.

Description of Successful End State

A well-established, collaborative relationship between Mercer University's Penfield and Tift Colleges allows us to work to increase Earth literacy and engagement in issues of sustainability among our adult learners. Plans are in place for programmatic inclusion of material from InTeGrate, or inspired by InTeGrate, in science, humanities, and science education courses to support student learning outcomes that include sustainability and development of systems thinking. Full-time and adjunct faculty are formally and informally working together across departments and colleges within Mercer to promote sustainability and to practice pedagogies that build Earth literacy. Open-ended narratives are used by faculty to assess effectiveness of pedagogies and to measure student learning outcomes. Faculty also use the narrative results as a faculty development tool in pedagogical practices.

Virtual field trips of culturally and regionally relevant issues of sustainability developed by this team are available on the InTeGrate website. Experienced personnel and other resources are in place at Mercer to continue development of virtual field trips, with opportunities available for student participation and for collaboration with other institutions interested in sustainability issues in the southeastern United States.

Mercer's new I-STEM committee incorporates InTeGrate materials and themes to work with higher education faculty and in-service teachers across the state of Georgia as part of their mission to increase systems thinking. Local school systems use InTeGrate modules in regularly scheduled professional development opportunities for in-service teachers to equip them to teach Earth systems and Earth literacy. Georgia teachers earn recognition from the state of Georgia for developing competency in these areas and the competency is recorded through digital badging.

Early Indicators

The leadership team has worked to promote the use of materials from InTeGrate as a way to include interdisciplinary and integrative studies in Mercer's Penfield and Tift colleges. Since we started this project at Mercer, four science faculty in Penfield and two education faculty, including two adjunct faculty, have used InTeGrate materials in courses of introductory scientific reasoning, earth systems, environmental science, education, and general education capstones. Other faculty, including in humanities and counseling, have expressed interest in using the materials and we continue to talk intentionally with individual faculty to find out how their courses might be related to issues in sustainability, or supported by InTeGrate materials.

We choose to use units from the Climate of Change module in our general education science courses because we wanted to emphasize systems thinking. In formative assessments from the module, students demonstrated an understanding of adaption and mitigation that are taken to address climate change. Some student responses demonstrate empathy with people described in the situations. In general, the results indicate that students can use earth science data to interpret that climate change is happening and that it has both natural and human causes. Most students believe that climate change is a risk to humans, including to their own community. Most students see their community as more vulnerable than themselves, however they do not know what they can do to help mitigate climate change.

Through the end of Summer, 2015, almost 100 students completed courses in which they worked with InTeGrate materials. This is about 6% of the undergraduate population in the programs we serve at Mercer. Of the students who completed courses that used InTeGrate materials, student self-reported data indicate that approximately 46% are African American, 33% are White, and 77% are female.

A digital field trip to Providence Canyon in southwest Georgia was successfully piloted in a general education environmental science course in conjunction with the "Growing Concern" soil erosion module. The digital field trip was designed to align with the final assignment of that module, but modified to de-emphasize aspects that the class was not able to study because of its accelerated schedule.

Project Activities

  • Conduct faculty development to introduce InTeGrate modules and offer follow-up workshops to discuss issues and assessment results. As the project develops, offer workshops to targeted full-time faculty, outside of science and science education, who have shown some level of interest in sustainability and/or earth science.
  • Develop and use virtual field trips in university courses and in-service teacher professional development to anchor students to the issues of sustainability that are included in InTeGrate modules
  • Offer InTeGrate modules in a variety of general education courses and in pre-service science methods courses, all of which are in an accelerated 8 week format, and use relevant assessments to revise piloted modules
  • Use open-ended narratives to assess changes in student interest in application of geoscience to sustainability issues that are directly relevant to their personal lives
  • Deliver professional development to teachers in Georgia using existing InTeGrate modules and assist them in implementing aspects of the modules in their own classrooms

Progress to Date

We have made good progress in implementing InTeGrate across Penfield science and Tift education courses and we expect more education faculty to use materials starting in the Spring. Our new team member is successfully recruiting graduate and undergraduate faculty during faculty meetings of the education college. Interest from humanities faculty is developing more slowly. Although the Deans of both Penfield and Tift colleges in Mercer strongly support and encourage faculty involvement in the InTeGrate program, we have encountered two main challenges to faculty success in using InTeGrate materials in courses: (1) some faculty believe that the modules are not appropriate to their courses; (2) our accelerated course schedule (8 weeks) is too short for faculty to feel comfortable using modules. Faculty who have already used the materials are addressing these challenges in workshops, explaining how they have adapted parts of modules to work with course outcomes and describing how students are more engaged in course topics. An additional challenge has been finding ways to effectively communicate about InTeGrate with faculty across Mercer's multiple locations. We have begun to use Mercer's newly instituted webinar system, which is quite easy to use and, for a geographically dispersed university, this appears to be a good way to get and keep faculty involvement in the InTeGrate program. We are also directing faculty to the InTeGrate webinars to help them understand the wider goals of the program.

The change in team leadership has slowed down our progress in developing field trips and offering professional development opportunities to in-service teachers. However, a new team member brings experience in geocaching and web development and we are able to expand our format for the field trips. The change is also offering us an new opportunity in professional development for in-service teachers–we plan to design a way for Georgia teachers to become certified in the outcomes described in InTeGrate modules and to tie these to state of Georgia standards. New avenues for including graduate students in studying and using InTeGrate-inspired materials has come through the addition of the new team member.

We are tapping into college initiatives and institutional changes to develop broader impacts from InTeGrate outside of individual courses and faculty. Penfield College of Mercer has just begun a project on integrative learning to develop coherent links between general education and majors' curricula to help students develop signature work and our InTeGrate team is promoting sustainability and the InTeGrate materials as one focus for the project. We are asking Mercer's Tift College of Education Interdisciplinary STEM (I-STEM) Committee to consider incorporating environmental sustainability as a way to integrate STEM teaching into its work. The education college is also leading a program to train working professionals to become teachers. One of the faculty involved in this program is interested in assessing the InTeGrate materials to teach earth science, sustainability, and systems thinking in the training program.

Leadership Team

Colleen P. Stapleton, Penfield College - Mercer University
Jeffrey S. Hall, Tift College of Education - Mercer University
Sabrina L. Walthall, Penfield College - Mercer University
Timothy D. Craker, Penfield College - Mercer University
Jane M. Metty, formerly Tift College of Education - Mercer University, co-leader 2014-2015

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