About On the Cutting Edge

The NSF-Funded Program

The On the Cutting Edge Professional Development Program for Geoscience Faculty brought together workshops, websites, and research activities to support high-quality undergraduate geoscience education. The program was established in 2002 with funding from the National Science Foundation and more than 3000 faculty, post-docs and graduate students from over 900 institutions participated in more than 100 face-to-face and virtual workshops and community-based research projects producing a website with more than 9,000 pages of content and is visited by more than 800,000 users annually. The project changed geoscience education in the United States legitimizing discussions of teaching, improving teaching practices, and establishing a culture of information and resource sharing that underpins continuous improvement in undergraduate geoscience instruction.

Outcomes of the NSF Funded On the Cutting Edge Professional Development Program for the Geosciences, 2002-2019.

Prepared for final NSF reporting by Cathryn A. Manduca
November 1, 2019

On the Cutting Edge was a comprehensive, discipline-wide professional development program for current and future geoscience faculty that offered an integrated workshop series, a website with topical collections of teaching resources, and a leadership development program. It aimed 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. Since its founding in 2002, more than 3000 faculty, post-docs and graduate students from over 900 institutions participated in more than 100 face-to-face and virtual workshops and community-based research projects producing a website with more than 9,000 pages of content that is visited by more than 800,000 users annually. This report summarizes the results of the final 5-year NSF grant for the project.

The program improved undergraduate teaching in the geosciences. Responses to a national survey of geoscience faculty show that Cutting Edge workshop participants are more likely to report engaged teaching practices than those who do not participate in the program (Manduca et al., 2017). An observation study confirmed the self-reported survey results showing that Cutting Edge workshop participants, as a group, have stronger teaching practices as measured by the RTOP protocol than non-participants (Manduca et al., 2017; Teasdale et al., 2017).

On the Cutting Edge workshops that focused on teaching a specific course within the Cutting Edge offerings (e.g. Teaching Petrology) were particularly effective in transforming teaching practice of faculty teaching that course (Viskupic et al., 2017). Within an observation study, 83% of faculty who attended only a single topically-focused workshop were observed teaching student-centered courses on that topic. Faculty attending two or more topical workshops were observed to have similar levels of performance regardless of the topic of the course.

The annual multi-day Early Career workshop and associated web site (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/earlycareer) use a holistic approach to prepare faculty to teach, to conduct research, to make strategic plans, and to manage professional responsibilities in balance with personal lives. All sessions are interactive, model effective teaching, and are structured to support participants learning from each other – practices that contribute to the success and impact of the workshop. Over 1000 faculty members have attended the Early Career Workshop since its origin in 1999. Evaluation data indicate that at the end of the workshop they have the resources needed to enable them to succeed, and are better prepared to move forward with their careers as a result of the workshop. Responses to a national survey of geoscience faculty in 2016 show that workshop alumni spend more class time on student activities, questions, and discussion than non-participants and are more likely to feel connected to a national community of geoscience educators (Beane et al., 2019)

On the Cutting Edge contributed substantially to the founding and development of an active geoscience education research community. Workshops focused on improving teaching and learning through the application of research on learning (e.g. the role of the affective domain, developing metacognition) were fundamental in establishing the field of geoscience education research and built connections between this field and psychology, education, and cognitive science. On the Cutting Edge developed the National Geoscience Faculty Survey and implemented it in 2004, 2009, 2012, and 2016 (the final administration was conducted collaboration with two other NSF funded programs). This survey became a primary tool for research on geoscience teaching and faculty learning at a national scale as well as an important tool in evaluating the impact of the project. The project pioneered a strategy for combining the work of an internal and external evaluator that led to both an independent evaluation of the project and a deeply nuanced understanding of its workings.

The project also established three community-based research teams that were open by application to all community members. Members worked collaboratively with a specific approach or methodology to better understand geoscience teaching and geoscience faculty development. The Classroom Observation team developed and implemented a strategy for training observers on the RTOP protocol that allowed reliable observations to be collected by multiple observers across the country (Teasdale et al., 2017). A team focused on developing a set of questions for assessing student learning at the introductory and program level developed a framework for question design that became a foundation for work to assess learning by the InTeGrate STEP Center (Iverson et al., 2019). The National Geoscience Faculty Survey Research Group analyzed data from the four implementations of the survey producing nine papers in two years. Taken as a whole, these teams strengthened capacity for geoscience education research, developed new methods and strategies for studying geoscience education at a national scale, and produced research documenting the state of undergraduate geoscience teaching in the United States, evaluating the impact of the On the Cutting Edge program, and shedding light on effective strategies for supporting faculty in their work as educators.

The combined evaluation, research, and project design information has been of high interest to researchers and faculty developers beyond the geosciences. Nearly one third of the citations of three key papers come from outside the disciplines including three citations in reports from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Lastly, the program produced a large collection of online resources with more than 2000 teaching activities as well as 49 topical collections addressing enhancing your teaching, developing program-wide abilities, designing courses, instructional topics, and managing your career. The project developed a community review process for teaching activities and reviewed the entirety of the collection identifying 386 as exemplary. The website is a leading source of information on undergraduate teaching and career development. With more than 800,000 vistors per year, traffic to the site continues to grow. Visitors come from every country in the world with 44% of the traffic originating in the United States. This traffic includes significant use by K-12 educators and by instructors outside of the geosciences. The impact of the on-line resources on teaching is the topic of a current study using data from the National Survey of Geoscience Faculty. Preliminary results indicate that use of the website is correlated with self-reported self-reported use of student centered teaching strategies. This effect is independent of the impact of participation in professional development workshops. Thus, use of both websites and workshops appears to increase improvements in teaching more than use of either independently.

The program has been institutionalized within the National Association of Geoscience Teachers who have now run a financially self-sustaining program for three years using a committee management structure that has successfully transitioned leadership. While the program design has been modified to enable financial self-sufficiency and to adapt to changing technology, culture and educational context, the program remains committed to the design principles developed by the NSF funded project and continues to integrate the use of events and the website.

Transition to NAGT Management

An integral part of the fabric of geoscience education and a major source of teaching resources, the On the Cutting Edge programming expanded beyond its original focus on courses, pedagogy and career management through a cooperative venture of geoscience professional societies managed by NAGT. These activities included building on workshop programs and websites that originated as part of the NSF-funded Building Strong Geoscience Departments. The InTeGrate STEP Center for the Geosciences was also been a major contributor to programming.

In 2019 the transition away from core NSF funding was completed. NAGT and SERC now jointly lead the On the Cutting Edge Program and collaborate on the management and continued development and funding of the now branded NAGT's On the Cutting Edge Program. NAGT has expertise in geoscience education research, student learning, and faculty professional development and an established leadership structure with capacity to identify and lead programming in response to community needs. SERC possesses technology infrastructure and has expertise in strategies for implementation of professional development programming, development of websites through community contributions, and project management.

Explore current events, activities and resources in NAGT's On the Cutting Edge Professional Development Program »

Original Planning Team

  • Heather Macdonald, rhmacd@wm.edu, College of William and Mary - Lead PI
  • Rachel Beane, rbeane@bowdoin.edu, Bowdoin College
  • Cathryn Manduca, cmanduca@carleton.edu, Carleton College
  • David McConnell, david_mcconnell@ncsu.edu, North Carolina State University
  • David Mogk, mogk@montana.edu, Montana State University, Bozeman
  • Barbara Tewksbury, btewksbu@hamilton.edu, Hamilton College
  • Katryn Wiese, katryn.wiese@mail.ccsf.edu, City College of San Francisco
  • Michael Wysession, michael@mantle.wustl.edu, Washington University

Supporting Resources

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Undergraduate Education under grants #0127310, #0127141, #0127257, #0127018, #0618482, #0618725, #0618533, #1022680, #1022776, #1022844, and #1022910.

Disclaimer: Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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