Keeping Curricula Current

How Can Geoscience Curricula Prepare Our Students for the Future?

Go back to the beginning of this presentation by Mary Savina from Carleton College.

Assessing and Evaluating a Curriculum

So, you've designed a curriculum, focusing on the goals, skills, experiences, values, and content you feel are essential and appropriate for your institution. How do you decide whether it meets the needs of your students, especially as those needs are changing over time? Here are some things to consider.

Here are some qualities of a curriculum responsive to change:

  • It's flexible and non-linear. At Carleton, for example, the only prerequisite for most upper level geoscience courses is an introductory geology course. This maximizes flexibility for the students.
  • It serves people headed in a wide variety of directions. Minimal formal requirements, coupled with careful advising, allow students to select the best options for their futures.
  • New content or skills can quickly be integrated into existing courses.
  • It easily integrates with emerging interdisciplinary programs.

Conversations about designing (or redesigning) a curriculum always bring up a few perennial questions. While these may vary from department to department, a few seem to be universal:
  • What is the "core" of our curriculum?
  • How can we convey the importance of Earth Science to potential students, and to the rest of the academic community?
  • If we relax prerequisite requirements, will there be anything I can assume all of my students have seen in previous classes? And how will I deal with the diverse level of preparation for my course? At Carleton, the lack of course sequencing has led to the development of a culture of peer-teaching. Students understand that they are expected to teach each other relevant background material, and the collaborative atmosphere in the classroom supports this process.

Paralleling the changes occurring in the field of geoscience, there are also changes taking place in higher education. Trends include:
  • Changes in the composition of the student body
  • Changes in what it means to be an educated person
  • Emphasis on skills and habits of the mind rather than content
  • Recognizing that significant learning takes place outside of classrooms
  • More coherent, cohesive first year experiences, and a greater prevalence of capstone experiences

A responsive curriculum also connects to college/university-wide initiatives, such as Writing Across the Curriculum, quantitative reasoning, and other programs.

As your curriculum evolves, what kinds of changes do you see in the students graduating from your program? Sources of data to answer this question include students' capstone projects, departmental reviews, informal reports from alumni, and course content.

At Carleton, over the past three decades, senior capstone projects have changed in a number of ways. They are now less likely to be "local" projects or projects directly related to a faculty member's research program. They are more likely to include instrumental analyses that cannot be conducted at Carleton (requiring collaboration with other facilities). And they are more likely to focus on outreach, education, or the environment.

Ultimately, it is possible to build flexibility into a curriculum, even without offering new courses. To maintain this kind of flexibility and respond to new trends, faculty need to be encouraged and assisted in their efforts to develop new areas of expertise. And while it is important to respond to changes over time, it is not essential to respond to every new trend.