Initial Publication Date: July 2, 2015

Envision your Department

What does our future look like and how does your department/program fit into the world and work your students will experience? Geoscientists are good at looking at the past to understand the present and predict the future Earth. We need to use those same skills to envision what the future will hold and how our departments and programs fit in that future.

Starting with a thought experiment can illustrate the kind of questions that departments need to be able to answer in this process.

In 2025, when the class of 2015 turns 32, the global average temperature will have increased by 2° F and the world population will be 8 billion. The fracking boom will be over but metals will still be important and the availability of phosphorous will limit the food supply. Virtual communication will be robust, plane tickets will be expensive, jobs will be dominated by consulting and are not imaginable, and minority groups will constitute the majority of the US population.

  • What skills and experiences must our graduates have or acquire between now and then?
  • How will your department be contributing to this world?
  • Imagine you would receive $25M if you could design a program that will assist the US in being ready for this world. What does it look like?

In order to answer those questions, departments and programs need to know a lot about their current and potential students, how they fit (or could fit) into the institution as a whole, how the geosciences are evolving as a discipline, and how to bring all departmental voices to the table.

Understand your Students

Numerous strategies can be used to determine the demographics, interests, and experiences of your students so that you can align your program-level learning outcomes with their level of preparation and expectations.

For example, you can administer pre-surveys in your introductory courses to capture the state of your incoming students. Who are they? What are their attitudes, expectations, abilities? Can barriers to learning be identified at an early stage so that interventions can be planned and developed? Collection of this type of baseline data can be an important part of your departmental assessment plan. Combined with other surveys or instruments in other parts of the program this information can help you structure the program to maximize student success.

If there are students that your program isn't attracting but should, think about ways to start actively recruiting them.

  • Work with your Admissions Department to reach out to students who have expressed interest and/or demonstrated aptitudes for success in your program(s).
  • Work with faculty at local two-year colleges to develop articulation agreements.
  • Develop a working relationship with teachers from feeder high schools in your area to identify and recruit students.
  • Develop holistic supports that will help students be successful at your institution.

Use your Institutional Context

Program-level learning outcomes should be well-aligned with your institution's vision and strategic plan documents, as well as the department's defined role and scope. Starting with an inventory of institutional and departmental values, and a clear understanding of the opportunities (and practical limits) of what can be implemented in your department will provide a strong foundation for next steps in defining your program-level learning outcomes. It is also the first part of being a valued departmental member of your institution.

Program-level learning outcomes can be designed to optimize learning opportunities in consideration of:

  • the geologic and geographic setting of your institution;
  • demographic profile of the community you serve;
  • professional strengths and interests of the existing faculty (and plans for future growth of the faculty);
  • departmental and institutional facilities and equipment;
  • opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration across campus, with government agencies, and with the community;
  • the need to optimize resources available (faculty teaching assignments, TA support, limited student credit hours that can be applied to a degree), reduce redundancies, and realize economies of scale;
  • service for special groups of students (e.g. pre-service teachers).

Anticipate Changes in the Discipline

Where are we going as a geoscience community? STEM fields are constantly changing, in response to societal needs and scientists' curiosity. Predicting where any particular field is headed is a tricky business, but there are guideposts to help departments choose their path forward.

Understand Workforce Needs

In order to prepare your students for the future workforce, you (and they) need to understand what the current workforce looks like. Learn about the needs of and opportunities offered by the future workforce. See more information about employment statistics, information about major employment sectors, and a description of future opportunities that will arise as the current workforce retires.

Build Interdisciplinary Connections

Many current societal issues are connected to the Earth, such as environmental degradation, food supply, energy needs, mineral resources, climate change, and more. Incorporating these topics into a course (from any discipline) can increase relevancy and interest among students. Understanding societal issues and learning about solutions helps students develop the expertise they need to address problems that involve the Earth. Bring the Earth into your course by incorporating other's expertise or building interdisciplinary connections within your course content.

Embed Sustainability in your Program

There are many different definitions of sustainability, but most have in common a concern for both people and their environment today, as well as the well-being of future generations. A transition to sustainability will require new knowledge, tools and approaches, knowledge linked to action, and an educated leadership and public. Successful curricula are designed to produce students who can understand the confluence of scientific, economic, and social justice issues that characterize the 'three legged stool' or 'triple bottom line' approaches of the business world.

Increase the Diversity of your Graduates

Graduates in STEM fields are not as diverse as the US population in general. Not only does this challenge our ability to educate sufficient numbers of students in STEM disciplines, it also challenges our ability to address issues such as environmental justice, to bring STEM expertise to diverse communities, and to pursue a research agenda reflecting the needs and interests of our nation as a whole. STEM disciplines need to be perceived as a viable option for the best and brightest students no matter their background. InTeGrate has developed a suite of resources to help programs attract and support diverse students and prepare them for the future.

Engage the Whole Department in Visioning

Successfully envisioning the future of the department requires that all stakeholders - faculty, staff, students, and alumni - are engaged in the process. Listening to the various perspectives can point the way toward the set of touchstone ideas that will guide the departments strategic action planning going forward.

Department Activity

Introduce department stakeholders to the Characteristics of Strong Departments and ask them to discuss which aspects the department does well and where there is room for improvement. Those pluses and minuses can feed directly into a Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT) analysis of the work of the department, perhaps in the context of the thought experiment we started with.