The Role of Resource Providers in Broadening Participation in the Geosciences

Participants of the 2015 Focus Group for Resource Providers were asked to respond to:

  • What are the primary goals or vision of your organization in this educational context?
  • How do you identify what resources to create?
  • What settings do you help facilitate? (lab, field, classroom, etc.)

All of the organizations that provided educational resources shared a mission of scientific education and outreach, though the targeted audience varied from K-12 teachers, to higher education faculty, to informal settings such as museums, to the general public (with some organizations targeting multiple audiences). Educational resource development is guided by the scientific mission of the provider, and in some of the organizations, is facilitated by advisory boards and formal product evaluation activities. Resources include web-based teaching and learning materials, face-to-face or virtual professional development, conferences, and student internships and other educational experiences. Specific challenges reported included prioritizing outreach efforts, growing the user base, maintaining virtual resources, and a lack of time and resources to conduct formal evaluation and reporting to the education literature.

Workshop participants also considered:

  • What has your organization done to improve diversity?
  • What is on the horizon? What will your organization be doing or what could they be doing?

A common theme was partnering with professional groups that already have diversity initiatives and programs in place. For example, working with GSA diversity initiatives, AMS, SACNAS, and NABG (all of which offer opportunities for minority students such as conferences, student lunches, field trips, mentoring programs, and scholarships) were noted as organizations with significant diversity efforts. For organizations focused on K-12, aligning resources and professional development with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS (more info) ) was a key priority. Finally, identifying ways to improve the public perception of geosciences as a contributing community was a priority for some of the organizations.

Place-based educational resources were identified as an effective way to engage students from underrepresented groups. Many researchers have shown the strength of place-based education in working with underrepresented groups (e.g., Semken, 2005; Riggs et al., 2007). However, most educational resource providers development resources at the national, international, or sometimes regional and state scales. Therefore, we wanted to prompt resource providers to think about how their organization could help create or facilitate culturally relevant curricula.

Assessment and evaluation of educational resources was a key focus of this focus group. Participants addressed:

  • How is your organization currently evaluating materials?
  • What assessment strategies will be most effective for determining what works best with URMs?

Discussion covered a range of topics from easy-to-assess quantitative metrics, such as graduation rates, up to longitudinal and qualitative metrics. Several providers were concerned with questions about implementation fidelity; namely, determining what metrics are valuable if instructors adapt rather than adopt curricula.

Participants explored a change in marketing strategies of educational resources. The most important protocol that resource providers thought they could adopt would be to include their end users from the very first stage of development. Although this was brought up within the context of marketing, this was also identified as a solution to many of the challenges addressed when it comes to educational resources. Including the end-user in development is a shift in philosophy for many resource providers who normally see development and dissemination as two separate parts of what they do. In this new model with users involved in initial development, the users will also be the most important advertisements for the final product.

Throughout the meeting activities, a few key ideas continued to emerge across the Resource Provider discussions. In a broad sense, these conversations fell into three themes, addressed in the next sections:

The most important protocol that the Resource Providers thought they could adopt was to include their end users from the very first stage of resource development.

Theme 1: A change in marketing philosophy

  • The most important protocol that the Resource Providers thought they could adopt was to include their end users from the very first stage of resource development. Although this topic was brought up within the context of marketing, it was also identified as a solution to many of the challenges concerning educational resources. Including the end user in development is a shift in philosophy for many resource providers, who normally see development and dissemination as two separate parts of what they do. In this new model, where users are involved in initial development, they will also be the most important advertisements for the final product. Even before the educational product is finalized, users will be able to test the product and share their experiences with the development team and also with their colleagues and other potential users.
  • Many participants shared stories of how after a product was released, the most used components were rarely the ones the developers had in mind. This disconnect leads to users asking for more information or support for features that were not originally meant to be sustained or supported. Having users involved at the start highlights the needs and wants of users so that time and funds can be more efficiently allocated. This method will also go a long way toward allowing the product to be adaptable to the goal of being locally relevant.
  • The first and most important step is to create a development advisory committee made up of potential users. This will allow the resource developers to assess the needs of users before development begins. Many participants noted that products have been developed with users involved in the process, but usually at a later stage of development. However, they all noted that this method would be greatly beneficial if they could put together the right advisory board. This process could be aided by allowing chosen advisory board members to suggest other potential users who could advise development at the beginning or later stages. This could also include field testing of the material in different settings.
  • Examples of modular resources:
    • InTeGrate-developed courses and modules are designed so instructors can use or adapt parts of the materials across the curriculum to teach about sustainability-related issues in their classroom.
    • Earth Education Toolbook offers chapters that can be implemented or adapted for teaching with data and technology in the classroom.
    • DIG Blueprints offer standard-aligned resources that can be adapted or adopted to teach common K12 themes.
    • EarthLabs units offer sequences for learning science concepts through hands-on experiments and data analysis.
    The next step would be to create modular resources that could be broken into parts, rearranged, or have parts removed or added without compromising the integrity of the product. For example, if a series of online activities using real-world data is created, students should be able to complete those activities in any order or skip some entirely with minimal burden. Not only will this make products more marketable to a wider audience, it could also leverage multiple products or even multiple resource providers and increase use across the board. For example, an instructor teaching about the natural hazards of California may want to use modules from educational resources on earthquakes and also modules on drought and fire risk. One resource provider may not have material on all the subjects, and the other resource provider may have more information and activities about earthquakes than the instructor has time to cover. By having standalone, scalable modular resources, both of these challenges could be addressed.

Theme 2: Adaptability of educational resources

  • This next topic stemmed from the input of the Instructor Meeting where community college faculty demonstrated that they knew of many of the resources available to them, but were overwhelmed with the breadth of content and activities offered by so many different organizations. Along with this seemingly overabundance of resources, the issue is that the most sought out activities are place-based case studies. If the instructor is from a nearby location or similar environment to the creator of the resource, the activity might work well. However, if that it not the case, it would require significant time for instructor to modify the activities to be relevant to their own students. As a result, instructors may decide to develop their own lessons rather than use an existing resources.
  • The way resource providers sought to mitigate this issue, as well as increase the likeliness of adoption for their resources, was to intentionally make resources adaptable. These future lessons or activities could be thought of as Mad Libs, where resources are developed around a general topic with an overall structure, but they contain blank spaces where instructors can utilize their own resources and place-based knowledge to fill in the relevant materials for their students. Some topics that were identified that would be highly transferable to nearly all environments are streams, environmental justice, brown fields, and natural hazards and resources.
  • All participants agreed that skill-based educational resources are more widely adaptable and are needed for helping diverse students along a pathway toward geoscience careers. Many of the skills discussed are sometimes known as "soft skills," such as analytical thinking, critical observation, and scientific argumentation. However, there is also room for teaching geoscience-specific skills that cut across the disciplines, such as interpretation of visualizations, three-dimensional reasoning, and modeling of systems that operate on geologic time scales.
  • Especially in the categories of natural hazards or environmental disasters, resource providers could have pre-built curriculum and activities based on different hazards that could be quickly adapted and adopted by state surveys or local faculty immediately following a newsworthy event. This would efficiently and effectively utilize the instructor and resource providers resources and have a meaningful impact after sometimes difficult situations. This also allows local experts to directly communicate with affected communities instead of relying on outsiders.

Theme 3: More longitudinal evaluation of products

  • These sorts of longitudinal data would include graduation and retention rates, and enrollment for programs, courses, and institutions that utilize their resources. Resource Providers also all agreed that these data would not be sufficient to adequately assess the state of the community and help them guide resource development.
  • Resource providers are most interested in collecting longitudinal data on instructors who have received professional development or other training in their resources. The participants are confident based on end-of-training feedback that they are successful in helping instructors initially adapt materials. In the long term, however, they rarely have ongoing communication with instructors to know how the content was adapted, how it was received, or even if instructors continue to use the educational resources year after year. This lack of follow-on information undermines resource providers' ability to measure the fidelity of their materials over time. If they are truly going to implement and create highly modular and adaptable content, they need to see how their resources evolve. This is not only an issue of quality control. These data are also used as a guidepost for future endeavors and to build a community of practice among their users.
  • Possibly the most challenging aspect to measure is whether or not the learned skills are being transferred to other settings. This would require not only continued communication with instructors, but also the students. Many of the soft skills should be usable by geoscience majors and nonmajors alike, but how could the resource providers measure this transference into other classes, programs, or even the workplace? Going forward, these questions are prime targets for future research on educational infrastructure.
These future lessons could be thought of as "Mad Libs," where resources are developed around a general topic with an overall structure, but they contain blank spaces where instructors can utilize their own resources and place-based knowledge to fill in the relevant materials for their students.

Themes from Resource Provider Actions Plans

Unlike many of the other meeting participants, the represented resource provider organizations do compete for funding and stake in the geoscience community, so specific details from each organization have been left out. The following action plans are those that were mentioned in some way by multiple participants or are new ideas not previously captured in the meeting discussion.

  • There was call to action for mentoring and training specifically for faculty that teach URMs. There is a need to mentor these faculty in the use of educational materials and also to partner with URM community educators and representatives to train faculty on how to best adapt and implement the resources in their specific community. The type of training discussed varied from participant to participant, but there was consensus that face-to-face training, where resource providers send a representative into local institutions for training, is valuable. Some training is best done in the field, and the Resource Providers discussed how to make these field experiences or laboratory visits more accessible for URM-serving faculty.
  • Along with more specific efforts to train faculty, participants commonly included the establishment of internships as part of their action plan. These paid internships would be directed exclusively toward URM students. Some mentioned that recruitment success and program completion require communication with the students' local faculty. This step is needed to make sure that students are prepared for the internships, and more importantly, are assisted in implementing the acquired skills and knowledge back in their own classrooms and communities. Because they will greatly complement each other, faculty professional development and internship experiences for students should be part of the same initiatives.
  • The third most common action plan theme was the need to bring in external evaluators during educational resource development. Many of the organization use internal evaluators to ensure content quality and functionality. External evaluators would be able to work with the internal experts to ensure that materials will be successfully implemented in a wide range of educational and demographic settings. This partnership will also permit resource providers to begin collecting and analyzing longitudinal data.
  • A question that appeared throughout the participants' reflections on the meeting was: what role can resource providers play in bridge programs between 2YCs and university research laboratories? This question was never fully answered at the meeting, and it remains important for future investigations and bridge programs to explore. Resource providers represent a wealth of knowledge, materials, and experiences, but may currently be underutilized by those working on increasing diversity in the geosciences. While this became somewhat apparent when instructors and administrators did not include resource providers as stakeholders for their ideal models, the Resource Providers took this as a sign that their role was to implement infrastructure and support mechanisms that would allow the other stakeholder connections to exist.
One educational challenge repeatedly identified was the fact that many pathways into the geoscience pipeline exist in the form of research experiences and internships, but that most of these experiences are reserved only for the "best and the brightest" students, or only those students who can afford to take the time to travel or work in the field or lab.