Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2016

Improving Programs

Part of the InTeGrate University of Illinois Chicago Program Model

Program Motivation

As global societies increasingly stress Earth systems, geoscientists need to engage a new generation of students across all academic disciplines and all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Rising demands for natural resources and environmental protection will require individuals who can merge geoscience with disciplines like public policy and engineering as well as contribute diverse perspectives to solving complex problems. As the U.S. population grows in ethnic and cultural diversity, it is now more important than ever to engage underrepresented groups into the geosciences. Furthermore, because 81% of the U.S. population is concentrated in cities, urban students are a rich source for recruitment of a diverse workforce.

Attracting students from urban centers requires dedicated work to introduce and explain the variety of possible careers relevant to their worldview. Whereas urban students have little exposure to natural Earth processes, they are acutely aware of the demands and effects of growing populations and human-modified environments. Chicago students, for instance, are familiar with swimming bans on Lake Michigan, flash flooding from extreme storms, and factory air pollution in minority neighborhoods. Our proposal is centered on engaging urban students by incorporating career development into an overall more urban-relevant curriculum in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


As of Fall 2016, we have been working to pursue our InTeGrate Program Model goals for 1.5 years. The program focuses on engaging UIC's typically urban student population with the geosciences through the use of societally relevant InTeGrate modules and awareness of career opportunities within the discipline. We focused our efforts on first and second year courses to spread the impact of the program to students across several different disciplines and also as a means to recruit and retain students. We hope that, as the program continues, students across the university will have a better understanding of the relevance of geosciences to their lives and have a growing awareness of career opportunities within the geosciences. Among faculty, we envision a more collaborative and supportive community will begin to develop around meeting the needs and interests of urban students. And lastly, there will be strengthened relationships and open communication between our department and alumni.

At the end of our 1.5 year program, all 9 departmental faculty have participated in some way with the program (whether it was helping to generate a list of alumni to contact or participating in a faculty meeting given by the Office of Career Services), while 7 faculty members have directly used InTeGrate or InTeGrate-inspired activities in their courses. Each semester 200+ students have participated in some part of our program.

Program-Level Goals and Evidence

Goal 1: Improve student awareness of geoscientific thinking skills in areas relating geoscience to the urban environment

Through the adoption of InTeGrate modules, we have worked to incorporate geoscience methods of investigation and habits of mind. Our goal was to highlight activities that a) used authentic data to showcase observations and descriptions, b) showcased historical studies that could inform present day observations, and c) focused on Earth systems. While we have typically focused on geoscientific thinking when discussing topics like climate change and plate tectonics, through this program we have started to use more examples from our urban and local environment. For instance, learning about the natural processes that have shaped and continue to shape the physical and economic landscape of the Chicago region, highlighting new air quality monitors that will be deployed throughout the city, and investigating albedo of an urban landscape.

Overall, students seemed to be more engaged and more willing to participate in discussion when we could talk directly about the city or an even more localized neighborhood. Students started to notice more geoscience processes going on around them. For instance, some students started to ask questions about large quarries seen from the interstate, building foundations for the city's skyscrapers, and the potential impact of green roofs. Still other students took their own time out of class to find out more about Superfund sites in Illinois and frack sand mining. other . These new discussions and dialogues with students about geoscience in urban environments is exciting and has

While we were not able to directly assess students' awareness of geoscientific thinking, student results from the InTeGrate Attitudinal Instrument (IAI) from an initial semester (n=55) of data collection is promising. In a question asking about students concerns for the future, a majority of students listed future concerns as global climate change, water resources, and energy resources. These concerns aligned with the InTeGrate modules that were implemented into coursework including Climate of Change; Carbon, Climate, and Energy Resources; and Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources. The attitudinal survey also revealed that many of our students are practicing environmentally sustainable actions, such as taking public transit and recycling paper, glass, and aluminum.

Goal 2: Increase student awareness of career options in the geosciences

Urban students often have very little exposure to the natural world and little awareness of the job opportunities available within the geosciences. Our goal was to create resources that were accessible for students, were inclusive of their urban world view, and addressed potential concerns they may have about being a geoscientist (e.g. salary, working in the field, and job demand).

Featuring Alumni – Through this project, we were able to reconnect with several of our alumni who were located locally in Chicago and throughout the country. Our alumni group showcased the diversity of educational and career paths available in the geosciences. They shared their own stories of discovering the discipline and provided advice to current students. During the 1.5 year duration of our project, we worked closely with 14 alumni. Our group of alumni featured individuals from typically underrepresented groups, international backgrounds, and those who started their degrees at 2-year institutions.

  • UIC Earth and Environmental Sciences YouTube Videos
    The videos are about 10 minutes in length and are geared towards current undergraduate students who are currently majoring or thinking of majoring in geoscience. The videos feature alumni who are currently located in the Chicagoland region. To date, 4 videos have been fully developed, with 2 more that are currently being finalized.
  • Alumni Profiles Posted Online
    Several alumni have provided profile information to help us inform current students about job options and provide career advice. We have made these profiles available online through our university's Blackboard site.

Informational Career Poster – While there are several useful websites and informational sheets available about geoscience careers, we decided to create one graphical poster that would combine themes about what a geoscientists does, what type of setting a geoscientists can work in, why there is a demand for geoscientists, and how much geoscientists are paid. Full Size Careers Poster (Acrobat (PDF) 8.6MB Nov30 16)

Posters are now available throughout department classrooms, and videos have been sent out to current majors and posted on introductory course Blackboard sites. We estimate that, each semester, the posters will be seen by over 350 students. Additionally, based on YouTube analysis from the past few months, we would estimate that the videos are being viewed over 175 times a semester with a total watch time of between 700-900 minutes.

As of Fall 2016, we have started to fully implement all of these resources in the classroom and lecture and hope to see stronger results in the future. Informal feedback from students who have viewed the material include more questions about planning for their career. Specifically, students have had questions about a Professional Geologist License - what are the requirements and what the potential benefits. Moreover, some students have reported that they have made decisions about which courses to take based on advice from alumni in the videos.

Goal 3: Increase the amount of student-centered learning pedagogies employed by faculty

For our project, we defined student-centered learning as the incorporation of relevant content (e.g. current events, topics of urban and local importance) and alternative approaches to lecturing (e.g. classroom response systems, demonstrations, jigsaws, etc.). Our main strategy to increase student-centered learning pedagogies was to focus on adopting and adapting a few InTeGrate activities into course curriculum. To assist in the adoption of these new learning techniques we took a variety of strategies, including a) working as a small team to discuss implementation, b) getting graduate students involved with lab revisions, and c) a simple email to faculty with SERC and InTeGrate resources.

We have been able to start implementing student-centered learning in several of our courses. For our large enrollment courses, we have focused on using demonstrations, worksheets, and formative assessments (e.g. Clickers, pre-class reading assignments, quizzes, etc.). Additionally, when possible, we have incorporated discussion of relevant topics (e.g. recent earthquakes, North Dakota pipeline, water in Flint, MI).

Faculty survey data from the beginning and end of our 1.5 year program indicate that the amount of lecturing time in our introductory (100 and 200 level courses) has decreased significantly. Specifically, in our 100 level courses which have an enrollment of ~130-180 students, faculty initially reported lecturing 70-100% of the time in 2015, however, at the end of our program responses for time spent on lecturing dropped to 40-60%. Faculty reported spending the extra class time on class discussions, demonstrations, and assessments of student learning. Moreover, survey results show faculty are moving away from students memorizing course material and instead emphasizing students' abilities to apply information, form new ideas, and analyze reasoning.

Overall, the program model has helped our faculty department be more thoughtful about students' experiences in our courses. The discussions have been held in small groups or one-on-one when the faculty have a desire or more specific need to try out new teaching materials or methods. Moreover, larger group discussions and ideas about student-centered learning have been facilitated by invited speakers to the department, who have spoken about and also used active learning techniques to give their seminars.

Goal 4: Increase the number of geoscience-related academic activities carried out by employers in the classroom

The goal of this initiative was to collaborate with local employers to carry out classroom activities. We have been able to make successful progress towards connecting with alumni and employers and plan to strengthen relations so that we can develop more innovative classroom activities. Several alumni have visited the department or offered helpful words of advice. Through these experiences it has become clear that our alumni are important resources that have a breadth of knowledge outside of the scope of a normal faculty member.

The most successful method of connecting with local employers has come from our efforts of re-connecting with department alumni. At UIC, we have the advantage of having many local alumni and also alumni who come back to visit the city and local family. In the Spring 2016 semester, two alumni came to speak with students. One was a more recent local graduate who works as an air toxics specialist and the other works in Nevada as an environmental compliance specialist with over 20 years of experience in the mining industry. While attendance was moderate, students were engaged and actively asking questions about how to find a job and what skills employers found useful.

During Fall 2016, four visits occurred. One visit was from two alumni who are Principals-in-Charge at an international design and consultancy business. Another alumnus, who is a Senior Project Manager in environmental services, visited and helped students understand the importance of professional geologist license. Another visit was from a former student who now works as an aide to the commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and is representative of the Alliance for the Great Lakes Young Professional Council. An additional visit occurred by a friend of the department who worked with students on a remediation activity that her company had developed for students.

Goal 5: Increase the number of geoscience job and internship opportunities available from local industry

Similar to goal 4, our main strategy to increase the number of geoscience job and internship opportunities available to our students is to strengthen our relationships with local employers and alumni. We have found it beneficial to connect with older and more established alumni to learn about what companies are looking for in new hires and how to advise and prepare our students. We hope that stronger ties will help alumni keep UIC in mind when they learn about new opportunities at their companies.

To help us judge and quantify the number of internship and job advertisements that are passed along to our students, we searched through the undergraduate major listserv, where faculty members often forward information that they receive about different opportunities, including jobs, internships, and scholarships. From this search, we found that in the last year we sent about 8 internship and 5 job advertisements from institutions including local groups like the Illinois Water Resources Center, the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, Illinois State Geological Survey, and regional environmental consulting agencies. The actual number of internship and job advertisements students receive may be greater as some faculty opt to send more personal emails to individual students or classes.

We plan to continue tracking the number of opportunities we advertise to our students. Through a few simple searches on job search databases and more deliberate communication about known internship opportunities, the department feels like we can make a large improvement in this area. We are also hopeful that continued relations and correspondence with our alumni and local employers will help us receive more direct information about internship and job opportunities.

Unexpected Outcomes

Establishing Clear Communication with Students

As we talked to students about career opportunities and pathways in the geosciences, it became clear that many struggled in finding information about geoscience careers. While we recently redid our public departmental web page to include some key information about internships, research opportunities, and careers, we found that many of our current students were not using the public web page as a resource. We decided to take time to develop resources through Blackboard (our course management system), that students are hopefully checking more often, and where we could upload more detailed information from alumni and provide sample resumes and CVs.

Long-term Impact and Next Steps

We are planning to continue implementation of the InTeGrate materials. Our initial project helped expose faculty to the content and teaching methods available within the modules. We are planning to go through the modules again and adapt the modules to use in large lecture classes and within lab settings. We found that the modules were full of detailed information, but that with this initial implementation plan, we were most comfortable implementing and testing out smaller portions of the modules and units. As some of the core members of the project become more familiar with the material and adapting teaching methods for our students and classrooms, we have an opportunity to implement more of the modules in our courses and advertise and advise our colleagues on using the modules. Potential ideas for the future include having team meetings to identify module material that might work well in redesigned labs and inviting fellow faculty into our InTeGrate-influenced classes to see how others approach implementing new content and methods.

We are also working on staying connected with our alumni. This part of the program has initially created the strongest positive feedback from both faculty and students. We plan to continue inviting alumni to the department, conducting interviews and making videos, and plan informal mixer events between alumni and students.

We also plan to create more career-relevant assignments in our courses through collaborations with Career Services and local companies.

Discussions of local, social, and urban relevance have also resonated with faculty as a way to grow the department and recruit more students into our courses and major.