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Improving Programs

Part of the InTeGrate Middle Tennessee State University Program Model

Program Motivation

The GeoSustainability project is our response to recruiting and retaining undergraduates who are interested in sustainability and who are best-served by a Geoscience degree program. We especially seek to engage veterans, first-generation college students, and transfer students as well as all students who are interested in sustainability. We contend that many students benefit from a degree program that combines workforce training with flexibility and a gradual approach to building skills in "tough" STEM subjects. MTSU Geosciences supports career patterns in (1) Physical Geography and (2) Earth Science, which are perfectly suited to students having dual interests in sustainability and Geoscience. MTSU Geosciences also has a career pattern in (3) Geology which is well-suited for students seeking a challenging STEM program preparing them for multiple downstream opportunities.


The long-term goals of the GeoSustainability project are to (a) improve undergraduate recruitment into existing MTSU Geosciences programs and (b) improve retention of undergraduates across the university who are interested in sustainability. In the pilot project, we worked towards these goals by increasing use of InTeGrate materials among non-STEM undergraduates and also sustainability undergraduates who were not (yet) Geosciences majors. The rationale for the retention component is that some MTSU sustainability undergraduates are better-served by the programs within Geosciences than by other sustainability programs at MTSU (e.g., the Environmental Sustainability and Technology program within the Engineering Technology Department). By helping these students choose Geosciences, the project contributes to their retention at the university overall, and particularly within the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.

Project Goal:

Attract and support undergraduates interested in sustainability

During 2015-2016 school year, the GeoSustainability project experimented with ways to expand use of InTeGrate materials in different course settings. A total of 5 faculty members within 3 different STEM departments (Geosciences, Chemistry, and Agribusiness & Agriscience) and one faculty member in the Department of Political Science and International Relations used the materials in their courses. The courses involved included a large general studies Introductory Earth Science course (approx. 270 students in 3 sections), a 15-student introductory-level Honors Physical Science course, and upper-level Agribusiness and Agriscience, Political Science, and Geosciences courses.

One major success was in a 93-student section of general studies introductory Earth Science during Fall 2016 where students read InTeGrate materials embedded in pre-class assignments, and more than 50% of class time was devoted to use of InTeGrate modules. MTSU assessment data, taken during the semester, show that the approach used in this course was consistent with efforts to retain non-STEM majors within the university. During Fall 2016 the course section using InTeGrate materials was tied for the lowest rate of D/F/W, and N (never attended) grades. And for this section, the average student evaluation score exceeded the average for all MTSU Geosciences courses for every Fall semester during 2012-2016. (The average evaluation score was also a 2012-2016 Fall semester Intro. to Earth Science personal best for instructor Dr. Abolins.) These data provide a rational basis for continuing the use of InTeGrate materials within the general studies courses taken primarily by non-STEM majors.

We also think that continued use of these materials will provide non-STEM majors the opportunity to discover how existing programs within MTSU Geosciences can prepare them for the sustainability workforce.

Unexpected Outcome

Faculty on campus made connections that probably should have been made long ago.

Mark Abolins, a geoscientist, and Lisa Langenbach, a political scientist, had offices in adjacent buildings for years, but had not worked together on their teaching before. The development of the MTSU InTeGrate program model proposal led them to discover common goals. Dr. Langenbach was interested in adding a significant amount of Earth Science content to her American Public Policy course, which Dr. Abolins was interested in facilitating. This interaction caused them to both engage in new material and work together. After the American Public Policy students worked with an InTeGrate module, Dr. Langenbach wrote in an e-mail that "of the 18 in the class, I think 12 or 13 really did well, learned a lot, showed interest, and got a lot out of it." She also wrote that this was "fun and educational for me too :) ." An additional indication of Dr. Langenbach's level of engagement is that she co-authored a poster with Dr. Abolins and Judith Iriarte-Gross and presented the poster at the Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) meeting in Washington, DC during October, 2016.

Long-term Impact and Next Steps

Because the program model was built on existing efforts at MTSU, the continuation of these efforts will move forward as part of the ongoing programming. The GeoSustainability project will contribute to recruit students into the Geosciences major and work towards retaining students in College of Basic and Applied Sciences, the university, and the sustainability workforce as is outlined in the project goals. The project will continue to engage with non-STEM majors and seeks to expand contact with sustainability professionals who do not yet hold 4-year university degrees, non-STEM majors, community college students, and high school students. The project will also continue to engage with middle school girls through Expanding Your Horizons (EYH). Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross, the head of EYH, will continue to recruit MTSU Geosciences students to help with the annual workshop for middle school girls.