Initial Publication Date: July 21, 2016

Improving Programs

Part of the InTeGrate Gustavus Adolphus College Program Model

Program Motivation

Nearly a decade ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called climate change "the defining challenge of our age" and challenged the world's nations to address this issue. Recent events and scientific findings have clearly affirmed the urgency of his call to action, and institutions of higher education are seeking ways to respond.

Climate change and its causes are important topics in many geoscience courses, and at Gustavus, we found that a significant proportion of faculty members in other disciplines are also very interested in climate change. However, few of those faculty members were actually teaching about climate-related topics in their courses, despite seemingly ample opportunities. For example, Economics courses might address economic threats related to agricultural productivity changes; Communications Studies courses might use climate science to catalyze discussions about pseudoscientific arguments; Chemistry courses might experimentally simulate ocean chemistry change.

We set out to discover why so few faculty members were teaching this topic, about which they so clearly care, and to help break down barriers to climate teaching.

Program-Level Goals and Evidence

Goal 1: Identify and remove barriers for faculty incorporation of climate-related content in courses outside the geosciences.

Establishing a Need -

Prior to project initiation, we administered a modified version of the Yale Climate Communication survey to the entire Gustavus faculty, in collaboration with the Gustavus Faculty Senate. We had 121 respondents (of 205 total faculty on campus). Results (Figure 1) indicate that faculty members generally believe that global warming is occurring (83% extremely sure or very sure); that it is caused by human activities (84% caused mostly by human activities); and that it is a cause for concern (61% very worried; 33% somewhat worried). In addition, faculty believe that citizens should be doing more or much more (94%) to address global warming.

In addition, many faculty members see connections between their courses and climate science, and a substantial fraction express a desire to include climate science content. However, even if faculty members believe climate change is happening and want to teach about it, few express confidence in their understanding of the science. About 21% of faculty members report that they do not have a firm grasp of climate science; 58% have a rudimentary understanding; and just 16% reported that they have a firm grasp of climate science (Figure 2).

This faculty survey indicated that Gustavus had an environment that would be conducive to cross-disciplinary introduction of climate science concepts throughout the curriculum and that we did have a potential audience for developing an interdisciplinary climate curriculum.

Building Partnerships -

Climate science concept mini-modules were developed and successfully implemented in nine courses. To begin, we invited colleagues from across campus to participate in this process. First, members of the geology department assessed interest in the topic by hosting a faculty development workshop on the topic of climate teaching. Approximately 15% of the Gustavus faculty attended, representing 17 departments. Then, to recruit participants for this project, we: issued a general invitation via a faculty email list and at faculty meetings; sent personalized emails to each department with examples of how we imagined that climate change could be a useful teaching opportunity for their discipline; and personally invited colleagues we knew.

We envisioned developing a small set of partnerships between host faculty and developers, a few at a time. We called each cohort of partnerships a "curriculum development loop," to emphasize the iterative nature of the curriculum-building process. To initiate each curriculum development loop, we hosted a teaching circle -- a collaborative faculty development workshop -- about teaching climate change in disparate disciplines. Each teaching circle began with a climate science primer or a demonstration of a previously-implemented mini-module. Faculty from non-geoscience disciplines articulated needs for further climate science information for themselves, and were directed to reliable and accessible online resources.

We hosted three teaching circles in this project:

  • Teaching Circle #1: June 25, 2014 11:00-1:00; 5 participants from 5 departments
  • Teaching Circle #2: December 18, 2014 12:30-3:00; 5 participants from 4 departments
  • Teaching Circle #3: June 1, 2015 11:00-2:00; 4 participants from 4 departments

A set of partnerships between faculty hosts (non-geoscience faculty) and developers emerged from these teaching circles. In addition, a few partnerships emerged outside of the teaching circle model - for example, a potential host might contact the development team with an idea.

The teaching circles proved to be invaluable in providing a safe place for host faculty members to express their needs. In addition, host faculty members were quite honest about their level of comfort (or discomfort) with climate science. For example, several host faculty members shared that they did not know which parts of climate science were well-understood and which were more speculative. A few felt uncertain in their understanding of the mechanism by which greenhouse gases operate. By providing a space where several non-science faculty members could interact with each other and with science faculty in a friendly, neutral environment, we found that lines of communication were readily established.

Transforming Faculty -

Faculty members who were previously hesitant about introducing climate science content or who felt uncertain about finding reliable information report a greater level of confidence and enthusiasm for continuing the use of climate science content in their courses. Most host faculty plan to continue presentation of mini-modules in their courses, although we found that changes to personnel (e.g., retirements) and courses (curricular modification) may be a barrier to ongoing implementation.

Goal 2: Develop climate science primers and mini-modules for use by non-specialist faculty in existing non-geoscience courses in the humanities, social sciences, arts and natural sciences.

Developing Materials -

With partnerships in place, each curriculum development loop entered the mini-module development and implementation phase, wherein each non-geoscience 'host' faculty member was paired with a climate science specialist. The pairs exchanged multiple emails and most met between one and three times, during which the non-geoscience faculty members were exposed to and practiced teaching basic climate science concepts. In most cases, the host began with only a vague idea of what the lesson plan might include; then, the science specialists would suggest several possible learning activities and lesson goals, often but not always based on something they themselves had taught elsewhere. The host would choose which option seemed to best fit their needs, and the mini-module development would progress. Also during this phase, the science specialist was available to answer questions and seek out useful resources (e.g., accessible articles or graphs from the literature) for the host. In some cases, the science specialist was asked to evaluate the credibility of an article or graph that the host was considering using in a course. At the end, the hosts expressed great appreciation for the work that the science specialists did in terms of serving as gateways to the vast but intimidating troves of climate science knowledge.

Once the developer had completed a lesson draft, the host and developer met with a subset of the development team and delivered the lesson as a test run, with developers as the audience. This process allowed the host faculty member to view the lesson content and the mode of delivery as a "dress rehearsal" and to offer perspective without the pressure of performing in front of students. Additionally, other members of the development team were able to offer advice on framing, pedagogy, pace, and length. When possible, experienced geoscience students were included in the test audience; they provided valuable insight into the student perspective on the lesson. We found that the test-run step was crucial in a smooth delivery of interdisciplinary content to students. It was a particularly helpful mechanism for uncovering pedagogic differences and for discovering additional points of intersection between host and developer.

During the course of the project, we learned that it would have been valuable to construct mini-modules with a somewhat more formal template that laid out course goals, lesson objectives, and other features of the mini-module prior to delivery. Such framing and pre-planning would improve the transferability of the modules to other courses and/or other institutions.

Goal 3: Implement mini-modules in existing courses and assess the impact on student climate literacy.

The initial classroom implementation of a mini-module was conducted by the developer, with the host faculty member present and a second member of the development team present as an observer. In this way, the developers could evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the mini-modules in real classroom settings, allowing a final phase of refinement. Following this initial implementation, the host faculty member delivered the content, although the developer remained available if assistance was required. This ensures sustainability of the implementation, as the adopting faculty member takes ownership of the module and becomes increasingly comfortable with climate science content. The development team offered additional training (and initial implementation) for a new faculty member in a course or for additional faculty members interested in adopting mini-modules.

We surveyed climate science perceptions across all incoming first-year students at the beginning of the 2014 and 2015 academic years, using a survey similar to the one administered to faculty (see above). Preliminary results suggest that student perceptions about climate change differ somewhat from faculty perceptions. In the 2014 survey, 48% of students were "extremely sure" or "very sure" that climate change was happening, and 66% attributed global warming to human activities. About 16% of students are "very worried" about global warming, and 44% are "somewhat worried." The faculty survey indicated that faculty members were more certain about climate change, more likely to attribute climate change to human activities, and a greater sense of concern. In contrast, students are quite likely to have had some climate change content in their high school courses (70% report that it was mentioned; 15% say it was a central theme in one or more courses), while only 15% of faculty at Gustavus report touching on climate change and 9% report it as a central theme.

Students were assessed in each modified course using a short pre-test and follow-up post-test. Early findings, with relatively simple, identical multiple choice questions did not yield very useful data - students scored very well on the pre-test and average scores did not change greatly. Short answer responses were frequently left blank or incompletely answered on the post-test, and students expressed frustration and apathy at being asked to take the same assessment twice. For the latter set of mini-modules, students received assessments with only a few questions in common, and more challenging questions on the post-test. In addition, some courses included essays or exam questions that touched on climate and students generally showed an ability to connect climate science content to other course themes.

Unexpected Outcomes

Outcome 1: Faculty within and outside climate science disciplines established robust lines of communication and collaboration regarding climate change issues in the classroom.

The heart of the liberal arts tradition is that a well-educated person has a breadth of knowledge spanning many disciplines. And yet many institutions are fundamentally organized by departments where faculty can find themselves isolated from colleagues. Using our model of teaching circles, faculty pairings and mini-module testing, we established a habit of interdisciplinary cooperation. Within the climate science disciplines, faculty enjoyed sharing with each other examples of how they communicate important climate concepts. Then, working closely with faculty in other disciplines, we found -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that the learning was a two-way enterprise. In other words, it was not just host faculty learning from the scientists; the scientists learned a lot from the other disciplines too. That led to an unanticipated phase of the project, wherein our model was "flipped" -- a science faculty served as host to a non-science faculty member. This indicates how powerful these cross-disciplinary collaborations can be in terms of improving education in multiple places. These cross-disciplinary collaborations introduced authentic diversity in ways of knowing within traditionally mono-disciplinary courses; this type of collaboration shows great promise for infusing cross-disciplinary communication in other areas of the curriculum at our institution.

Outcome 2: Some mini-modules were more successful than others.

It turns out that it can be surprisingly difficult to understand the pedagogy and learning goals of an entirely different discipline. Whereas, for example, a geologist and biologist likely have somewhat similar syllabi, classroom experiences and assessment tools, a geologist may struggle to even understand an English professor's course structure, much less the learning goals. In that example, the geologist felt unprepared for integrating her science content into the discussion-based classroom environment with no access to her usual multimedia tools. We learned that the clearer the host can be in articulating how they expect a class session to evolve, the better prepared a developer can be. The test-run turns out to be a good place to explore these pedagogic differences, and we would advocate a test run for any new interdisciplinary pairing, even if the lesson is not newly developed. Also, several developers afterward suggested that it would have been helpful for them to visit the host classroom once (or more) before even beginning development, in order to see how the host and students normally interact.

When that breakthrough happens, though, and the developer understands how a colleague in another discipline is thinking, it can be a powerful learning experience for the science instructor. In the example above, the geologist reported gaining a new appreciation for how writing can be deconstructed to teach students about an author's voice and sense of place (the latter of which can be tightly linked to the climate of that place). In another case, the developer reported learning from the host about a conceptual model to describe 'types of knowledge,' which clarified for the developer her role as a scientist and helped her better articulate to her own science students why science and religion need not be incompatible.

Outcome 3: It may be difficult to 'un-hook' a climate science mini-module from the developer and make it self-sustaining in the host course.

We had intended that host faculty members would be able to inherit and carry on these modules without ongoing support from developers. However, two of the hosts reported that even after the module development and delivery, they did not feel confident enough in their own climate literacy to be able to deliver the module alone in future course offerings. And that is understandable, because we did not provide climate science teaching or tutorials to the host faculty. It may advisable to give the hosts a climate science primer, or targeted resource materials if they are self-motivated, so that they can improve their own climate literacy.

Also, two hosts reported that they specifically wanted the developer in the classroom because of his/her personal experience or ability to demonstrate a different way of thinking. In other words, the developer faculty member was him/herself valuable as an interdisciplinary voice and model of a way of knowing, separate from the value of the mini-module itself. In those cases, the continued success of the mini-modules requires ongoing participation, and is something to consider when designing interdisciplinary content.

Long-term Impact and Next Steps

The process created by this project provides a path by which additional mini-modules can be developed when other faculty members become interested or arrive on campus. Next steps are to:

  • Work with our institution to encourage and support this module development in future years
  • Refine existing modules and help them evolve through time
  • Survey exiting graduates to determine the magnitude of climate literacy improvement in the student population as a whole
  • Work with our institution to expand this mode of cross-disciplinary teaching, perhaps offering it as a module to developing cross-disciplinary general education courses.