Initial Publication Date: October 16, 2016

Improving Teaching and Learning

Part of the InTeGrate Gustavus Adolphus College Program Model

Courses and Materials
Developed by the Project »

Impact on Teaching and Learning

Impact 1: Gustavus faculty are developing new modes and habits of interdisciplinary collaboration.

A new sense of interdisciplinary cooperation has been nurtured at Gustavus. Approximately twenty faculty members (about 10% of our faculty) from 14 different departments and programs participated in this project. Furthermore, the college funded a small study to determine whether this model of co-teaching could be implemented more broadly across campus with topics other than climate science. Therefore, we foresee that the lessons learned from this project will facilitate wider integration and interdisciplinarity of teaching and learning in the coming years.

The model of interdisciplinary teaching we adopted represents a middle ground between rather labor-intensive and complex integrated co-teaching (where two or more faculty members fully share responsibility for a course) and sequential co-teaching (where faculty members take turns teaching in the same classroom). In our model, content experts, termed "developers" (for our project, those with climate science content knowledge) worked with a non-expert faculty member, termed "hosts" to create mini-modules (one or two class meetings) that integrated climate science content with the content knowledge of another course that might not otherwise address climate science. We asked host and developer faculty members to report on their experience with the project.

Outcomes - Faculty

Most hosts identified the developer's familiarity with the topic as the biggest benefit to this model. The developer, a specialist, could easily identify the appropriate articles or resources. The developer almost always offered several options to meet the host's needs, from which the host could then choose.

  • Access to a specialist was key for many of these interactions. Hosts identified unfamiliar literature and content as a barrier for them, and developers helped navigate that content.
  • Hosts retained control over the overall content and direction of the course; they reported a high level of motivation to improve the course.

Hosts reported that developers were willing to listen to how their colleagues teach, and adapt content and delivery accordingly.

  • One host reported that she would not have tried this at her previous institution. At Gustavus, though, she felt free to experiment in this way because she "trusts her colleagues" and "has no sense of losing face." Other preexisting programs, such as our first-term seminar (in which we frequently bring colleagues into our classrooms) served to lower the barrier for this project.

Three of the hosts reported that they place a very high value on having the developer present in the classroom to provide personal experience, perspective, or disciplinary contrast.

  • For these hosts, this personal experience may be the most important dimension of this model.
  • That priority stands in contrast to the original plan, which was to make the host faculty self-sufficient with climate science content, but opens up a new set of possibilities for sustained collaboration.

This model works best when potential hosts have already decided that they care about the topic and that it's relevant for their courses. For potential developers, this process works best when they are already knowledgeable and comfortable with the content.

  • One host explained that climate change was an "utterly critical piece" that has come up before when she taught this course, but at that time, she didn't feel equipped to answer questions. This opportunity helped her meet a pre-existing need in the course.

The collaboration itself generated excitement.

  • A participant appreciated being called together to make space for collaboration in a busy schedule. She told the story of a colleague in a different department with whom she occasionally interacts: "When I see this colleague once or twice a year, we have this brief excitement but go our separate ways and lose that excitement until the next time...." This project allowed this pair to connect in a meaningful way.

During the 2016-17 school year, Gustavus began developing a new general education curriculum and this model had already influenced how we thought about interdisciplinary teaching. The initial framework for this curriculum calls for a diverse set of co-teaching models and interdisciplinary work. We're excited that this "middle ground" model of collaboration might become a permanent part of the culture at Gustavus.

Impact 2: Climate science literacy has improved among Gustavus students and faculty who participated in this project.

Students -

Participating host faculty were surveyed about their students' beliefs about climate science and climate change. Faculty perceptions varied widely:

  • I "am met with a wider range of attitudes and beliefs than I had expected...."
  • "They seem to see this as an 'over there; them, not me; it will get fixed somehow' sort of problem."
  • "Some of them know about climate change but don't have a detailed scientific knowledge...."
  • "Most do not necessarily understand the scientific elements of climate change, but believe they can contribute to the outcome...."
  • "Climate science is very frequently invoked as being one of their major concerns. I regard our students as being quite certain that climate change has occurred and is continuing to do so rapidly."
  • "The longer they've been at Gustavus, the better they understand the realities and dangers. the FTS [first-term seminar] students are shocked that 'nobody told us about this before.'"
  • "Despite some outliers, substantial numbers are Alarmed or Concerned."

First-year students and seniors were surveyed about climate change, using a modified version of the Yale Climate Survey. Although the project was not long enough to survey the same cohort as first-year and senior students, changes in our students through their college years are substantial. We do not claim that this project produced these changes; rather, these data show that Gustavus students are exposed to climate change throughout their curriculum, to a degree not explained merely by participation in the relatively few geoscience courses available. Here, we show results for four of the questions on these surveys, comparing Fall 2014 first-year students (the year our project began) to Spring 2016 senior students (the most recent year for which we had data; some of these students would have been reached by this project).

Comparison of First-Year and Senior student surveys (Acrobat (PDF) 379kB Oct15 16)

We assessed student climate literacy before and after each module delivery. Students scored well on the assessments, even as pre-tests, indicating a relatively high level of prerequisite knowledge about climate science. Overall, change from pre-test to post-test was modestly positive, showing some learning gains, even from a relatively limited exposure to climate science content. Questions most frequently missed on pre-test had the greatest gains on post-test. A few questions showed small decreases in correct-answer proportion for some courses, perhaps indicating some confusion was introduced during the module.

  • The most frequently missed question on pre-tests was "What is the difference between weather and climate?" Many students, on pre-test, did not have a sense that weather and climate are different. By post-test, most students recognized the time-averaged nature of climate.
  • Students were generally able to list likely effects of climate change; answers increased in sophistication on the post-test, but also focused on specific impacts discussed in the mini-module lesson.

Beginning in the second year of the project, we also asked students to comment on their experience. Below are a few representative excerpts and general observations:

  • Students, sometimes even in the same section of the same course, disagreed about whether the climate science content was relevant to that course. This observation suggests that additional framing of the importance of the mini-modules and deeper integration with course content is important.
  • Some students wished for more time to discuss climate science, while others felt that introducing science into a non-science course was inappropriate.
  • In one course, where the host and developer interacted extensively during the mini-module, students reported benefiting from that interaction. One student expressed a desire for each to challenge the other's perspective more deeply.
  • Some students asked for more detailed data on the relationship between human activities and climate change.
  • Some students thought that more work to prepare outside of class would have enabled rich in-class discussion during the mini-module.
We also asked students to report on what they thought they learned that was new to them. Among the most common responses:
  • The effects of climate change are occurring now and are measurable.
  • Warming would continue for some time even if greenhouse gas emission halted immediately.
  • Climate change will disproportionately affect impoverished people and nations.
  • The urgency is greater than students thought.

Faculty -

Faculty at the beginning of the project expressed significant hesitation about teaching climate science content and their own backgrounds in the scientific evidence for climate change.

In a survey administered to potential host faculty prior to teaching circles, half of participants reported that they understood climate science "not well at all" or "not as well as I'd like to."

  • "I never took a class on climate science."
Faculty at the beginning of the project expressed significant concern about climate change and its environmental and human consequences

60% of potential host faculty (non-specialists) indicated concern for the consequences of climate change and human responses to it, in response to a question asking participants to characterize their beliefs about climate science and climate change. The remaining 40% did not express concern, but did indicate a belief that climate change was real and important.

  • "I believe that the changes in global weather patterns... require immediate action. I foresee massive social change, with a serious potential to deepen social inequality and poverty...."
  • "I think it's THE most critical question before us today."
  • "I definitely believe there is a substantial negative human/industrial impact that is causing devastation *in the present*, and not just for future generations.
Following module implementation host faculty were interviewed; some expressed more confidence in their capacity to teach climate science content. However, others reported not feeling more confident, and instead placed high value on having a science expert in the room to introduce the content and answer questions.
  • Some hosts still "felt fuzzy" about the climate science content, and did not yet feel ready to take over instruction of these ideas.
  • One host said that she had some degree of knowledge prior to the project, but that the mini-module did not extend her knowledge much. She would need additional depth before she'd feel comfortable teaching it herself, but also reports being somewhat more at ease with her own uncertainty.
  • One participant said that an ongoing relationship with the developer was critical, because of the rapidly evolving nature of the science content; the content can't simply be repeated without adjustment.