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This program description is part of a collection of institutional models which explore ways of bringing a geoscience-informed approach to sustainability to a diverse range of disciplines, institutions, and networks. These model programs also provide the documentation and resources necessary to help other groups implement similar programs.
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The Pennsylvania State University - Distance Learning Courses

Tim Bralower, Penn State University
Laura Guertin, Penn State Brandywine
Initial Publication Date: March 3, 2015


Online education is becoming an integral part of the mission of many universities across the country. This mode of delivery has many advantages, in particular providing an education for students who can't come to campus, but it also has a number of challenges. In particular, activities involving large data sets and complex earth systems are often difficult for students to figure out without a lot of supervision. For students who are on campus, the blended mode of delivery where the lecture is online and the lab is face to face, alleviates these challenges while providing students with flexibility. The overarching goal of the Penn State program model is to provide an effective model for teaching about sustainability through online and blended courses and programs. Five InTeGrate courses are being taught in blended format and three in fully online format. All of the courses are active and explore large data sets and are aimed at teaching students about Earth systems and complexity. The courses comprise a Certificate Program and Minor in Earth Sustainability that are offered on campus and online. A central part of our program is the e-learning cooperative that is offered to six Penn State Commonwealth campuses making sustainability education more available across the Penn State system as well as institutions across the country, including Fort Valley State University, an HBCU In Georgia.Read more about the Penn State World Campus
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About the Program

The Pennsylvania State University program model demonstrates how distance-learning courses can be used to enhance programming among a collaborating set of institutions. We have developed five new, active courses in Earth Sustainability that can be taught in blended or fully online mode. The courses on Climate, Energy, Coastal Hazards, Food, and Water are at the introductory level, integrate science with engineering and policy, and are based on large datasets. The sixth course is an upper level capstone course in Earth Modeling. All of the course materials are fully accessible through the InTeGrate and the Penn State open educational resources websites. The courses constitute the basis of new certificate and minor degree programs in Earth Sustainability. Our goal is to have the courses and degree programs widely adopted across the 24-campus Penn State system and through the Penn State World Campus, which serves students, including a high proportion of adult learners, across the globe.

Program Goals

  1. Increase understanding of critical sustainability issues for a large number of students leading to a workforce more aware of critical sustainability issues and more prepared to work on interdisciplinary teams and able to use systems thinking.
  2. Improve the effectiveness of online courses by making them active and centered on large data sets.
  3. Increase sustainability education at 2YCs and minority-serving institutions where such programs are traditionally under-represented.
  4. Attract students to take multiple courses potentially culminating in enrollment in the Earth Sustainability Minor and Certificate of Excellence programs.
  5. Increase communication and improve engagement among students and faculty in geoscience-related disciplines across a large state university system including branch and main campuses.

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This program description is part of a growing collection of models of ways to bring learning about the Earth to a diverse range of disciplines, institutions, and networks, as well as provide the documentation and resources necessary to help other groups implement similar programs..
Explore the Programs »