Improving Programs

Part of the InTeGrate Penn State University Program Model

Program Motivation

Today's graduates must have an awareness of urgent sustainability issues including climate change, water, food, and energy to be successful members of the workforce. This program model aims to provide this awareness to large numbers of students through the five new blended and online InTeGrate courses through the World Campus and in the Penn State Commonwealth Campus system. In addition courses are being taught outside of Penn State at universities of course authors as well as at Fort Valley State University, an HBCU in Georgia.

The World Campus and the Penn State Commonwealth Campus system are designed to make an education more accessible. However, there are few sustainability offerings in both of these venues and we struggle to provide pathways for students to obtain a formal qualification in geoscience. We have rectified this situation with the introduction of highly relevant, engaging, and pedagogically rigorous InTeGrate courses at these locations. New Certificate of Excellence and Minor programs are designed for students to learn about a number of sustainability areas and to take multiple courses. The program has also increased communication and improved engagement among students faculty in geoscience-related disciplines across a large state university system.

Program-Level Goals and Evidence

Goal 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.

We have had close to 1000 students enrolled in InTeGrate courses across the Commonwealth Campus system and through the World Campus. As new courses are adopted at more campuses and interest in the courses grows at the World Campus, we expect this number to increase. The courses are also being taught by faculty authors who are not at Penn State.

The courses focus on critical sustainability issues including climate change, energy, water, food and coastal hazards. These are all topics that are in the news; students are used to hearing about them and realize that they are important. Interest level is very high for general education courses. As many of our students are already in the workforce, we often hear from them that the material they learn in class is useful and applicable in their current positions.

The courses are interdisciplinary, and the inclusion of modules on policy and societal impacts makes them somewhat unique for many campuses. In the case of several of the courses, the policy modules were produced by experts in their fields. The mixture of expertise made the teamwork highly stimulating, moreover teaching the courses is highly engaging for faculty.

It is too early to gauge whether the courses are having an impact on the workforce but we have heard anecdotes from students during the semester that the material was relevant and helpful to their jobs.

Goal 2. Improve the effectiveness of online courses by making them active and centered on large data sets.

Designing activities that use real data and require thinking about systems and complexity at the general education level is challenging to students. The activities are structured to be easier in early modules and to become progressively more complex in later modules. In early modules of several courses, students are given answers to practice assignments to help them get the hang of the material. We include highly topical exercises including interpreting temperature and precipitation trends, observing storm tracks and sea level rise projections, and making projections for water use in cities in the future. The goal is for students to be more engaged by the highly relevant topics in the assessments.

The courses are also based on an understanding of the Earth system and how different parts of the system are related. Moreover, complexity is a critical element of appreciating these relationships. All of the courses have summative, capstone assessments that require integration of information and an understanding of material from throughout the course. For example, in the coastal hazards course, students combine material on geography and hazards of a coastal city with engineering and policy solutions to these hazards. The goal is for the summative assignment to drive home understanding and appreciation of Earth systems and complexity.

We do not have any concrete data to address how the active nature of the classes impacts student learning. Students often complain about the amount of work and the difficulty of assignments that use big data sets. However, end-of-course evaluations from select students indicate that they have learned a lot in the course. Moreover, students often express how much they have learned in blogs used for metacognition.

Goal 3: Increase sustainability education at 2YCs where such programs are traditionally under-represented.

Although several of the Commonwealth campuses have four year degree programs, including ongoing and proposed programs in Earth Science and Environmental Science, the majority of students transfer to the University Park campus after two years. There is demand for the developed sustainability classes on the campuses as faculty find it challenging to meet the need for general education courses. Moreover, as the proportion of students who work in addition to going to school is significant, the online courses are appealing. Three of the online courses are being offered to students at the campuses through e-learning cooperatives and we now serve 120 students per semester in this fashion.

Although the e-education cooperatives are in their early stages, sections are filling, suggesting that there is demand for the sustainability courses.

Goal 4: Attract students to take multiple courses potentially culminating in enrollment in the Earth Sustainability Minor and Certificate of Excellence programs thereby become more broadly educated about key sustainability topics.

Obtaining breadth on sustainability issues requires students to take multiple courses. Moreover the courses are all designed and structured in a similar fashion with comparable assessments so once students have taken one class they will find additional courses more straight forward. We send out a message to students in the middle of the semester informing them about the other course offerings and degree programs. Twelve students are currently taking their second or third course.

Students are increasingly interested in enrolling in degree programs including minors and certificates. The certificate program has been open for a year and we currently have twenty nine students. The minor just opened and currently we do not have any students enrolled. We have developed a regular schedule of courses with multiple offerings each semester so that students can plan ahead and have numerous options. This is critical for students enrolled in online programs.

Goal 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.

The Penn State system has 19 campuses distributed across the state. Many Earth science faculty are the only faculty in the field at their campus. Thus faculty can feel isolated. One of the goals of the program was to assemble faculty with the purpose of building community.

To get the program running, we held monthly webinars for Earth Science faculty from the Commonwealth campuses to discuss the adoption of the new InTeGrate courses. Now that the e-learning cooperative is up and running, we plan on holding a face to face meeting once a year. The e-learning cooperative sections are being run as part of the World Campus courses, two are being taught by University Park faculty and one by a Harrisburg faculty member. This initiative is very timely as three campuses are developing Environmental Science majors and the availability of online general education courses will allow faculty to teach more upper division courses.

At several of the campuses as well as at University Park, most general education courses are in large lecture format and students have little interaction with professors. The blended course offerings, which is the recommended format for students on campus, provides a wonderful opportunity for professors and students to interact. The professor can dedicate her or his time to helping students, discussing other issues including degrees and careers.

Students have expressed in course evaluations that they have benefited from getting to know the professor in the blended courses. Moreover, faculty have been appreciative of the community that the e-learning cooperative has engendered.

Unexpected Outcomes

Outcome 1:

Description of the outcome outside of the original goals.

In general all of the courses as originally developed involved far too much work and the material was somewhat too difficult for general education level. Thus we needed to scale back the amount of work require and simplify the assessments.

Evidence related to this outcome

Student evaluations for the first offering of many classes complained about the amount of work. In both blended and online sections large numbers of students dropped courses in the first few weeks.

Long-term Impact and Next Steps

Online courses and programs are becoming increasingly attractive for students who are working full time as well as those who cannot get to campus. On campus students like the convenience of blended courses because they give them more flexibility. Thus our long-term goal is to continue to make courses more effective in both modes of delivery as we learn more about what works. So far all of the students in the Certificate program are online and we need to figure out how to recruit students on campus. We also have the same problem for the Minor now that is is up and running.

Faculty and administrators are responsive to money and the online courses have the potential to bring in revenue. They recognize that students (especially at our Commonwealth campuses) like the blended courses for convenience. They also recognize the online market. At the same time we have not come to terms with rewarding faculty for adopting the classes. Those of us who are part of the program model, and are on the tenure track, are teaching an overload of classes. Tenure track faculty who are not part of the program model are not amenable to taking on new classes, but fixed term faculty are. Several of these faculty are spousal hires who rely in part on soft money so additional salary from teaching are attractive to them. Three fixed term faculty are now teaching the courses and we expect these professors to support much of the teaching of them in the future.