The Department of Earth Sciences and the Sustainability Program at the University of South Dakota is increasing earth literacy across the liberal arts curriculum. Our approach employs place-based learning focused on the Missouri River, a vital part of South Dakota's people, history, economy, geography, and environment. Many students have a connection to the river, and faculty across the Vermillion campus are incorporating earth science and sustainability topics related to the river into their curriculum, thus helping students gain a better understanding of how those topics affect their lives.
This program is spearheading efforts to increase earth science and sustainability literacy across the liberal arts curriculum. Greater than 65% of the 2014 class of incoming freshman at USD was from South Dakota and their last exposure to earth science curriculum was in the 8th grade. Students at USD are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how geoscience and sustainability issues impact their daily lives. Our approach employs place-based learning and takes advantage of the Missouri River, a vital part of South Dakota (its people, history, economy, geography, and environment), located within a few kilometers of the USD campus. By integrating these themes into non-science courses, students have become aware of the importance of earth science and sustainability in their daily lives. For example, studying how the Missouri River impacts them makes students internalize the importance of earth science and sustainability. In addition, exposure to earth science and sustainability in English, history, Native studies, political science, economics, anthropology, and education courses targets underrepresented groups in the sciences including female and Native American students. This content provides students with a scientific background from which they can make informed decisions about issues related to the river.
USD has majors in both earth sciences and sustainability. The sustainability major is relatively new (2012) and is interdisciplinary. Combined, these programs serve approximately 50 majors. USD also houses the Missouri River Institute (MRI), a consortium of faculty who conduct research on Missouri River related issues. Faculty associated with the Institute are primarily in the sciences, but social science faculty also participate. This project uses the faculty connections within the Institute to promote earth science and sustainability issues – as related to the river – in their classes. The MRI sponsors an interdisciplinary course taught by Earth Science and Biology faculty called Introduction to River Studies that focuses on the ecology, geology, and cultural resources of the Missouri River. This course was one of the classes on campus altered to incorporate InTeGrate modules into the curriculum.
Even though we are employing place-based learning that focuses on a regionally relevant topic, many of the issues facing those who live and rely upon the Missouri River are shared by others who live by and value other rivers in the United States. Therefore, we envision that this implementation program could be utilized by many other colleges and universities.