Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2016

Improving Programs

Part of the InTeGrate University of South Dakota Program Model

Program Motivation

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.


Sustainable Rivers is a program working to develop and implement InTeGrate materials at the University of South Dakota (USD). The program uses the Missouri River as a case study for interdisciplinary teaching in courses from across the university including the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. This program utilizes place-based learning, which has been found to be effective pedagogically. Through this project we worked to increase the awareness of science and sustainability issues related to the Missouri River among USD's undergraduate students.

Program-Level Goals and Evidence

Goal 1: Increase science literacy among undergraduate students

To accomplish this goal participating faculty members incorporated InTeGrate materials to their course content in addition to the disciplinary focus of the course. Students in each course answered a set of common assessment questions focused on rivers related to earth science literacy and sustainability literacy. The questions were given prior to and after the content was delivered. Students also completed short answer questions to access interdisciplinary learning. Faculty were given the opportunity to use additional assessment tools to access student learning.

There was a general improvement in science literacy among undergraduate students across all of the classes. In 7 out of 12 courses there was a modest increase in science literacy, while in other courses there was little to no improvement. Students improved on the post assessment in multiple choice questions focused on rivers, but the interdisciplinary essay and other short answer questions did not record significant improvement. While the general improvement in science literacy may have been modest, faculty used other assessments such as presentations and papers to assess learning. The faculty reported those assessments showed an increase in science literacy, while the common assessment scores may not have adequately reflected what the students learned throughout the course. Many faculty did not want to "teach to the test", and the style of common assessment questions may not have played to students' strengths across all disciplines. Some courses went into more context on certain topics which may not have been covered in the pre- and post-assessments. While there was not a significant increase in test scores, what many of the students learned may not have been reflected in those scores.

Goal 2: Foster interest in Earth Science and Sustainability programs on campus

This project reached out to a variety of different students in 12 different classes across 9 different departments. Students who might not have been exposed to any earth science and sustainability issues during their undergraduate time at USD had the opportunity to see how those issues relate to other topics such as history, English, and economics. Therefore, this program opened up an opportunity for students to learn more about the Earth Science and Sustainability programs on campus. Students completed an attitudinal survey pre- and post-assessment to see if their interest in earth science and sustainability topics changed after being exposed to new information in their courses.

It is too early to tell if this project increased interest in the Earth Science and Sustainability programs on campus. In a few years (2 to 3) this could be assessed if more students were signing up to take courses in the earth science and sustainability majors. In the attitudinal assessments taken by students there was a modest increase in interest related to being more sustainable in day to day activities from 6.3/10 before the content to 6.5/10 after the content was presented. There was a substantial increase in student desire to create a more sustainable society from 35% pre-assessment to 65% post-assessment. In general, students' concern for the environment increased following exposure to InTeGrate materials. In a larger context almost 80% of students thought that what they had learned in this course could help society overcome problems of environmental degradation, natural resource limitations, or other environmental issues.

Goal 3: Increase faculty knowledge and awareness of earth science and sustainability through networking

To accomplish this goal, two workshops were held: 1) The first workshop at the beginning of the project described the InTeGrate program and provided examples of how sustainability and science of the river could be incorporated into their courses. This workshop included a faculty field trip to the Missouri River, which helped to inspire several of the faculty to participate in the program model. 2) The second workshop was convened at the end of the program. Faculty shared their experiences, both positives and negatives, in their courses and also provided input on the future success of this program at USD. In addition, a series of monthly brown-bag meetings were held during the program to encourage the face-to-face exchange of ideas. The Sustainable Rivers program created a "river community" on campus that has led to other collaborations including grant proposals and pedagogy. In our view, a unified effort by a faculty with wide-ranging interests stands to improve the value of higher education by helping students see the rich connections between the sciences, humanities, and social sciences through the adoption of place-based learning. Faculty kept journals to document how they were implementing the material in their classes, and completed a survey at the end of the project to reflect on what they learned and how the project has increased networks across campus.

The faculty who participated in the project were interviewed and the general consensus was that their knowledge and awareness of earth science and sustainability was greatly enhanced by the workshops and direct communication among other faculty. The brown-bag meetings offered good opportunities for participants to share ideas about how to incorporate the InTeGrate materials into their lessons, and opened up new opportunities for collaboration among many different departments and colleges. While preparing lessons for their classes many faculty also cited that contacting teachers, government officials, and other invested parties helped to expand their networks in the areas of science and sustainability that they did not have before. The place-based learning component helped faculty to learn about issues related to the Missouri River. Participation in this project helped faculty gain a new perspective and appreciation for the value and need for protection of the Missouri River, and helped fill in gaps in their knowledge that they did not previously have. From the exit interviews it was clear that the faculty learned new creative ways to incorporate materials, became more comfortable with the subject area, and are willing to continue to incorporate sustainability and earth science projects into their lessons.

Unexpected Outcomes

Outcome 1: Positive student response to material

Faculty feedback has been enlightening in two ways. Faculty feel that incorporation of science and sustainability topics into their courses was worth-while, in that it resulted in a deeper understanding by the students of how these topics influence other disciplines in the liberal arts curriculum. Faculty felt that the students responded positively to changes made in their courses. There was a consensus among students that projects related to sustainability and earth science topics enhanced their knowledge about the river, and place based learning helped to connect what was learned in the classroom to the river they were studying.

Outcome 2: Faculty continuation in incorporating materials into classes

Faculty feel that their own knowledge of science and sustainability has been enriched in this process. While some faculty still feel somewhat apprehensive about what they know (or don't know), it was generally unanimous that they were more comfortable with the material after having delivered it once. The general consensus among the faculty is that they wish to continue with this type of teaching in their classes in the future. Several suggested that they will make additional changes to suit the needs of their course.

Long-term Impact and Next Steps

We envision that success of the program model will encourage participating faculty to advocate participation from other faculty in future years. Team leads will, of course, target other faculty who express interest in the program.

The results of this project will be shared with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and with the on-campus Liberal Arts Task Force, whose goal is to improve and enrich liberal learning on campus. Highlighting the successes of this program is expected to garner future support for this project and projects like this.

The next steps are to expand faculty participation through providing incentives, beyond word-of-mouth encouragement from other faculty. As a first step, we will consider applying for funds through USD's Center for Teaching and Learning to support a summer workshop on the river. Several participating faculty noted that they initially had regrets when agreeing to participate in this program. Those regrets vanished once they participated in the introductory workshop on the river. Once the faculty experienced the river, they were inspired to teach about it in their courses. An annual (or maybe every two years) workshop on the river that would include previous participants as well as new "recruits" would be part of our long-term goal of maintaining and growing participation in this program.