InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society > Instructor Stories > Sean Cornell
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Sean Cornell: Using Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania

About this course

Three 50-minute lectures per week
for 15 weeks
Medium-sized Public Liberal Arts University with M.S. program

Course syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 47kB Sep11 15)

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

This course was implemented to test the feasibility of offering a multidisciplinary course that diversified the options of our traditional general education science courses as currently offered at Shippensburg University. The intention here was to specifically provide opportunities for students to learn about the science of our coastlines and the multidisciplinary issues that relate to this topic, i.e. science to society and policy. Moreover, given that many Shippensburg students have visited the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, or New Jersey for vacation, and given the university's partnership with the Chincoteague Bay Field Station at Wallops Island, Virginia, our students often identify with the impacts of coastal processes, especially with Hurricane Sandy so recent in their memory. They are generally much more interested in storm impacts than the standard rocks and minerals-focused geology class, and they can connect in a meaningful way. The design of this course provides an excellent opportunity for instructors to connect students to the geography and geology of coastal regions and goes a step further. By asking students to learn how coastal systems work, they can immediately consider solutions including engineering (both successful and not) and policy.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

The design of the course asks students to use real data to consider the implications of historic, modern, and future processes on human landscapes to better understand the risks we face in the future by living and working in the coastal zone. Simply stated, students have to wrestle with the question: "How are we all going to live and enjoy living on the coast in the future?" Finally, the course format focused less on class lecture, in favor of promoting project work time and discussion to support student learning with the use of a variety of instructional technologies including software, online course materials, videos, and a wide variety of formative and summative assessments.


In all of these sections, students were required to utilize a wide range of tools including Google Earth, GeoMapApp, Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, and a wide range of web-interface tools and databases to help collect, organize, display, and analyze various types of data. Assessments were built to help assess our students' abilities to acquire a sound knowledge base, and to show that they had developed both reasoning and critical analysis skills that demonstrated that they had achieved the section and module goals/objectives. Assessments for each module varied each week, but later assessments were built to consider and utilize skills developed in earlier modules. Although not all students liked all assignments, (i.e. many of the formative and summative assessments were centered on visual learning), the variety of assessments allowed for students with other learning styles opportunities to engage in the course. These additional assessment areas are explored in more detail below.

Assessments description:

For the course as a whole, weekly assessments included:

  • short weekly blog posts (on a relevant news article) designed to engage students in topical research in areas of their interests. This helped to connect each week's module content with real-world concerns and problems that need to be solved.
  • a weekly module quiz of 10–15 questions which were designed to ensure students were reading the content from each module.
  • a formative assessment designed to get students to delve a little deeper into the module subject matter.
  • a weekly summative assessment, assigned with each module. These were often centered on the access, evaluation, and analysis of real data. The summative assessments required students to apply key concepts and ideas learned in discussions, readings, and formative assessments to real problems. Thus, they often had to analyze and evaluate the data to draw logical conclusions and positions that were supported by their data. This specifically helped them to create new knowledge.

In addition to the weekly assessments, students also completed two exams (a midterm and a non-cumulative final), and a capstone project. The capstone was provided early in the course (after Module 3), and students worked independently to develop the materials for their capstone project throughout the remainder of the term.


My primary vision was to contribute to development of a course that changed the paradigm of existing general education science courses that we offer here at Shippensburg University. Traditional discipline-specific or topic-specific lecture-style courses often offer breadth of investigation, but typically minimize the depth of insight and more importantly can limit students from exploring the implications of the content within the broader needs of society. Thus our goal of offering a multidisciplinary course that focused on one thematic area (such as coastal processes and hazards) would not only allow us to spend significant time exploring the physical Earth systems and processes involved in our shoreline evolution, but we could also emphasize development of geoscientific thinking and problem-solving skills that integrate knowledge of engineering, and policy that is informed by knowledge of both the human landscape and economies as well as the geophysical landscape. In this way, we wanted to provide a course that was not only providing increased exposure to geoscientific thinking, but was also helping students connect the role of different sciences (geology, geography, oceanography, physics, etc.) as well as different disciplines like engineering, public policy, and economics.

Given that the course registrants represented both first-semester undergraduate students and a mix of upperclassmen, the course trial reached its target demographic. The largest single cohort of students were undeclared majors, followed by business majors. A noticeable number of history, English, communication, journalism, psychology, and mathematics majors were on the roster. Only three geoenvironmental studies majors enrolled in the course. Very few science majors enrolled in the class, in part because of the specific requirements for their majors.

Given this demographic, it proved to be a challenging and rigorous class, but I feel that it was a great first attempt and provided a number of ideas and areas for improvement. Many of these adjustments have since been made. Conceptually, the first-year students had few difficulties with the course content, but they struggled with the demand of the weekly assignments (blog, quiz, formative assessment, and summative assessment). Just over 30 percent of students did not submit one or more assignment. As is customary with first semester students unaccustomed to college-level coursework expectations, they underestimated the need for regular weekly attention to the class and affiliated assignments. A handful of the first-year students did not submit several assignments and became concerned about their overall course grade rather than focusing on their work. Given early performance indicators (early warning grades), they were encouraged to either meet with a tutor or drop the course. Several students dropped the course as a result.

The most frequent feedback from student evaluations was that the course required too much work for a general education-level class. This is also the most common feedback from many other college-level science classes, so that is not out of the norm. A few students reported that they wrote (via the blogs and written assignments) and read (via the course website and assigned modules) more in the class than they did in their major's classes. Given the active-learning format of this class, which puts much of the responsibility of learning on the student, students have to complete the readings to complete required coursework. This may not always be the case in other classes. However, when they were submitted, students performed reasonably well on most measures (quizzes, tests, etc.). However, final grades for the course were often lowered by a grade step or two (and in a couple of cases significantly) because students failed to complete assignments on time. Given this assessment, our revisions included an effort to reduce the amount of time needed to complete individual assessments, as well as the number of assessments. Each instructor will want to carefully consider the total number of assessments required and/or allow a bit more time than a single week to submit them.

Nevertheless, as shown in formal assessment data from the student grade book, students showed performance and learning gains that reflect both the goals and objectives of the course modules. They also likely indicate perhaps higher rates of interest by the students as indicated by performance on both the midterm (average of 77% in section 1 and 79% in section 2) and final exam (82% for section 01 and 80% in section 02). These outcomes are 4–6 points above the average of our department-wide and college-wide general education courses. In terms of the capstone project (and despite the fact that 9 out of 52 students did not submit their capstone materials), more than 57% of the class received a grade of B- or higher and 6 students received As, and 10 students received A-s. In fact the average for the capstone in section 01 was 86% and the average for section 02 was 85%. Thus, students who completed the majority of course assignments were able to perform at a reasonable level according to assessment rubrics created by the author-team. These facts, coupled with qualitative feedback and blog participation, indicate students seem to have responded favorably to the content of the course.

From in-class discussion and informal discussions outside of class, many students reported that they liked the hands-on nature of the class. They also liked that they were expected to draw conclusions and linkages between their coursework, their readings, and other broader interests. One new transfer student said that the course was taken in his first semester at the university and felt that it provided him with a great foundation as he became more involved in the content of a new major (he was formerly a biology major and transferred to be a geoenvironmental major). He said that the course was "so multifaceted" and he liked that "we looked at policy, science, and economics, all in the same course." He also reported that unlike most of his classes where he was expected "to read this and memorize that," this course gave him "the freedom to connect the dots, and the encouragement to connect as many items as you could put together." Other students reported that they really enjoyed the "connections between science and mitigation as these topics were practical to their daily lives." One student reported that her family was impacted by Hurricane Sandy and this course helped her to "learn more than she had ever learned about the shore" before.

Although specific statistics are not available, at least three students who took the course have completed change of majors to geoenvironmental studies. One of these students said that he was "intrigued by the course because it was the first course he had taken where he could identify with a problem and see himself working to help solve some of them." He went on to say that "you chose a major because you want to do something with that and you want to accomplish something. In this class, it was clear that you can make a contribution and you can make a difference." I think this comment was particularly revealing. In addition, as of this fall at least six additional students have taken additional geoscience courses for elective credit purposes only, i.e. not required for their majors. Most of these are taking either oceanography or introductory geology.

In summary, it was clear from the first trial that there were areas that needed improvements, and many of these were subsequently addressed. I strongly feel that the course had significant merits and is a worthwhile course. Each of the individual unit sections and modules are very strong. Many of them are adaptable into a wide number of other courses. Individual assignments have great learning objectives and use key data sets to help students achieve learning gains that go beyond the core objectives. Nevertheless, in its original form, the course as a whole presented some challenges for first semester first-year students. Upon further reflection, and based on feedback from students who took the course, it might be better to offer the course during the spring semester so new students could get used to college-level work before they tackled the format of this course. A couple of students suggested that the course be restricted to science majors who were comfortable with a larger workload because they felt that there were too many "this is so much work" complaints. If students are not prepared ahead of time to meet the rigorous demands of this course, they might find it a difficult course. However, based on the performance indicators, the content itself was well within the reach of these students, and once students focused on the work, their achievements were significant. I look forward to making this course a permanent course here at Shippensburg University, and am already exploring options for a formal curriculum review to establish this as a permanent course in the general education curriculum.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »