InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Critical Zone Science > Instructor Stories > Ashlee Dere
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Ashlee Dere: Introduction to the Critical Zone at University of Nebraska at Omaha

About this Course

Combined upper level and graduate level course for geology, geography, and environmental science majors.
Two 75-minute lecture sessions

Introduction to the Critical Zone Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 37kB Oct16 16)

This course examines the Critical Zone (CZ), Earth's permeable layer that extends from the top of vegetation to the bottom of groundwater. The CZ is a constantly evolving layer where rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms interact to regulate the landscape and natural habitats; it also determines the availability of life-sustaining resources, including our food production and water quality. CZ science is an interdisciplinary and international endeavor focused on cross-disciplinary science. In this course, we will focus on using data available from the existing National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded CZ Observatories (CZOs) along with readings, discussions, and activities to explore interactions within the CZ.

Pre-requisites: GEOL 1170, GEOL 1010, GEOG 1030 or GEOG 1060/1070; one chemistry or physics course recommended; or instructor permission.
The course goals aligned with those of the Integrate module: By the end of the course, students will be able to:
1) Identify grand challenges that face humanity and societies, ways in which humans depend upon and alter the Critical Zone, and the potential role for Critical Zone science to offer solutions for these challenges.
2) Use and interpret multiple lines of data to explain Critical Zone processes.
3) Evaluate how the structure of the Critical Zone influences Critical Zone processes/services.
4) Analyze how water, carbon, nutrients, and energy flow through the Critical Zone and drive Critical Zone processes.

A Success Story in Developing Deeper Critical Thinking Skills

The Introduction to the Critical Zone modules work well as a small (< 20 students) upper level/graduate course for geoscience majors and is now a permanent part of our geoscience curriculum. The materials employ active learning techniques that are enjoyable to work on with the students and provide a strong foundation in Critical Zone Science. Students really enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the material and the opportunity to use real data and practice skills they are likely to use in their jobs. The students reported and demonstrated improvement in their critical thinking skills and confidence in problem solving because the course focused on building skills rather than memorizing content. The in-depth assignments challenged students to go deeper than in traditional courses and ultimately lead to student engagement throughout the semester. The students found the material very relevant to their lives which helped improve their learning.

Many students began the course with no understanding of the Critical Zone, but by the end students recognized the importance of the topic and how it connects with their daily lives. They appreciated the active learning style that emphasized critical thinking and applying skills to solve problems.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

For the first time teaching the course I used all modules and materials provided. In the future I will continue to try to use as much of the material as possible and will add a two hour lab section to the course to provide more in-class time for data analysis and discussions. Students seem to benefit from classroom discussions and frequent feedback on data activities, so I hope that maximizing interaction time will help optimize the learning outcomes.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

My course focused entirely on Critical Zone Science and spanned an entire semester, meeting twice a week for 75 minutes. The course will continue to be offered every third semester and will count as one of the required surface processes courses for the geology, geography and environmental science majors. In the future I plan to add a lab section in addition to the lecture periods to devote more in-class time to the materials.

The greatest challenge with this course is a lack of time in the classroom to engage with students. Most activities work better in groups and with constant feedback, so students struggled on their own to complete activities but did very well and were extremely engaged in the classroom. Time management and organization are key, meaning I will likely need to reduce the number of activities in the future to make sure there is enough quality time to get the most out of each class. I also plan to add a lab section to provide more contact time for students to dive into the material.

Unit 1: CZ Background
Students enjoyed the reading and discussion of CZ Science and were excited by the concept. They were especially excited about the Web Soil Survey Activity in Unit 1.2 – many had never considered soils an interesting topic before this class. Providing students with pdfs of the papers will minimize limited availability at some libraries.

Unit 2: Methods in CZ Science
Although most students were within one year of graduation, many struggled with basic Excel and annotated bibliography skills. This emphasized how important it is to review basic skills, including finding scholarly sources and manipulating data, since these skills form the foundation for many future assessments. The students worked well in small groups to explore CZ methods and appreciated the opportunity to practice presenting to the class.

Unit 3: CZ Architecture and Evolution
Because the class included many geology majors, the students were most comfortable with this material. They did struggle with searching for geologic maps, however, and were rather quick to get frustrated when they couldn't find what they were looking for. This presented a nice learning opportunity to demonstrate how much basic knowledge we don't have about our planet. It is also helpful to emphasize that students use evidence to back up their claims---because many are comfortable identifying geologic features, they did not include any evidence for how they arrived at their conclusions.

Unit 4: Land-atmosphere Exchange
Energy budget concepts were foreign to most students but the discovery activities helped students think about how to interpret plots and think across scales. The worksheet activities were rather challenging and reviewing basic concepts, such as dimensional analysis, was necessary to keep students on track. This unit was particularly difficult to students to complete on their own, so devoting as much time in class to provide feedback is helpful.

Unit 5: Water Transfer through the CZ
Students did well with these activities, especially since they started at a small scale and built up to bigger problems. Working through water budget concepts first and then applying calculations is a nice approach. Some students are still uncomfortable with Excel, making the modeling activities more difficult. The students love working in groups and respond well to the real-world scenarios in the activities.

Unit 6: Geochemistry and Biogeochemistry
Students needed more background on this unit and many were not as comfortable with chemistry in general. Working in groups seems to help students get more out of the readings. Students were particularly engaged in the TED talk activity discussing how to communicate science and evaluate arguments. I will spend more time discussing evidence, claim,s and science communication in the future because they were so interested.

Unit 7: Humans in the CZ
The activities in this unit were very relevant to many students and they were very interested in the human role in the CZ. Some students had strongly held preconceived ideas about these topics (such as different types of agriculture) and some struggled to use evidence to back up their claims rather than emotion. I will devote more time in the future to class discussion and focus on bringing in evidence and concepts learned earlier in the semester to evaluate human roles.


Students were assessed predominantly through the daily activities that we started in class and they often finished as homework. Students were excited that there were no exams, but many were unaccustomed to being accountable for assignments every class period, which was especially problematic when students were absent or got behind in turning in assessments. A clear outline of the assignment schedule and the expectations is necessary to help students keep track of the activities and minimize the burden of frequent grading on the instructor. In the classroom, the students were engaged, collaborated well and wanted to finish the activities but often struggled without instructor support. A lab section associated with the class would help alleviate some of the student struggles with finishing assignments on their own.


Overall I really enjoyed teaching the course and thought the students demonstrated gains in both practical skills (such as using and interpreting data) and critical thinking, especially related to complex problems. The focus on active learning made for meaningful interactions among students and with the instructor and seemed to enhance learning. I have received feedback from students that all geoscientists should take this course because the material and skills are so important to solving environmental grand challenges; recent graduates have reported that they are using the skills from the course in their jobs and that it was a valuable addition to their 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 »