Initial Publication Date: October 22, 2014

Why Should Undergraduate Education include a Focus on Sustainability and Earth-centered Societal Issues?

By the time current undergraduates send their children to college, Earth's population will have increased to more than eight billion people. One or more major metropolitan areas in our increasingly crowded world will have experienced a devastating earthquake or volcanic eruption, sea level rise will be inundating low-lying coastal cities such as Jakarta along with whole island nations, energy resources will be less available and more expensive, and our climate will be warmer and characterized by more frequent extreme weather events. How we choose to plan for and attempt to mitigate these "grand challenges" (NRC, 2001) will have consequences for individuals, nations, and our global socioeconomic and political systems.

Personal and collective actions are needed to ensure the sustainable use of our natural resources and environmental systems—land, air, and water—in an ethical and responsible manner. The United States needs to build robust educational pathways for its citizenry to develop the global perspective, cultural sensitivity, economic wisdom, and scientific acumen to inform their actions and address these grand challenges. The geosciences (marine, Earth, and atmospheric sciences) that explain the workings of the Earth system provide critical insight into all of these challenges and, consequently, must be firmly integrated into those educational pathways (Bralower et al., 2008). This project seeks to promote that integration through engaging the geoscience community and their colleagues in allied disciplines in the development of high-quality educational materials and mechanisms by which they can be effectively brought to large numbers of students.

Why Teach Geoscience in the Context of Societal Issues?

Limited Exposure: Today, very few students in the United States develop a sufficient understanding of geoscience to help inform either their personal decision making or their choice of career pathways. Geoscience is typically introduced in middle school. It may or may not be offered in high school, and where offered it may or may not be considered a college preparatory science course. A small fraction of all students attending college elect to take a geoscience course. Teaching geoscience in the context of societal issues opens two large avenues for increasing the number of undergraduate students who study geoscience:

  1. Societal issues are of high interest to students, including those who are traditionally underrepresented in the geosciences. Thus by teaching geoscience in the context of societal issues we draw more students into geoscience courses.
  2. Societal issues are interdisciplinary problems opening avenues for integrating geoscience learning into interdisciplinary courses and courses in other disciplines.

Practical Knowledge: It is not sufficient to understand geoscience. Our nation needs individuals who understand the relationship between geoscience and the challenges we face: environmental degradation, food supply, energy needs, mineral resources, climate change and more.

  • A geoscientifically literate public can apply their knowledge of geologic processes, systems thinking, and spatial and temporal reasoning to their own decision making. They have a framework for thinking about the impact of the things they do on the Earth and the environment that supports them. Developing geoscientific literacy requires students to understand not only how the Earth works but how that relates to the issues that surround them.
  • The need for geoscience expertise in the workforce is rapidly changing in response to increasing human population, increased resource needs, and human impacts on the environment. Students in a wide variety of programs focused on areas as broad as traditional geoscience, environmental law and sustainable business practices need to understand the connections between geoscience and the work that they will do in their careers. This understanding will underpin their ability to work effectively on interdisciplinary teams and to locate the expertise needed to address problems that involve the Earth.

Learn more about what we mean by societal issues.

Support for Change

InTeGrates seeks to change what, where and how geoscience is taught.

Within and Beyond Geoscience Programs

  • Working with geoscience faculty and programs, we emphasize the need to be explicit about the link to societal issues: to contextualize learning of geoscience content, skills, and perspectives in the problems that they have solved in the past and can help to solve in the future.
  • Working with faculty and programs beyond the geosciences, we focus on supporting strong use of geoscience knowledge, concepts and perspectives when teaching about interdisciplinary topics or using examples to illustrate disciplinary concepts.

Courses and Programs

  • To effectively develop widespread geoscience literacy in the undergraduate student population will require new courses and new materials with existing courses. It will also require changes in the role that the geosciences play in the broader curriculum.
  • Developing a workforce that can bring geoscience expertise to the challenges of the 21st century will require not only changes in course work but also new degree programs.

Thus InTeGrate provides support for faculty in the design or redesign of courses as well as access to teaching materials designed for use in different parts of the undergraduate curriculum. In addition, we support departments, deans and administrators in design or redesign of undergraduate programs and provide examples of programs that demonstrate aspects of the InTeGrate vision.

Broadening Access

The geoscience student population in the United States today is the least diverse of any STEM field. Not only does this challenge our ability to educate sufficient numbers of students in the geosciences, it also challenges our ability to address issues of environmental justice, to bring geoscience expertise to diverse communities, and to pursue a research agenda reflecting the needs and interests of our nation as a whole. For this reason, broadening access to geoscience programs is a priority for this project. To this end the project supports the design of programs that successfully support a diverse student population as well as the design of effective pathways into the geosciences and the geoscience workforce including programs that bridge from high school to college, from two year colleges into geoscience degree programs, from college to graduate school, and programs that facilitate entry into the workforce at all levels.

Learn More About the InTeGrate Project

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