Development of an Online Certificate Program that Bridges Geoseciences and Sustainability

Timothy Bralower, Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus

Online education is becoming an increasingly important component of the long-term strategy of institutions of higher education around the country. Expansion of the number of students enrolled in online courses is currently outpacing the growth in higher-education population by a ten to one margin. These trends look set to continue well into the future given economic issues as well as student learning preferences. The World Campus, the online arm of the Pennsylvania State University, is a national leader in the development and implementation of distance educational programs. The World Campus model is focused on degree programs rather than single courses partly because the substantial costs of marketing online education requires the nurturing of a cohort of return students. Within the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State, the Dutton e-Education Center has a legacy of developing online programs on a diverse range of areas in the earth and energy sciences. The Institute, which includes a number of learning designers, recently launched the Open Educational Resource initiative whereby all course materials are freely available on the Internet.

Penn State has long promoted interdisciplinary research and education between the sciences and social sciences. Recently, a number of resident and online degree programs have been developed that bridge the earth and energy sciences with economics, policy and finance. As a result, the Department of Geosciences is enthusiastic to be a part of the InTeGrate program in leading the development of a suite of on-line general education courses emphasizing the grand challenges of climate change, energy, sea level rise, water supply and natural hazards. Once developed, the courses will support a proposed Certificate of Excellence in Earth Science offered through the World Campus (the courses could also become an online minor program as well). All of the proposed courses will be freely available through the Dutton Institute Open Educational Resource program as well as through the InTeGrate website. Each course will be developed by a team of five faculty from three different institutions.

These courses will focus on the grand challenges of geoscience and sustainability, while incorporating a focus on the use of predictive models to forecast changes and the impact of mitigations. The proposed courses include: Energy, Earth, and Us — providing the geological perspective on energy resources, mineral resources, and implications for climate change and sustainability. Topics would include the geological origins of energy and mineral resources, the history of consumption, environmental consequences related to their extraction and use, and prospects for the future (proposed to roll out Fall, 2013); Geologic Hazards and Humans — this course will use a case study approach to understanding the hazards posed by earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes, landslides, and floods. Case studies will provide the motivation and context for learning about important geologic processes (from plate tectonics to fluvial geomorphology) and the ways that human societies can minimize harm from these hazards (proposed to roll out Fall, 2014); Coastlines and Coastal Hazards— a course that will focus on the science and policy issues surrounding the coastal processes and sea level rise (team led by University of New Orleans (UNO) faculty; proposed to roll out Fall 2014); Water and Society — an exploration of water resources and the issues related to water from a local scale to a global scale (proposed to roll out Fall 2015); and finally Modeling the Earth System — through the construction and experimentation with computer models of earth systems, this class will explore the dynamics of the global climate system, the carbon cycle, the global water cycle, glaciers, etc. (proposed to roll out Fall 2014. It will serve as a capstone experience in which students understand the implications of the connectedness of these systems, linking the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere. The entry level course for the program, Earth in the Future: Predicting Climate Change and Its Impacts Over the Next Century —is an introduction to the global climate system, its behavior over the recent past, the reliability and utility of climate models, and the impacts of climate change (this course was funded by a previous funding and rolls out in Fall 2012).

The courses in support of proposed online Certificate of Excellence in Earth Science program are highly attractive for non-traditional students. Building on collaborations established by the Penn State Africa Array program, these courses will enhance the Earth Science offerings at a network of HBCU and MSI partner schools including UNO, Fort Valley State, NCA&T, Jackson State, CSU-Northridge and CSU-Bakersfield.

We seek team members for most of the proposed courses. Please see me for further details.

Essay for Download

On-Line Certficate Program (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 167kB May1 12)