Global Change Minor and Liberal Education at the University of Michigan

Ben van der Pluijm, Earth & Environmental Sciences/Program in the Environment, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and T. Gregory Barrett, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

A great deal of attention has been focused recently on the importance of the academic major in undergraduate liberal arts education. In fact, the feature topic of the Spring 2009 edition of Liberal Education was devoted to a year-long study of undergraduate majors sponsored by AAC&U and funded as part of the Teagle Foundation initiative on the relationship between disciplines and undergraduate liberal education. Despite the emphasis being placed on undergraduate majors, an interdisciplinary team of scientists and scholars at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (UM) would argue that interdisciplinary undergraduate minors can play an equally influential role in facilitating undergraduate student learning. They hold up as their exemplar the Global Change Minor at the UM.

Almost two decades ago, in 1991, the University of Michigan launched its Project for the Interdisciplinary Study of Global Change, an initiative otherwise known as the Global Change Project (GCP). Initially a research project in the College of Engineering, it also had an educational component that focused on graduate education. The education component soon broadened to include an emphasis on undergraduate education in the university's liberal arts college, a change that facilitated the development of a number of cross-disciplinary teaching collaborations among faculty members from several disciplines.

By the mid-1990s, the group of faculty members from several schools and colleges at the University of Michigan, developed Introduction to Global Change, a two-semester interdisciplinary course sequence for science majors that investigated causes and impacts of the changing global environment. In 1996, the National Science Foundation, through its Institution-Wide Reform of Undergraduate Education program, funded a grant that broadened the focus of Introduction to Global Change to include non-science majors and assisted in creating a web-based component for the courses. The goal of the courses became to enable students with an interest in preserving the Earth's resources to develop a well-rounded understanding of changes in the global environment that would enable them to integrate this knowledge into future research, social and political activities, and into their career decisions (Committee on Undergraduate Science Education 1999).

Support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Committee on Undergraduate Science Education of the National Research Council and the University of Michigan's Provost enabled the creation of the interdisciplinary minor in Global Change. The goal of the innovative minor was to provide rigorous qualitative and quantitative scientific course content from the natural, social, and behavioral sciences in the early years of undergraduate study ("front-loaded" minor), while making the courses engaging and appealing to non-science majors through interdisciplinary team-teaching employing state-of-the-art multi-media techniques, leveraging the internet and using the latest instructional modalities.

Though the interdisciplinary faculty who created the Global Change Minor didn't have the benefit of the set of learning outcomes recommended by College Learning for the New Global Century, the 2007 report sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), to inform the development of the curriculum and pedagogy included in the core courses of the minor those outcomes do align well with the skills and knowledge students derive from their participation in the Global Change Minor. Figure 1 provides a map comparing the recommended AAC&U learning outcomes with those achieved by Global Change minors (AAC&U 2007). The narrative that follows explains how the minor achieves those outcomes.

AAC&U Learning Outcomes Achieved by the Global Change Minor

Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world

College Learning for the New Global Century
calls for study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts. The interdisciplinary curriculum overwhelmingly achieves this objective. The Global Change minor curriculum is composed of two core courses and a series of electives in a concentration area of the student's choice. Each of the core courses is team-taught by senior scholars from several schools, colleges, departments and laboratories including: the School of Natural Resources and the Environment (NRE); the Departments of Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Geological Sciences, and Sociology in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LS&A); the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences (AOSS), and the Space Physics Research Laboratory in the College of Engineering; the School of Business; and the School of Public Health. During the formative period of the Global Change Minor, the curriculum development project was evaluated by an independent team from the University of Michigan's School of Education. The next paragraphs provide an explanation of how the core courses in the Global Change minor help students achieve knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world.

Global Change 1: Physical Processes, provides students the opportunity to investigate the physical aspects of environmental change from the Big Bang theory to current events that impact the physical, chemical, and biological cycles contributing to Global Change. Lectures are modular and each faculty member presents data on his or her topical specialty in the natural sciences – atmospheric, oceanic, biological, chemical, geological, and ecosystem dynamics. Topics covered in the large, team-taught lecture classes include: the origin and evolution of the universe, solar system and early Earth; origin of the elements and matter; geological processes and hazards; the Earth's atmosphere and oceans; chemical and biological evolution; origin and evolution of life; life processes; biogeochemical cycles; ecosystems and ecosystem dynamics; atmosphere-biosphere interactions; past and future climate patterns; pollution; sea level change; and global warming (Beversdorf, Millar, & Bayard 2000).

In Global Change 2: Human Impacts, students learn about the effects of economic and social systems on the natural, physical, chemical and biological dynamics of the Earth. Topics are taught, once again, in modular fashion with specialists providing the lectures in their area of the social and natural sciences, and in policy-based specializations – environmental studies, anthropology, biology, chemistry, geology, economics, sociology, public policy, and environmental ethics. Topical areas covered in the large lecture classes include: human evolution; populations and communities; the value of biodiversity; biogeography; the human role in shaping the planet; transformations in the environment; coastal margins, rivers, forests, fisheries, soil erosion, pollution, agriculture, and industry; patterns in energy use; climate change policy and its impact on communities; sustainable development; and environmental justice and conservation methodologies (van der Pluijm 2006).

The Global Change Minor is completed by taking three electives (17 plus credits). The first elective is one 200-level course selected from among four courses: Culture, Adaptation, and Environment; General Ecology; Our Common Future: Ecology, Economics, & Ethics of Sustainable Development; or, Environmental Geology. The two remaining electives are 300-level plus upper-level courses selected from three categories: Biosphere (Ecology, Evolution, Ethnobotany, Limnology, Conservation, Resource Management); Geosphere (Atmospheric Chemistry, Biogeochemical Cycles, Geography, Oceanography, Geochemistry, Hydrogeology, Earth Surface Processes), or Sociosphere (Urban Planning, International Sustainable Environments, Society and Environment, Population, Environmental Justice). Additional information about the Global Change Minor can be retrieved from the its webpage:

Intellectual and practical skills

From the beginning of the curriculum development project, one of the key objectives was to make the courses truly interdisciplinary by employing a team-teaching approach that involves faculty from intersecting disciplines who would present environmental issues through a variety of scientific lenses, thus making those challenges directly relevant to students' lives. By infusing the courses with rigorous scientific and quantitative content, while also making them interesting and engaging to non-science majors, the goal is to provide students with the skills and knowledge to allow them to integrate that knowledge into future career decisions and research activities.

Each of the core courses develops critical and creative thinking through laboratory sections in which students engage in analysis and discussions based on specific topics that they have studied through the lectures and course readings. In Global Change 1, inquiry, analysis and information literacy are facilitated through participation in small laboratory sections that utilize a graphically based, dynamic, computer-based modeling system (STELLA) to investigate the dynamics and effects of altering natural systems such as the Earth's energy balance, paleoclimate, ozone, predator-prey relationships, speciation, elemental cycles, and greenhouse warming.

Spatial thinking is developed in Global Change 2 as students explore questions such as: What natural processes are of importance in global change? What are the key forcing functions that govern environmental change? What are the human impacts on the environment? What national and international initiatives help mitigate the effects of global change? And, what are some of the solutions to the problem of environmental change? Undergraduates answer such questions by engaging in hands-on simulations of global patterns influenced by humans through the Graphic Information System (ArcGIS) computer software.

Final team projects anchor each of the Global Change core courses. Teams of two-to-three students are formed early in the term so students can spend most of the semester investigating their topic. The students develop written project plans that are reviewed by graduate student instructors (GSIs). Logic and communication skills are honed at the end of the term when each of the teams present their projects to their classmates in the laboratory sections creating powerful in-class dynamics between topical coverage, presentation skills, and scientific literacy.

Personal and social responsibility

A fundamental educational objective of the Global Change Minor is to provide undergraduates with the local, regional and global knowledge of civic, cultural, physical, and natural influences affecting the environment in such a way that will enable them to engage in meaningful ways in the debates surrounding global environmental change. This knowledge is instilled in students in each of the courses with each one placing more emphasis in some of these areas than others.

Physical impacts (Global Change 1) employs small group discussions in the laboratory sections to focus on the personal and geopolitical aspects of global environmental change. In both its lectures and smaller laboratory sections, Human Impacts (Global Change 2) incorporates issues of environmental justice, conservation, energy and climate policy, and the human role in environmental change through agriculture, industry, pollution, energy use and the possibilities of achieving sustainable development into the curriculum. Intercultural knowledge and competence is emphasized through the Global Change Minor's elective structure.

Each of the core courses in the Global Change minor fosters the foundations and skills necessary for lifelong learning by making the course topics interesting and meaningful, by emphasizing the importance of data in policymaking decisions, and by teaching students where and how to access the information they will need to reinforce their concerns about environmental issues. By working in small groups for their team projects in each course, students begin to develop a network of students with common environmental interests, which can also help facilitate their lifelong study of global challenges.

Integrative learning

Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized fields is exhibited by students in each of the core Global Change Minor courses through the projects, described previously, that are required of all students. These skills are especially emphasized in upper-level electives when small teams of undergraduates work together to develop a deeper understanding of a specific issue related to environmental sustainability or remediation by synthesizing the results of a rich array of sustainability scenarios into a plan of action of their own.

Distinctive Characteristics of the GC Minor

There are a number of characteristics that uniquely distinguish the Global Change Minor from other minors at the University of Michigan and elsewhere. First, the philosophy that guides the minor is "Interdisciplinarity before disciplinarity." This means that by experiencing interdisciplinary courses first, undergraduate students, irrespective of their planned career paths or professional goals, will be better able to confront the difficult societal challenges of the 21st Century. Second, the Global Change Minor is "front-loaded," meaning that by the end of their second (sophomore) year students will have have completed three of five required classes for the minor. With the interdisciplinary minor completed, students display a better sense of direction in planning their future career goals and of selecting a major within a discipline. Third, the thematic integration of interdisciplinary content provides students with a more integrated understanding of the critically important issues that face life on our planet. Fourth, students are instructed in the core minor courses by a diverse interdisciplinary team of senior scholars (as opposed to graduate student instructors or lecturers who frequently teach many of the introductory lower division courses in the disciplines) who constantly update the curriculum in their respective modules with the latest research in their area of expertise rather than requiring a textbook that may be out of date by the time the topic is taught.


Assessment for the core courses was both formative and summative, and was conducted by an independent evaluation team from the UM School of Education. The Global Change faculty still uses the formative evaluations to assess student understanding of the lectures and laboratory exercises as the courses proceed. Summative evaluations in the form of pre-test and post-test, provide a final assessment of the overall learning that is achieved by the students.

Two of the hypotheses tested in the curriculum development project were 1) whether non-science majors could master the use of dynamic modes and spatial data analysis, and 2) whether interdisciplinary courses could capture student interest. The answer to the first hypothesis achieved through standard university surveys and anecdotal data from exit surveys was an overwhelming, yes! Though initially intimidated by the laboratory exercises, students ultimately gained the confidence they needed to feel comfortable with these activities. The answer to the second hypothesis was another resounding, yes! Results from surveys conducted in the laboratory discussion sessions and project presentations indicated that students were engaged and, indeed, empowered to take action on what they learned in the courses.

Student demographics

The two Global Change core courses currently enroll more than 250 students annually. While students don't necessarily take the courses in the recommended sequence, many of them do decide to pursue the interdisciplinary minor. And interestingly, though disciplinary science-oriented classes have difficulty attracting female students, the lecture classes (GC 1 and GC 2) consistently enroll 55 percent women with the majority self-identifying as non-science majors. Even more impressive, of the 140 plus students either declared as minors or who have graduated from the Global Change minor since its inception in 2001, more than 80 percent are women.

Institutionalization and sustainability of interdisciplinary minors

Funding and Support

Funding and support for the Global Change minor has been awarded from the University of Michigan, the Office of the Provost, and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. External funding for various aspects of the Global Change minor has been provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, by NASA's Earth Systems Science Education program, by the National Science Foundation, and by the Michigan Space Grant Consortium.

Presidential Initiative on Multidisciplinary Learning and Team Teaching

Recognizing the value of interdisciplinary learning, in Fall 2005, University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman committed $2.5 million to a five-year presidential initiative on Multidisciplinary Learning and Team Teaching. The charge to the Task Force identified interdisciplinary research as one of the defining characteristics of the University of Michigan and stated: "Our students should learn to embrace new and emergent ideas and should develop the skills to collaborate with others who bring perspectives to a problem that are different from their own" (University of Michigan 2005, 1). To accomplish this, the president charged the Task Force to find new ways of engaging faculty from different disciplines in collaborations to design and teaching of new or enriched classes at UM. Special emphasis was placed on involving graduate and professional school faculty in team teaching at the undergraduate level.

Among the proposals funded by the initiative is a program to develop a minor entitled "Community Action and Social Change", as well as a variety of new interdisciplinary courses on topics that range from health to arts. The Task Force report identified five interdisciplinary models and programs of teaching that were already in place at Michigan and eight additional collaborative teaching models and templates that could be adopted at the University. The Task Force made four interrelated recommendations intended to facilitate collaborations and to overcome institutional barriers to interdisciplinary team teaching at UM.


"We can, and do, make education an exclusively outward enterprise, forcing students to memorize and repeat facts without ever appealing to their inner truth – and we get predictable results: many students never want to read a challenging book or think a creative thought once they get out of school," writes Parker Palmer in Courage to Teach, his call to investigate the inner world of teaching. "...what we teach will never 'take' unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students' lives..." (1998, 31) The Global Change Minor has proved effective in making those connections and at empowering undergraduates to become effective activists and spokespersons on environmental issues that threaten the survival of our species. Especially the interdisciplinary team-teaching approach has made these connections to liberal education possible.

AAC&U. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the
National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America's Promise. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.
Beversdorf, A., Millar, S., & Bayard, J-P. R. 2000. Global Change I Course: A
Technology-Enhanced, Interdisciplinary Learning Environment at the University of Michigan (Case Study by The Institute on Learning Technology/ National Institute for Science Education). Retrieved from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research website:
Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, National Research Council. 1999.
Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Global Change Program. 2010.
Palmer, P. J. 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a
Teacher's Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
University of Michigan, 2005. Task Force on Multidisciplinary Education and Team \
van der Pluijm, B. A. 2006. The Global Change Curriculum and Minor at the
University of Michigan. Journal of Geoscience Education (54) 3: 249-254.

Author Information:

Ben A. van der Pluijm is Bruce R. Clark Collegiate Professor of Geology and Professor of the Environment at the University of Michigan, and serves as Director of the Global Change Minor. T. Gregory Barrett is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. During the late 1990s he was a graduate assistant on the UM School of Education's Evaluation Team for the Global Change Project under the direction of Professor Eric L. Dey.

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