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Course Design Matrix

Initial Publication Date: January 19, 2005

Earth system science provides an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to learn about the world around us. The undergraduate Earth system classroom differs from the traditional, compartmentalized sciences that have dominated universities since their inception. Instead, an Earth system course syllabus is organized around specific case examples of Earth phenomena or aound the biogeochemical processes that link the different parts of the Earth system.

The Earth system approach examines how components of the Earth system are connected to the other components through the movement of matter and energy. Students become aware that that the Earth's subsystems are inextricably linked through biogeochemical cycles. The Earth system course focuses on understanding not only the mechanism of interaction between the Earth's spheres --atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, anthroposphere, and space-- but also the spatial and temporal scales in which one sphere influences another.

A good starting point for the creation of a curriculum module is to identify the target student population and their content mastery needs, for these parameters will ultimately determine the content of the course.

The relational matrix can be employed to identify how specific topics or case studies can be used to elucidate the interconnectivity of the Earth system. An Earth system approach fosters spatial and systems thinking in students, as well as other higher-order thinking skills. The relational planning matrix helps structure the course so that the core focus on interconnectivity of the Earth's subsystems is not lost.

As an example, El Nino is initally thought of as a phenonomenon related to ocean circulation (hydrosphere). Through systemic connections between the hydrosphere and atmosphere, the change in boundary conditions in the hydrosphere gives rise to repercussions in weather systems (teleconnections). The way in which ocean temperatures propagate weather conditions in regions far removed from the ocean itself is only in the early stages of being understood by scientists and could serve as a focus for class activities that engage students in examination of time-series of sea surface temperatures as recorded by satellite imagery.

Refering to the example above, the relational planning matrix gives rise to the syllabus:

  • 1. Earth system science phenomena (El Nino, global warming, etc.) are identified for examination in light of applicability of the topic to the student audience.
  • 2. The topic is considered in light of the Earth's subsystems (atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere)and identified as part of that system.
  • 3. Interaction between the subsystems are examined within the context of the selected topic
  • 4. Elucidating and understanding the target interaction is accomplished through the design of inquiry-based activities that apply critical thinking skills, quantitative analysis, examination of remotely-sensed datasets, creation of models, and other techniques that encourage higher-order thinking

Example of an Earth System Course Design Matrix

Earth System Science Course Design Matrix for Nonmajors

Examples of relational planning matrices for specific student populations are listed below: