Initial Publication Date: August 7, 2019

Making and Sustaining Change

Consideration of context

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the second largest community college in the United States, serving over 75,000 students from six campuses. NOVA is also one of the most internationally diverse colleges in the United States, with students representing 180 different countries. Sixteen percent of NOVA students self-identify as Black, and 21% are Hispanic/Latino.

Across all NOVA campuses, geoscience program courses reach approximately 3,000 students each year. Most of the students are non-science majors who are filling their lab science requirement. However, at any given time, there are about 25 students planning to transfer and major in the geosciences. The Annandale campus is the largest campus in the NOVA system. The Annandale Geology Department has 3 full-time and 4 adjunct faculty members. Students identifying as Black and Asian are underrepresented in geology courses compared to NOVA's student population.

Enrollment at NOVA as a whole, and in geology classes specifically, has waned in the past 5 years. In some cases this has resulted in some course sections being cancelled. In one case (Mineralogy), it has resulted in the entire course not being offered, for three years running now. Teaching faculty have had to be flexible, and creatively proactive in encouraging student enrollment.

NOVA is a commuter school, and that applies not only to students but to faculty as well, particularly adjunct faculty. Course timing and faculty schedules make it difficult for faculty to have spontaneous unscheduled contact. As a result, any meeting between faculty members needs to be explicitly scheduled. The advent of easy-to-use video conferencing helps alleviate the issue of different locations, if the issue of scheduling can be surmounted.

Things that worked well that we would do again

We can identify three areas where our program has been particularly effective:

  1. Establishing a better network between existing faculty
    • As a result of this program, our team now has regular contact. This increase in communication has allowed us to share resources, concerns and general information.
  2. Building a stronger campus presence
    • We have established regular contact with the college counselors and administrators. Many of these counselors are the first point of contact when students are choosing courses. The more they know about geology and geology-related fields, the better equipped they are to connect students with geology courses. We have also started regular (2 years and counting!) participation in the NOVA Annandale Major Madness event which further increases the presence of geology on campus.
  3. Workshops
    • Our first workshop was focused on creating a more inclusive classroom environment. This workshop was part of NOVA's annual pedagogy conference and was attended by a few faculty and administrators. Shortly after this workshop, Caitlin gave two longer format presentations on the same topic to a larger group at the Learning and Technology Resources.
    • Our first regional workshop, a workshop on field trip design and practice, was held in D.C. on June 1st, 2019, and was a major success.

Supporting faculty change

All of our workshops and campus talks have been aimed at 2YC and K12 faculty. Thus far, we have focused on active learning strategies and methods for building an inclusive classroom environment. Getting faculty to change the way we teach or modify our curriculum is a big ask, particularly with the time constraints faculty are already under. We tend to begin workshops and talks by addressing problems that can motivate change (e.g., lack of student participation, overrepresentation of White males in geology) and then showing results (data) where changes have lead to major successes. This combination of social awareness and quantitative argumentation is effective at generating motivation to change among workshop attendees.

In addition to sharing strategies for active learning, metacognition and fostering an inclusive classroom we have discussed the importance of building networks and sharing resources. Frequently, these initial discussions have continued after the workshop/talk over email which allows us to continue to provide support.

Strategies for overcoming challenges

Some major challenges and strategies

1. Not being able to do everything!
  • In the earlier part of the program we went over a ton of strategies addressing student support, active learning, metacognition and much more. Naturally we wanted to incorporate every new idea into our classrooms. Gradually, we have learned that this is a slow process, and only a few additions can be incorporated into our curriculum each semester.
2. Establishing a sustained impact
  • One of our major concerns is how to ensure that the changes we have made continue into the future - even after the SAGE 2YC project comes to a close. We don't have all of the answers to this at present, but our hope is that with continued communication with other faculty and through the inclusion of science administrators into the discussion, we can facilitate the use of the most effective practices years into the future.

3. Getting faculty to attend our workshop

  • When planning our regional workshops we were concerned about getting sufficient faculty to attend, particularly for topics that not everyone is comfortable discussing like diversity and equity. To address this, we have paired each workshop with an incentive that we hoped would entice more faculty to attend. For the first regional workshop we used a field trip as an enticement; for the second, we are going to take attendees behind the scenes at the National Museum of Natural History. Leveraging regional resources such as the Smithsonian Institution allows us to attract more of the key 2YC personnel in the region for the workshop.

Things to think about before you start this type of project

This program is a major commitment; make sure that you have enough time to commit to a program of this scope.

We would also suggest committing to a specific reoccurring meeting time (Skype or in person) at the beginning of each semester.

When seeking administrative support, make sure to get clarification about what level of commitment (if any) your administrators are willing to provide.

Sustained impacts

The easiest way of sustaining changes made in our classrooms is seeing positive results in student retention, participation and general understanding. We are confident that anyone who has implemented more active learning and metacognitive exercises will be encouraged to continue by seeing positive changes in their students.

We are also going to continue working to expand our regional network and campus presence to make sure the progress we've made continues into the future.