Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Panel 5

Panel 5

How Can We Change the Academic Culture to Promote Reform?

Heather Macdonald (Chair),
John W. Farrington,
Louis A. Fernandez,
Judith L. Hannah,
Margaret Rees,
Edward C. Roy,
John Snow


With concerted action, the Earth and space sciences community can change its academic culture to actively support implementation of education reform and to promote a reward structure that values excellence in the education of all students.


This is a time of great opportunity in the Earth and space sciences. Current knowledge about the Earth is vast and rich, and technology is providing further exploration of all facets of the Earth and its place in space. However, in this time of opportunity, the present academic culture in the Earth and space sciences does not serve the community well.

The culture is highly discipline oriented and, in many cases, values traditional disciplinary research over all else. Professional and scientific societies in the Earth and space sciences are fragmented, focused on supporting the research culture, and do not provide a coherent, community-wide program in education.

Different types of institutions have different missions and thus different expectations of the mix of research, teaching, and service that is expected of faculty. However, the academic culture needs to change and consider teaching as serious intellectual work that is part of ongoing collegial discourse, and to regard the scholarship of teaching and the scholarship of research as parallel, equally valued forms of professional activity (Boyer, 1990). Institutions must also make greater efforts to publicly recognize the contributions of those who are excellent educators.

Many faculty teach as they were taught, relying mainly on lectures and traditional laboratory formats. Many academic departments lack well-defined educational goals for student learning and generally fail to assess what students learn in individual courses or in the overall curriculum. Modern pedagogical research has shown that students learn most effectively through collaborative, hands-on approaches to education. Workshops are needed on effective and innovative teaching strategies, including sessions on teaching particular subjects. Professional societies can help to develop such workshops and can promote opportunities for educators to present their scholarly work on teaching and education.

Undergraduate programs are little more than training programs for the disciplines, with more emphasis on content knowledge than on understanding and critical thinking. Graduate study remains largely a "mining and sorting process" (Goldstein, 1993) and usually produces individuals who are narrowly focused and unattractive to today's industry. Demonstration projects have shown that using an Earth system science approach fosters understanding and critical thinking skills, and promotes the teamwork skills sought by industry today. Involvement of industry and government colleagues is also needed in teaching and advising and, where appropriate, in collaborative research activities.

In today's highly technical society, the need for science literacy has never been greater. However, Earth and space sciences faculty often place little value on large enrollments, general education courses, or the preparation of K-12 science teachers. While the academic culture in the Earth and space sciences has remained very traditional, the larger academic environment has changed radically. More and more students are receiving much of their education in community and two-year colleges. The student body is increasingly diverse. The Earth and space sciences community should be committed to providing undergraduate science courses that meet the needs of all undergraduate students. The Earth and space sciences community should also consider education of the general public as one of its responsibilities.


New educational opportunities afforded by Earth system science, and new expectations for undergraduate SME&T education, require fundamental changes in institutional and personal goals, practices, and performance outcomes. We recommend:

To Faculty

  1. Acknowledge the critical importance of all students learning Earth science and systems thinking; value teaching non-majors as highly as majors.
  2. Shift the focus of Earth science instructional activity from teaching to student learning. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  3. Acquire effective teaching strategies that enhance student learning by participating in education workshops and electronic discussions on innovative teaching, staying current with advances in both Earth system science and education, and becoming advocates for teaching reform by discussing pedagogical issues and sharing successful innovations with colleagues. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  4. Become familiar with student-centered teaching practices by reading and contributing to journals such as the Journal of Geoscience Education and the Journal of College Science Teaching.

To Earth and Space Science Department Chairs

Lead Reform
  1. Commit to and lead educational innovation: serve as an advocate for education reform to faculty, the administration, professional societies, and the general public.
  2. Provide leadership for establishing departmental educational goals for teaching, research, and service. Define mechanisms for measuring departmental progress and for recognizing and rewarding individual contributions. Permit individual faculty to define percent effort in the categories of teaching, research, and service for an agreed upon period of time.
Curriculum and Instructional Support
  1. Promote departmental responsibility for a high-quality educational program: Develop and promote interdisciplinary curricula and an Earth system approach to teaching to improve understanding of the nature of the scientific enterprise and the social relevance of Earth system science.
  2. Develop and implement a regular program of departmental outcomes assessment, including assessment of student learning and periodic review of the curriculum.
  3. Actively support K-12 teacher and future faculty preparation. (Joint recommendation with Panels 3 and 7)
Faculty Support
  1. Encourage and reward faculty involved in educational reform and community outreach. (Joint recommendation with Panel 7)
  2. Work with faculty and administrators to articulate and agree on the meaning of the "scholarship of teaching".
  3. Evaluate teaching beyond student evaluation and include other forms of evaluation; evaluation should be formative as well as summative. Establish mentoring programs and encourage faculty to take advantage of faculty development opportunities.
  4. Provide training programs for teaching assistants and provide all graduate students with opportunities to learn and practice effective teaching methods.
  1. Interact with other departments on campus to learn how Earth systems science courses fit the needs of students in other curricula.
  2. Establish an educational environment conducive to learning by increasingly diverse nontraditional student bodies. (Joint recommendation with Panel 6)
  3. Become integrated into the larger community: establish links and dialogs with business, industry, and government; provide education opportunities that meet community needs. (Joint recommendation with Panels 4 and 7)

To Campus Administrators

Support and Rewards
  1. Provide a campus environment that supports faculty efforts to promote excellence in the teaching of undergraduate Earth and space science courses. Create an atmosphere of trust, support, and encouragement for faculty motivated to develop innovative learning techniques from design through implementation and assessment. All administrators should consistently and persistently state that effective teaching is important and proactively support excellence in teaching and educational reform. (Unanimous recommendation of all Panels at the workshop)
  2. Encourage and enable faculty to engage in educational reform. Provide funds for faculty development meetings and workshops. (Joint recommendation with Panels 2 and 3)
  3. Work with department chairs and faculty members to define what the "scholarship of teaching" means and how such contributions will be evaluated and rewarded.
  4. Establish reward systems that explicitly value and recognize effective teaching and the scholarship of teaching (including tenure/promotion, merit, and distinguished professorships).
  5. Support ongoing assessment programs, including financial support to bring external reviewers to campus on a periodic basis. Encourage faculty to set goals, develop opportunities, and evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  6. Encourage and value community outreach and service. (Joint recommendation with Panel 7)
  1. Provide funding (in real dollars, released time, and/or technical support) to implement and evaluate educational reform including course, curriculum, and faculty development.
  2. Provide resources for technology, curricula development, and where possible, small-class environments; recognize that many of the active learning strategies are most effective in small-class settings. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  3. Establish teaching resource/faculty development centers focused on the professional development of faculty in areas such as current educational practice, pedagogical research skills, innovative teaching methods, effective use of technology, and teaching in a multicultural environment.
  4. Disseminate existing (and underused) work by higher education researchers.

To the National Science Foundation and Other Funding Sources

  1. Increase funding for improving undergraduate education and support of associated faculty development. Specifically, enhance resources for NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education and related programs in the Directorate for Geosciences.
  2. Facilitate integration of research and education by encouraging educational or outreach components within research proposals and by providing supplements to research grants for educational and outreach activities. Encourage recipients of research grants to make their results accessible to the educational community through suitable publications or databases, including electronic media. (Joint recommendation with Panel 4)
  3. Consider funding mechanisms that assign responsibility, provide incentives, and reward excellence in undergraduate programs梟ot just to individuals but to whole departments and institutions. Encourage institutions to change the reward structure for promotion and tenure to include the importance of innovative teaching and research in science education. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  4. Pay indirect costs on education grants on par with research grants to increase the incentive for individuals and institutions to undertake educational activities.
  5. Establish a small grant program for non-research institutions; those that teach the overwhelming majority of Earth science undergraduates and future teachers. Relatively low-cost support of undergraduate research could have a major educational impact. (Joint recommendation with Panel 4)

To Industry and Government Agencies

  1. Provide expertise for faculty development through workshops and short courses to help faculty better prepare students for future careers.
  2. Articulate what students need to succeed in the discipline, today and tomorrow. (Joint recommendation with Panels 3 and 4)
  3. Increase the involvement of colleagues in industry and government in the teaching and advising of undergraduates and, where appropriate, in research collaborations with faculty members. (Joint recommendation with Panel 4)
  4. Fund programs that will lead to a better prepared and more diverse technical work force; establish scholarships or paid internships that enable needy students to concentrate on their studies leading to careers in research and teaching. Offer internships that model non-research careers, provide practical education, and train tomorrow's work force. (Joint recommendation with Panel 6)

To Educational and Scientific Organizations

  1. Make the improvement of undergraduate Earth and space sciences education an organizational priority; actively promote effective teaching and educational reform in Earth and space sciences at all levels. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)
  2. Establish national lecture series and speakers programs directed toward effective teaching and educational reform.
  3. Increase recognition of teaching, equivalent to that of research, through mini grants to support education, educational service, community outreach projects, and awards for exemplary teaching. (Joint recommendation with Panel 3)