Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 1:

How does teaching with societal problems affect student learning about the Earth?


Geoscience plays a critical role in building sustainable societies and managing environmental issues, both in the types of research that address societal needs as well as creating scientifically literate citizens (Lewis & Baker 2010). Geoscientists have long been involved with research that intersects with societal issues, including resource issues (food, water quantity, mineral/aggregate resources, energy), environmental stability (environmental degradation, environmental justice) and health and safety issues (natural hazards, climate change, water quality; InTeGrate, 2017). However, there is a need to increase the number of undergraduate students choosing geoscience subjects to prepare them with skills and content required in the workplace (Wilson, 2016), and this requires us to examine novel approaches to teach geoscience.

Increasing undergraduate student engagement and motivation are key. Societal issues are of high interest to students (e.g. Pelch & McConnell, 2017). Science education research has shown that the disconnect between school science and students' day-to-day lived experiences contributes to lack of interest in science (Basu & Barton 2007, DeFelice et al., 2014; Lemke 2001, Roth & Tobin, 2007). As a result, this disconnect has created a false impression among students that science has little relevancy. Furthermore, students need to recognize the usefulness of the knowledge or skill in their lives and future goals for learning experiences to lead to usable knowledge (Edelson et al., 2006). Underrepresented and urban students (often with great diversity) are often at greater risk of losing interest in science as there is the added cultural and linguistic disconnects between school, school science, and their life-worlds (Basu & Barton, 2007; Rahm, 2007; InTeGrate, 2017). The world is becoming increasingly urbanized and it expected that the proportion of the world's population to live in urban areas will rise from 55% to 68% by 2050 (United Nations, 2018).

Teaching geoscience in societal contexts opens avenues to increase student exposure to and interest in geosciences (InTeGrate, 2017). Students tackle open-ended, real world, and often complex problems that are relevant, especially if using placed-based pedagogy and high impact teaching approaches (e.g., learning communities; service learning or other courses with a community-based project component; study abroad experiences; internships capstone courses or culminating senior experiences, and research with a faculty member) (NSSE, 2016). Students today, especially millennials, want to make a difference in their communities and the world at large. By providing societal contexts, they become interested, empowered, and motivated to become agents of change (Kang et al., 2016).

Whether or not students choose geoscience as a career, exposure to societal issues increases the role of science in building sustainability and can directly or indirectly affect attitudes and behaviors toward sustainable consumption (Kang et al., 2016) According to the United States National Center for Education Statistics, "scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity" (NASEM, 2016, p. 139). Lack of geoscience literacy makes society less informed and more vulnerable to resource use, disasters, and impacts of climate change.

The Summary Report for Summit on Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education contributed toward building a collective community vision for the undergraduate geoscience instruction focusing on three areas: (1) curriculum, content, competencies, and skills, (2) pedagogy and use of technology, and (3) broadening participation and retention of underrepresented groups and preparation of K-12 science teachers (Mosher et al., 2014, p.1). This provides a framework in which to research how the inclusion of societal issues contributes to student learning about the Earth.

To examine the efficacy of using societal problems to teach about the Earth, we need to determine the theoretical frameworks that connect the use of societal problems with student motivation to learn about the Earth and student motivation to act (e.g. solve problems/change behaviors), and also determine if learning progressions are important considerations and what the ideal progressions are (e.g. use of issues/activities/solutions appropriate to introductory to advanced levels and STEM/non-STEM majors).

Recommended Research Strategies

Specific research strategies to determine how the use of societal problems impacts student learning and contributes to content goals and general geoscience literacy should include:

  1. Literature reviews to identify relevant theoretical frameworks that will help explain the mechanisms through which teaching about the Earth through societal problems leads to student learning.
  2. Investigations of questions on how best to integrate issues of societal relevance in a geoscience curriculum to achieve geoscience literacy among non-majors, as well as geoscience workforce knowledge and skills (e.g, from the Summit Workforce document; Mosher et al., 2014) at the upper level. For example are there important learning progressions that indicate how much and what type of attention to societal issues results in learning and changing attitudes, and if there is specific timing in which societal problems should be included (e.g. use of issues appropriate to level and STEM/non-STEM majors)?
  3. Both shorter-term and longitudinal studies to examine if/how students use new-found knowledge of societal problems in their own lives and whether such issues contribute to student motivation to act (e.g. solve problems/change behaviors).
  4. Investigations to determine if the use of societal problems contributes to expanding diversity in the geosciences, which may be addressed through short term or longitudinal research on the current and evolving diversity in the geosciences, along with demographic analyses and interviews with students in various stages of courses in the geosciences.