Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 2:

What are the design principles for curriculum needed to teach with societal problems?


An important next step in supporting teaching about the Earth with societal problems is to identify the design principles that are needed to develop additional relevant curricula. Teaching with societal problems as a means to enhance student interest, motivations, dispositions, and learning outcomes, has emerged as a common design principle (i.e. a proposed relationship between an educational design and student learning; Sandoval, 2004) in recent reform efforts. Notably, the materials design rubric for the InTeGrate project tasks materials developers to create curricula that "connect geoscience to grand challenges facing society." This design strategy has resulted in a large body of modules and courses (~40) that incorporate the grand challenges in a variety of ways.

Efforts such as the Serving Our Communities blog have collected stories about how faculty are engaging with this work in creative ways that involve communities outside the campus. While the theoretical underpinnings of this conjecture are sound (see Introduction and Grand Challenge 1), there is a wide variety of possible teaching strategies that can be used, many of which are not yet well studied (e.g. service learning; NASEM, 2017). Documenting how this design conjecture is embodied in learning environments can lead not only to information about the efficacy of these approaches, but also lead to new insights into the underlying mechanisms for learning that are at play (Sandoval, 2004).

Of particular importance for supporting development and implementation of strategies for teaching with societal problems are considerations of scale. Societal problems can be used to address issues at a variety of scales (local, regional, global), leading to questions about implications for student outcomes (e.g., how does the scale of the issue impact student motivation?). Additionally, instructors can use societal problems to engage learners at different scales (e.g., activity scale within class periods, modules, courses, cross-cutting themes across a degree program). Identification of research-based design principles that operate at different scales on both dimensions should be a principal focus of this work. Future directions for this work include determining how best to support faculty in the use of the design principles to incorporate teaching with societal problems into their courses. This could include structures for developing action plans and repositories of examples for issues on multiple scales.

Recent efforts in the GER community show promise for moving this work forward in meaningful ways, lending credence to the claim that this is a timely pursuit and providing guidance for recommended strategies. Throughout this work, we encourage researchers to consider linkages between geoscience classrooms and other entities that can support this work, such as community groups and artists.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Inventory existing resources and promising practices that integrate issues of societal relevance in geoscience instruction. The rich body of practitioner-developed resources, coupled with the research literature, provides an ideal starting point for this work. We recommend conducting systematic analyses of approaches and strategies identified through conducting literature reviews, developing inventories of current practices found in existing databases (e.g. InTeGrate, On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Activities collection, SENCER model courses), and collecting narratives from faculty. Kastens and Krumhansl (2017) describe a method for identifying design patterns in practitioner-developed resources that could be implemented here.
  2. Determine what resources lead to student learning and engagement. Large scale investigations of the efficacy of existing resources can serve as a starting point for identifying targets for further research. For example, students who participated in InTeGrate modules demonstrated higher scores on systems thinking (Gilbert et al., 2017) and interdisciplinary essays (Awad et al., 2017) when compared to control groups. Modules with particularly high gains could be identified through further analysis of these datasets as a starting point.
  3. Determine what characteristics of approaches are effective at what scale and in what contexts. We recommend conducting design research studies of existing resources and promising practices, with a particular emphasis on identifying practices that lead to target student learning outcomes. This approach has the "dual goals of refining both theory and practice" (Collins et al., 2004) and embraces the real-world context in which teaching and learning occurs (Sandoval, 2004). Holder et al. (2017) proposed the Problem-Solving in Practice model, which identifies elements of instructional design that can be used to guide student engagement in real-world problem solving; this model could serve as the basis for design research studies.