Research on Teaching about Earth in the Context of Societal Problems

Rachel Teasdale, California State University-Chico; Hannah Scherer, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ; Lauren Holder, Texas A & M University; Rebecca Boger, CUNY Brooklyn College; Cory Forbes, University of Nebraska at Lincoln


The use of societal problems as an effective context for teaching about the Earth was suggested in projects (e.g., InTeGrate) and conversations leading up to the 2017 workshops on the future of Geoscience Educational Research. Around the same time, the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education (Mosher et al., 2014) indicated that among the content and competencies of graduating geoscientists, students "must understand the societal relevance of geoscience topics as well as their ethical dimensions." (Summit Summary Report, p. 3) Similarly, at a societal level, as our population likely exceeds 9 billion by 2050, there will be increasing pressures on Earth systems (e.g., water, energy, soils, biochemical cycles) so efforts to understand how to live sustainably on our planet will require interdisciplinary, applied skills and experiences for the next generation of geoscientists.

Knowledge and consideration of societal issues are critical for students majoring in the geosciences, as well as for non-science students (Figure 1) and the general public who vote and make decisions that should be based on sound science. Thus, the importance of integrating geoscience with other disciplines such as urban planning, social justice, politics, communications and more has become a critical call to action for geoscience researchers and educators that merits examination.

Improving undergraduate STEM education with the use of relevant issues such as societal problems is a useful mechanism to help students find science to be personally relevant and to develop their interest based on societal contexts. Increased use of student-centered pedagogies in STEM teaching is consistent with research examining student learning and persistence.

The Grand Challenges in this chapter examine the use of societal issues to teach about the Earth, which include consideration of the impact on student learning, the design principles of curricula that best integrate geoscience content within the context of societal issues, and the assessment needed to measure the efficacy of these methods (Figure 2).

Grand Challenges

Grand Challenge 1: How does teaching with societal problems affect student learning about the Earth?

Societal issues are of high interest to students, which provides an opportunity to increase student exposure to, and interest in, the geosciences. The efficacy of teaching with societal issues merits further research to characterize curriculum that exists and the extent to which it increases student learning and motivation as they develop their geoscience literacy.

Grand Challenge 2: What are the design principles for curriculum needed to teach with societal problems?

As curriculum is designed to incorporate the use of societal problems, there must be a clear set of design principles that clarify best practices that promote student learning. There are a variety of research-based teaching strategies available but characteristics of effective curriculum must also be considered in the context of teaching with societal issues. An important strategy is to assess the use of research-based design principles that operate at different scales of issues (e.g. local vs. global scale) and at different scales of course activities (e.g. within a class period or across a course or program).

Grand Challenge 3: How do we assess the influence of teaching with societal problems in terms of student motivation and learning about the Earth?

Teaching about the Earth through the use of societal issues or problems can theoretically increase student motivation, engagement, and learning. New research should measure changes in both cognitive (e.g. problem solving and learning) and affective domains (e.g. motivation, engagement, self-efficacy) at short term (course) scales as well as in multi-institutional longitudinal studies.


Mosher, S., Bralower, T., Huntoon, J., Lea, P., McConnell, D., Miller, K., Ryan, J., Summa, L., Villalobos, J., and White, L. (2014). The Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education. Retrieved from

Citation for this chapter: Teasdale, Rachel; Scherer, Hannah; Holder, Lauren; Boger, Rebecca; and Forbes, Cory (2018). "Research on Teaching about Earth in the Context of Societal Problems". In St. John, K (Ed.) (2018). Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research. National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

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