Grand Challenge 4:

How do we overcome structural barriers at the level of instructional practice that impede effective teaching and learning of geoscience?


Undergraduate teaching modalities in the geosciences today largely remain bound by the long-established lecture-lab format characteristic of most STEM courses, with the additional aspect of field trips and field camps of longer duration. However, as student demographics change and bring changes in student needs and dispositions, and academic units are increasingly pressed for financial and logistical resources, geoscience educators must overcome habit and institutional inertia in order to render geoscience instruction flexible enough to accommodate and engage future generations of increasingly diverse geoscience students. Our Working Group has targeted a number of structural barriers at the level of instructional practice that include (but are not necessarily limited to): inertia within academic units, pedagogy unsupported by learning research, limited understanding of diverse students' prior preparation, inaccessible or poorly accessible geoscience learning activities in the field or indoors, and indifferent or hostile learning environments. As shown by the proposed research strategies and symbolized in Figure 5, barriers can be overcome in many different ways.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Draw on research on theories of change (e.g., Lewin, 1947) and cultural cognition (e.g., Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011) to analyze views and habits of geoscience faculty that may cause conflict and hinder change in their instructional practices, and determine new research strategies to mitigate them.
  2. Expand on current research on specific barriers at the faculty and academic-unit levels to use of effective research-based pedagogy by geoscience instructors at different types of academic institutions. With few exceptions (Markley et al., 2009), current published research on such barriers (e.g., Kezar, 2001; Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011; Brownell & Tanner, 2012), though relevant, has not been focused on geoscience instruction.
  3. Devise and evaluate new mitigation strategies at the instructional level that can help compensate for extrinsic barriers to geoscience learning by students from underserved communities, such as inadequate high-school preparation for undergraduate geoscience studies, lack of meaningful access to technology and media ("digital inequality;" e.g., Wei & Hindman, 2011), and lack of access to STEM enrichment programs.
  4. Devise and evaluate new strategies at the instructional level that explicitly address intrinsic (unit-level and faculty-level) barriers to geoscience learning by female students, underrepresented minority students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities, such as indifferent or hostile learning environments (e.g., St. John, Riggs, & Mogk, 2016)or insufficient mentoring by faculty (e.g., McCallum et al., 2018).
  5. Expand on current research (e.g., Gilley et al., 2015; Atchison & Libarkin, 2016; Carabajal, Marshall, & Atchison, 2017)on rendering geoscience instruction, whether done in classrooms, laboratories, in the field and community, or online, more accessible to students with disabilities.


Atchison, C. L., & Libarkin, J. C. (2016). Professionally held perceptions about the accessibility of the geosciences. Geosphere, 12(4), 1154-1165.

Brownell, S. E., & Tanner, K. D. (2012). Barriers to faculty pedagogical change: Lack of training, time, incentives, and...tensions with professional identity? CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11, 339-346.

Carabajal, I. G., Marshall, A. M., & Atchison, C. L. (2017). A synthesis of instructional strategies in geoscience education literature that address barriers to inclusion for students with disabilities. Journal of Geoscience Education, 65(4), 531-541.

Gilley, B., Atchison, C., Feig, A., & Stokes, A. (2015). Impact of inclusive field trips. Nature Geoscience, 8, 579-580.

Henderson, C., Beach, A., & Finkelstein, N. (2011). Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48, 952-984.

Kahan, D. M., Jenkins-Smith, H., & Braman, D. (2011). Cultural cognition of scientific consensus. Journal of Risk Research, 14(2), 147-174.

Kezar, A. (2001). Understanding and facilitating organizational change in the 21st Century: Recent research and conceptualizations.ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report , 28(4). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics. Human Relations, 1, 2-38.

Markley, C. T., Miller, H., Kneeshaw, T., & Herbert, B. E. (2009). The relationship between instructors' conceptions of geoscience learning and classroom practice at a research university. Journal of Geoscience Education, 57(4), 264-274.

McCallum, C., Libarkin, J., Callahan, C., & Atchison, C. (2018). Mentoring, social capital, and diversity in Earth system science. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 24(1), 17-41.

St. John, K., Riggs, E., & Mogk, D. (2016). Sexual harassment in the sciences: A call to geoscience faculty and researchers to respond.Journal of Geoscience Education , 64(4), 255-257.

Wei, L., & Hindman, D. B. (2011). Does the digital divide matter more? Comparing the effects of new media and old media use on the education-based knowledge gap. Mass Communication and Society, 14(2), 216-235.