Research on Teaching about Earth in the Context of Societal Problems
Authors: 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; and Cory Forbes, University of Nebraska at Lincoln
The use of societal problems as an effective context for teaching about the earth was suggested in the 2015 and 2016 workshops on the future of Geoscience Educational Research (GER) (Macdonald et al., 2016). Around the same time, the number one outcome of the Summit on The Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education 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" (Mosher et al., 2014). Similarly, at a societal level, as our population approaches 9 billion by 2050, there are 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 new knowledge, tools and approaches that are interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary (InTeGrate, 2017; Lang et al., 2012; Van der Leeuw et al., 2012; AGI, 2012; figure 1).
Preparation of future geoscientists is no small task, research on the geoscience workforce indicates the need for more (90,000) geoscientists in the next decade (Wilson, 2016a), in addition to the need for scientists overall discussed in the PCAST report (Olson and Riordan, 2012). As of 2016, 31% of recent geoscience BA/BS graduates are employed in the environmental services industry (Wilson, 2016b), making environmental issues and societal problems important components of the preparation of undergraduate geoscience students for their future careers.
In addition to preparing future geoscientists, knowledge and consideration of societal issues are critical for non-science students and the general public so that earth related issues are considered in ways that integrate geoscience with other disciplines such as urban planning, social justice, politics, communications and more makes geoscience literacy a critical component to all students as well as to the general public (Wysession et al., 2012; InTeGrate, 2017a). Thus, understanding the best practices for improving geoscience literacy in future geoscientists and in the general population has become a critical call to action for geoscience researchers and educators (Earth Science Literacy Initiative, 2010).
Improving undergraduate (geo)science education with the use of relevant issues such as societal problems, is also a useful mechanism to garner student interest in such issues (e.g. van der Hoeven Kraft, 2017; InTeGrate 2017b). Recent work also found that curriculum that addresses science and society have a positive effect on student attitudes about science and their perceptions on the relevance of science (e.g. Pelch and McConnell, 2017). Improved pedagogy in geoscience and STEM is consistent with research examining the reasons student don't persist in the geosciences, such as the lack or loss of interest in the material and poor teaching (Seymour, 1995 and 2000).
Given these multiple calls to action and research results, an important element of GER is to investigate ways to blend DBER-based teaching practices within the context of geoscience topics that can help drive student interest, such as through the use of societal issues, which affect their lives and drive their interest (e.g. Manduca et al., 2004). According to Social Cognitive Theory (e.g., Bandura, 1986; Reninger & Hidi, 2016), interest is a combination of external drivers that an instructor can use to encourage interest, as well as internal drivers that may help students emotionally connect with course content or finding that the curriculum is relevant to their own lives (van der Hoeven Kraft, 2017). As such, teaching geosciences in the context of societal problems is one way to address scientific content in ways that capture student interest.
This paper considers the grand challenges related to using societal issues to teach about the earth, by considering the design principles of curricula that best integrate geoscience content within the context of societal issues that result in maximum student learning and the assessment needed to measure the efficacy of these methods (figure 2). There are excellent models of curriculum that already incorporates the use of societal problems in teaching about the earth (e.g. Eisen et al., 2009; King et al., 2012; InTeGrate, 2017c; SENCER, 2017), which can help inform research on developing, measuring and assessing student learning through the use of geoscience curriculum focused on societal problems.
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 environment, both in the types of research that address societal needs as well as creating scientifically literate citizens (Lewis and 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), health and safety issues (natural hazards, climate change, water quality; InTeGrate, 2017). However, there is a need to increase undergraduate students choosing geoscience subjects and being prepared 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 and 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 and Barton 2007, DeFelice et al., Lemke 2001, Roth and Tobin, 2007). As a result, science has little relevancy to students. 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 disconnect between school, school science, and their lifeworlds (Basu and Barton, 2007; Rahm 2007; Integrate website). The world is becoming increasingly urbanized and is expected to rise from 54% to 66% of the world's population to live in urban areas by 2050 (UN).
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 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) (taken from serc website; original source 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" (from Krajcik and Sutherland 2010). Lack of geo/science 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 geosciences 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 (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 theoretical frameworks that connect the use of societal problems with 1) student motivation to learn about the Earth; 2) student motivation to act (e.g. solve problems/change behaviors), and 3) if learning progressions are important considerations and what the ideal progressions are (e.g. use of issues/activities/solutions appropriate to grade level and STEM/non-STEM majors). 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:
Literature review to identify relevant theoretical frameworks that will help explain the mechanisms through which teaching about the Earth through societal problems leads to student learning.
In addition student engagement and motivation issues, GER must clearly define geoscience literacy and goals towards achieving geoscience literacy, perhaps describing achievement level goals for different levels of learners (e.g. introductory non-major students through senior level geoscience majors and graduate students). Such definitions will need examination and inspiration from but unique from characterizations of science literacy. Achievement of geoscience literacy should incorporate skills from the Summit Workforce document.
Shorter term and longitudinal studies should also 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). Such research should also investigate questions of dosage and timing of such curriculum. For example are there important learning progressions that indicate how much attention to societal issues results in learning and attitudes as well as changes in behavior and if there is specific timing in which societal problems should be included (e.g. use of issues appropriate to grade level and STEM/non-STEM majors).
GER should also be used 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.
Grand Challenge 2: What are the design principles for curriculum needed to teach with societal problems?
Identification of design principles is an important next step in supporting teaching about the Earth with societal problems. Teaching with societal problems as a means to enhance student interest, motivations, dispositions, and learning outcomes, has emerged as a common design conjecture (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 (https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/info_team_members/currdev/rubric.html) tasks materials developers to create curricula that "connect geoscience to grand challenges facing society." This has resulted in a large body of modules and courses (currently 37) that accomplish this in a variety of ways.
Efforts such as the Serving Our Communities blog (https://nagt.org/nagt/profdev/serving/index.html) 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 GC1 above), 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, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 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.
Inventory existing resources and promising practices. 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 practice 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.
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.
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.
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. The NRC, 2012 advocates for the use of societal issues in the classroom in multiple disciplines, but this can be especially useful in the geosciences because our field focuses around the surface of the Earth where humans live:
"studying and engaging in the practices of science and engineering during their Kâ€“12 schooling should help students see how science and engineering are instrumental in addressing major challenges that confront society today, such as . . . solving the problems of global environmental change''(pg. 9).
Societal issues may serve as the vehicle to increase cognitive and affective skills like problem solving, as a student may be more motivated or engaged during problem solving that has personal significance (Gilbert, 2006; Sawyer, 2006; McConnell and Van Der Hoeven Kraft, 2011). Furthermore, in today's society, students must be able to distinguish between "fake news" and scientific facts, especially when there is an issue that impacts their local community. By teaching about these types of situations early and often during students' academic careers, we can prepare them to be informed citizens that can vote accordingly:
"Scientists must make critical judgments about their own work and that of their peers, and the scientist and the citizen alike must make evaluative judgments about the validity of science-related media reports and their implications for people's own lives and society. (NRC, 2012, pg 71)"
In order to know if teaching through the use of societal problems is valid, we as a community should produce research to substantiate the claims that we make about increases in engagement, motivation, and problem solving and learning. We should also investigate student centered course activities like flipped courses or service-learning could help to increase engagement and motivation:
"... the geosciences... offer fertile ground for service-learning programs that address intersections between science and society" (National Academies, 2017, pg 6).
Finally, we must use assessment techniques to measure changes in both the cognitive (eg. problem solving and learning) and affective domains (eg. motivation, engagement, self-efficacy). In the future, we will need to conduct multi-institutional longitudinal studies that look at the impact of teaching with societal issues.
Research on the efficacy of teaching about the Earth through the use of societal problems should include student data, but should also explicitly link defined student learning outcomes to validated assessment techniques. To do this, we must first fully explain student learning outcomes and the numerous variables related to these, such as defining "scientific literacy" as this phrase may have different definitions. In general, GER will need to define the best ways to measure the effect of using societal problems on student learning and on resulting motivations to act (e.g. solve problems/change behaviors). To do so, we will need to determine what instruments currently exist or need to be developed to assess the use of societal problems that allows for future meta-analysis. We suggest that although there are generalized problem solving, argumentation, engagement, and motivation surveys, it may be useful to tailor these specifically for the geosciences.
Specific research strategies will likely include:
In the cognitive domain, we should assess general problem solving skills as well as how students approach a problem, make decisions, argumentation, and solution generation. To do this, we can use validated assessment techniques like the Social Problem-Solving Inventory-Revised (SPSI-R; D'Zurilla et al., 2004). This inventory examines the ways in which students orient themselves towards the problem, rational problem solving, impulsivity, and avoidance, and self-efficacy.
General learning in the geosciences as a result of teaching using societal issues could be assessed using the Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI; Libarkin and Anderson, 2005), a validated bank of questions that assess learning, or through the use of the Learning and Study Skills Inventory (LASSI; Cano, 2006).
Argumentation may also be an effective way to engage students in problem solving and learning (Driver et al., 2000; Osborne et al., 2004). While assessment of argumentation is difficult, there are methods such as the use of Toulmin's (1958) argumentation model, and revisions of this model, based upon warrants and claims; however, this data is much more qualitative in nature.
Student affective domain is of equal importance when considering societal issues because of the claim that teaching with these issues may lead to increases in engagement and motivation. To measure engagement, instructors and researchers can use a variety of instruments, but one of the most popular of these is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE; Kuh, 2003). However, this instrument is expensive, and fairly generalized and so it may be useful to have a engagement survey that relates more directly to the geosciences.
In terms of motivation and attitude, there are several valid options including: Attitudes toward Science Survey (ATSS; Bickmore et al., 2009), Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ; Pintrich et al., 1991), Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI; Ryan and Deci, 2000), and the Academic Motivation Scale (AMS; Vallerand et al., 1992). In addition to these instruments, there are quite a few instruments listed on the NAGT GER Toolbox (GER Toolbox, 2017). Student engagement, motivation, and attitudes can also be linked to the teaching style of the instructor (instructor centered or student centered), and so using a observation protocol like the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) could be useful to gauge the impact of the instructor (Piburn and Daiyo, 2000).
Linkages to other GER Working Groups
Teaching with societal issues has important linkages to other GER Working Groups:
WG2: Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Environmental, Ocean, Atmosphere and Climate Science Content, in that there are numerous and diverse societal issues related to all three spheres as well as climate issues. Given media coverage of climate and representations of IPCC (good and bad), teaching with societal issues is especially relevant and important for informing students on ways to interpret such reports and the sources and reliability of data in considering issues they may see in the news.
WG3: Research on Elementary, Middle and Secondary Earth Science Teacher Education (working with teachers and future teachers in all settings), in that new K-12 standards (NGSS) explore the use of transdisciplinary approaches, so our future college students will bring those skills, experiences and content knowledge to our classrooms.
WG9: Research on Geoscience Students' Self-Regulated Learning/Metacognition and Affective Domain has potential links to investigation of teaching with societal problems as a mechanism to increase student interest in the geosciences.
WG5: Research on Access and Success of Underrepresented Groups in the Geosciences, because the use of societal issues may support learning of students in underrepresented groups as noted in overlapping research with WG9, in that addressing societal issues may increase interest of underrepresented groups. Societal issues may in some cases be familiar to students if issues in their local community are those considered in geoscience courses. This connection to place-based learning may also have good linkages with WG8, Research on Instructional Strategies to Improve Geoscience Learning in Different Settings and with Different Technologies (e.g., place-based instruction, teaching large lectures, online instruction).
Societal Problems -- Discussion
2. I like the critical needs table/figure but at first glance I think someone might look at that and think those are critical needs that your WG has defined and that it is a summary of the your groups recommendations. The caption makes it clear the source but could the list header be revised to make it clear how these critical needs related to your theme?
3. End of Intro: “This paper considers the grand challenges related to using societal issues to teach about the earth, by considering the design principles of curricula that best integrate geoscience content within the context of societal issues that result in maximum student learning and the assessment needed to measure the efficacy of these methods”. I don’t think it is a paper, it is a chapter? Or maybe that could be rephrased so it reflects the “charge” of the WG - See what WG3 did in their intro. Then you have a sentence referencing several models for curriculum that does this, but then it kind of stops awkwardly. Do you describe these models later under the GCs? Or do you summarize what makes them excellent somewhere? If these model are excellent does that mean they are comprehensive too and therefore we don’t really need more original research in teaching about the Earth in the context of societally relevant problems? Instead, we just need to adapt those models and assess how they work?
4. General comment: I think the rationale for GC#1 is well cited, but I was wondering what future research is actually needed by the time I got to the end of it. My question was addressed though in the first paragraph of the Research Strategies section - But should that go instead as the last paragraph of the rationale? I think I’m getting at if the rationale need to include the needs or gaps that currently exist? The recommended strategies lay out paths to help address those needs/fill those gaps? (I may be overthinking this.) Another way to approach this might be to do what WG3 did and include some suggestions for important researchable questions under each Grand Challenge, in addition to the recommended strategies. That wasn’t a requirement in the format, but I think it is very effective. Please look at WG3’s draft chapter and see if you think that is a good way to go.
5. GC#1: Recommended strategy 1 about need for theoretical frameworks. Can you elaborate or give an example? I think it might help to see how theoretical frameworks can help support the research in this area.
6. GC#1: Recommended strategy 2: You state “GER must clearly define geoscience literacy and goals towards achieving geoscience literacy…” but do researcher define the literacy goals or do educators/practitioners/employers? I’m not sure that is GER’s role (or not exclusively GERs role). I do see GER though helping figure out what is the best way to achieve the goals once set.
7. GC#2 Rationale: I think could benefit from GER looking outside our discipline for strategies that are working in other STEM (medicine, ecosystem management, agriculture education) and non-STEM (e.g., urban studies?, economics?) fields that address societally-relevant problems. What could you suggest here to branch out from InTeGrate materials so we can learn about other models too outside of our discipline?
8. GC#3: I like that you offer several examples of possible assessment resources. Because you referred to InTeGrate a lot in the other GCs and in the intro, does the InTeGrate program offer an assessment model that can be adapted for use outside of InTeGrate materials?
9. I like that you included a summary at the end of how your theme connects to other work group themes. Such cross- theme connections will be important for me to summarize in a synthesis chapter that builds on all of the WG theme chapters. Thanks for already thinking though some important connections!
Might it be more effective to open with "how do we assess..." as your first GC, then go into "how does this affect student learning"? I suggest this partly because it is in this section where you really unpack the variety of types of learning that might result, which was a question for me throughout your intro and GC1 and 2. As an alternative, you could lay out those ideas in the intro. Either way, I think carrying through specific reference to the specific types of learning and the ways that we might measure them will be useful throughout the other two GCs- for example, we might design very differently for a different type of desired learning, which might be clarified by and grounded in the specific assessment we use to measure whether we've achieved it. Hope that's helpful!
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• Ensuring sufficient supplies of clean water
• Developing energy to power the nation
• Building resiliency to natural hazards
• Managing healthy soils
• Providing raw materials for modern society
• Expanding opportunities and mitigating threats in the ocean and at coasts
• Confronting climate variability
• Managing waste to maintain a healthy environment
• Meeting the future demand for geoscientists
GC #1, Research strategy 2: The geoscience literacy documents are not mentioned here, but these documents represent the community consensus on what every citizen should know about Earth science, atmospheric science, climate, and oceans. How does this strategy relate to or build from those documents? All of the literacy documents are available here: https://nagt.org/nagt/teaching_resources/literacies.html. I also agree with Kristen's comment above that it is not really the role of the GER community to define literacy, but it can invest in research to understand how we achieve literacy. Learning progressions research might also be useful here.
GC #2: I have a hard time seeing this as a grand challenge. I think we already know good curriculum design principles and strategies and I see this more as a process of applying what we already know - many of these ideas come from the interdisciplinary teaching literature. Key references:
Spelt, E. H., Biemans, H. A., Tobi, H., Luning, P., & Mulder, M. (2009). Teaching and Learning in Interdisciplinary Higher Education: A Systematic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 21(4), 365-378. doi:10.1007/s10648-009-9113-z
Nikitina, S. (2006). Three strategies for interdisciplinary teaching: contextualizing, conceptualizing, and problem‐centring. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(3), 251-271.
Barab, S. A., & Landa, A. (1997). Designing effective interdisciplinary anchors. Educational Leadership, March, 52-55.
Klein, J. T., & Newell, W. H. (1996). Advancing Interdisciplinary Studies. In J. Gaff & J. Ratcliff (Eds.), Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
These are in addition to general curriculum design literature, like:
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
GC #3: To me, this is where the important questions really are. How well does this approach really work, and we can consider that along several dimensions, which you've outlined very nicely here. One additional dimension to consider is how the effect of teaching in the context of societal issues changes over the course of a major. For example, I can imagine a few hypotheses:
- Students who are introduced to Earth science in context of societal issues in the first few courses they take will be disappointed (less motivated, learn less, etc.) if more advanced classes do not take that approach, and may even start to demand faculty take this approach in all courses
- Societal issues are considered a scaffold for learning, and while the scaffolds are significant and strong at the introductory level, they can be removed and fade at more advanced levels because students can make the societal connections on their own.