Developing a New Transdisciplinary Curriculum in Critical Zone Science

TIM WHITE ( a research professor at the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, The Pennsylvania State University

During the past decade, CZ science has arisen as a new realm of Earth surface and environmental sciences. The development of a new scientific discipline requires educating early career scientists in that discipline — thus CZO education and outreach has focused on the Earth surface and environmental sciences community and on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers already focused on CZ science. Additionally, progress has been made in developing formal educational curricula for university and secondary education audiences. A description of two initiatives follows, one for undergraduate students and another aimed at teachers engaged in graduate work.

Undergraduate Education Applications

An interdisciplinary team of CZO scientists has developed an upper-division undergraduate course, "Introduction to Critical Zone Science," as part of the NSF-funded Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future program. The semester-long course is comprised of stand-alone, ~two-week modules, has been tested eight times at five universities and colleges, has been reviewed and revised, and was released in Spring 2017. The course content is available free on the Science Education Resource Center website. For a more descriptive academic view of the course, see White et al (2017).

The course includes knowledge development in trans-disciplinary science and interactive classroom, lab, and computer activities that use datasets from the US CZOs and federal agencies. A primary tenet of the course is that to achieve environmental sustainability, society must first gain a basic understanding of the CZ system, the natural processes and services of the CZ that are of value to society, and how those processes operate with and without the presence of humanity. Course topics include key concepts and methods of CZ science and units on land-atmosphere interactions, water budgets, landscape evolution, and biogeochemistry. A final unit focuses on human interactions in the CZ. Pre- and post-course assessments indicate students overwhelmingly agreed that they could use what they learned to help society overcome grand challenges and achieve environmental sustainability. An assortment of integrated pedagogical approaches is used, including in-class discussions, presentations, graphing, modeling, data analysis, and other discovery activities such as worksheets, short essays, report writing, and a semester-long project.

Secondary Education Aspects

Other CZO efforts have focused on training teachers. An online open-source course, Earth 530: Earth Surface Processes in the Critical Zone, offered through The Pennsylvania State University's Masters of Education in Earth Sciences program, is designed to educate middle and high school teachers interested in incorporating CZ science into their classrooms. The course may also be taken by any students with a basic understanding of Earth surface and environmental science. Earth 530 is constructed for a twelve- to fifteen-week semester but is modular; each unit and lesson stand alone as a learning exercise.

Earth 530 introduces students to the CZ through integration of trans-disciplinary science including study of weathering and soils, geomorphology, erosion and sedimentation, hydrogeology, low-temperature geochemistry, and Earth systems. The course structure is organized into seven units. The first unit introduces the basic concept of the CZ. Units 2 through 6 describe soil, atmosphere and climate, water, landforms, and ecosystems as they relate to CZ studies. Unit 7 integrates the lessons learned earlier into a systems framework and considers the impacts of society on the CZ. White (2016) provides a more thorough description of the lessons.

Pedagogical practices in the course include an orientation module, disciplinary modules developed with relevant introductory materials presented in advance (advanced organizers), and narrated PowerPoints, images, and videos to describe challenging conceptual knowledge. The course involves scientific literature reviews and written assignments. Student and student-teacher interaction involves messages of general interest and intervention, lessons with group discussions, and prompts to better facilitate discussions. The primary mode of assessment is through formative feedback with opportunities for student revision of assignments.

Earth 530 directly employs the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Like CZ science more generally, the course is grounded in a range of Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) from all the domains of physical, life, and Earth sciences and engineering, technology, and the applications of science. The course is three-dimensional in the NGSS sense: DCIs are explored and understood through the application of both Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices by way of hands-on learning exercises involving student interpretation of online accessible data, and system design is included in the final lesson of the course.


An undergraduate-level "Introduction to the Critical Zone" course provides the framework and resources for students from diverse disciplines to connect CZ science to humanity's grand challenges of global environmental sustainability. CZ science's interdisciplinary nature is also well suited for addressing the NGSS and for bringing locally relevant and engaging science into K-12 classrooms.


National Research Council, 2013, Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States: Washington, DC, The National Academies Press.

White, T., 2016, Earth surface processes in the Critical Zone: An introductory course for teachers: The Earth Scientist, v. XXXII, issue 3, p. 22-24.

White, T., Wymore, A., Dere, A., Hoffman, A., Washburne, J., and Conklin, M., 2017, Integrated interdisciplinary science of the Critical Zone as a foundational curriculum for addressing issues of sustainability: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 65, issue 2, p. 136-145.

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