Education Opinion

An Evolutionary Leap in How We Teach Geosciences

New research into the ways that students learn and apply their knowledge is changing teaching methods and undergraduate geoscience course content.

By , Kelsey Bitting, Cinzia Cervato, , R. Heather Macdonald, John McDaris, Karen S. McNeal, , Eric Pyle, Eric Riggs, Katherine Ryker, Steven Semken, and Rachel Teasdale

The content and skills that we teach our geoscience students benefit from developments in the knowledge and practices of the many research fields within the geosciences. In much the same way, what we teach and how we teach should be informed by research on geoscience teaching and learning itself—this has always been true. However, geoscience education research is now entering a new stage and is poised to take an evolutionary leap [Arthurs, 2019]. If we make this leap successfully, teaching practice and student learning will reap the benefits.

The idea that geoscience education research (GER) should inform the ways that geosciences are taught is not new. Eos has been a venue to share several GER advances, such as how geoscientists think and learn [Kastens et al., 2009], methods for teaching geoscience to large classes [Butler et al., 2011], and helping students develop spatial reasoning skills [Davatzes et al., 2018].

One next step in this process, the AGU Council’s formation last year of an Education section, reflects the value that AGU members place on teaching and learning about Earth. Education is at the core of nurturing the next generation of diverse Earth scientists, as well as growing public understanding of how Earth science is relevant to everyday lives and how it helps address pressing problems facing humanity.

Grand Challenges for Geoscience Education Research

Recently, more than 200 geoscience educators and researchers engaged in an important community-building and research-strengthening process, which spanned a year and a half. Through a series of National Science Foundation–funded activities, they defined a set of priority research questions, or “grand challenges,” on 10 themes relevant to undergraduate geoscience education.

Grand challenge exercises have been essential steps in other geoscience communities, including tectonics research [Huntington et al., 2018] and scientific ocean drilling (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program). When done well, they enable a community to identify research needs and opportunities going forward. This is what the GER community has accomplished. The result is A Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research [St. John, 2018], a prioritized research agenda and a catalyst for action.

Geoscience Education Researchers Address Stubborn Problems

The questions guiding future research on undergraduate geoscience education span a web of topics. These include research on how students learn geoscience content, their development of workforce-necessary skills, and our ability as instructors to design and implement curricular pathways for the success of all students [St. John, 2018]. Within these areas are stubborn problems that will require action at multiple scales [St. John and McNeal, 2017], from case studies to large, multi-institutional studies, conducted by diverse teams of researchers.

Here we give three examples of stubborn problems in the modern landscape of undergraduate geoscience teaching and learning. Each example highlights needs and opportunities to tackle challenging teaching and learning questions of our time by rethinking our assumptions, drawing from new empirical data, and applying social science theories and methods to topics that matter to geoscience educators.

Overcoming Obstacles to Learning High-Stakes Science

Climate change is one of the most widespread geoscience challenges facing society today. This is an example of “high-stakes science,” which requires a broad response by a scientifically informed populace to avoid potentially costly and disastrous outcomes.

Compounding the problem and stalling possible solutions is the disconnect between the public and scientific understandings of climate change. Psychologists Weber and Stern [2011] attribute this disconnect to two fundamental factors. First, climate change is intrinsically difficult to understand because of its multiple drivers, consequences, and feedbacks, as well as its operation across different spatial and temporal scales. Second, scientists and nonscientists develop their understandings of the natural world in different ways. Scientists base conclusions and recommendations on data and logic, but for nonscientists, feelings and values often override systematic observations and measurements of climate phenomena.

It is our job as geoscience educators to break down that complexity and help students experience how science works. Social science research tells us that success likely requires learners to overcome serious obstacles [Paasche and Åkesson, 2019], such as the tentacles of fake news, groupthink, and failure to exercise an ability to think critically [Pennycook and Rand, 2019].

Currently, there is no consensus in the social science community for overcoming these obstacles. However, GER efforts to advance climate literacy are underway [e.g., McNeal et al., 2014; Buhr Sullivan and St. John, 2014]. In particular, work by Cook et al. [2017, 2018] shows promising results for teaching students how to critically analyze claims about climate change and inoculate them against climate misinformation.

These efforts are only the start to closing the gap between the public and scientific understanding of the high-stakes science of climate change. GER is uniquely qualified to address this challenge by integrating knowledge about how the Earth system (i.e., the climate system) works with knowledge about the theories and methods of social science research.

Complex Problem Solving Isn’t What It Used to Be

When many of us were undergraduates, a “problem” was often a textbook-style exercise with a single correct answer. This answer might have been printed in the back of the textbook, and we could solve the problem using a technique that had been explicitly taught in class.

In today’s undergraduate geoscience courses, students are increasingly being asked to grapple with complex, ill-structured problems at the intersection between Earth and human systems. Such problems have no single correct answer and no predetermined pathway toward solutions. Proposed solutions may involve values or ethics as well as science and technology. Such work has been called “convergent” science because solutions for problems must be converged on from different directions. This convergence is difficult to teach and learn.

However, we must teach convergent science because geoscientists have scientific expertise and valuable perspectives needed to address a range of economic, environmental, health, and safety challenges [Aster et al., 2016]. Research is needed on how societal problems, such as confronting climate variability, ensuring sufficient supplies of clean water, and building resiliency to natural hazards, can serve as effective context for teaching and learning in the geosciences.

Some help comes from a recent review paper by Holder et al. [2017], which provides a conceptual model to guide students in solving ill-structured problems. This model, which was calibrated against 11 empirical, classroom-based research studies, identifies elements of successful guidance. These elements include real-world relevance, collaboration among problem solvers, requiring students to analyze and interpret data, and the possibility to explore more than one pathway to a solution.  The geoscience education research community has only begun to explore the forms of coaching and scaffolding that can help individuals who struggle with these types of problem-based curricula.

Understanding how we can help students find and solve Earth-related problems that they care about in an information-rich society is a high priority for GER. One way we can make progress is by studying the problem-finding process itself. Defining authentic problems is not easy, but it is the first critical step to solving them.

Investigating this process will involve studies on how skilled geoscience problem solvers do their work, how learning occurs during problem solving, and what pedagogical approaches nudge students toward tackling problems as experts do. In addition, people from different backgrounds may perceive and prioritize different problems; therefore, inclusion is especially important in GER around problem solving and in problem-based learning.

We are beginning to explore forms of coaching and scaffolding that can help individuals struggling with these types of problem-based curricula (e.g., synthesis work by Holder et al. [2017]). This research direction is critical because we anticipate that people who learn to identify and solve convergent science problems as students will carry that skill set and habit of mind into their personal, civic, and professional adult lives.

The changing landscape of information technology (e.g., big data, emerging technologies, access to a wide variety of tools, rich multimedia) also affects the kinds and quantities of resources that are available for problem solving. Students must learn to navigate this rapidly changing space, identifying and harnessing resources (e.g., tools, data, models, experts, collaborators [Ebert-Uphoff and Deng, 2017]) that can be brought to bear on the convergent problems.

Employers articulate the importance of using data to solve problems, of learning to work on problems with no clear answers, and of managing the uncertainty associated with addressing these types of problems. However, the most effective strategies for learning how to manage and extract solutions from large data sets are not clear; therefore, this too is among the priorities for geoscience education researchers.

Learning Success and Essential Engagement

Another set of obstacles to learning is often overlooked. Imagine a situation where a student who did poorly on the last exam comes to your office and asks, “How can I better study for the next one?” You ask, “What did you do to prepare for the last exam?” The student’s response is typical of many introductory college students: “I reviewed the PowerPoint slides and looked at my textbook.”

Research from the social sciences has shown that students’ ability to reflect on what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to do to improve is vital to the learning process, as are their emotions, attitudes, and beliefs. Research addressing these factors in a geoscience context may be the key to strengthening the foundation of our undergraduate courses.

Results of GER are promising: We have a preliminary understanding of what drives some introductory geoscience students to learn new content [van der Hoeven Kraft, 2011] and to study for exams [Lukes and McConnell, 2014]. However, we need to learn how these factors affect students’ abilities to advance from geoscience novices to geoscientifically literate citizens or to practicing geoscience experts.

In addition, the pathways and identities of students may affect their emotions, motivations, and engagement in our courses. These in turn affect the likelihood of being attracted to and thriving in the geosciences. Given how the geosciences touch the lives of all people, it should also be a field that is representative of all people, but that is not yet the case.

Because the geosciences are the least diverse field in science, technology, engineering, and math [Sidder, 2017], with little improvement in diversity over the past 4 decades [Bernard and Cooperdock, 2018], expanding underrepresented minority participation is perhaps the stubbornest problem in geoscience education. Social science theories newly applied to the geosciences [e.g., Callahan et al., 2015, 2017; Wolfe and Riggs, 2017] are likely going to be key to developing recruitment and retention strategies for implementation at the individual and programmatic levels.

What Can I Do?

Geoscience education research on these and other grand challenges identified in the framework will strengthen the geosciences as a whole by feeding back into what and how we teach. This goal has the underlying assumptions that research results are effectively shared with educators and are used to reform teaching practice. These actions cannot be left to chance—they will require expanding and sustaining dialogue between educators and researchers and increasing support for GER across programs and departments.

AGU members must be part of this effort. At the individual level, talk with your colleagues who do GER about questions on teaching and learning that matter to you. Invite geoscience education researchers to your department as seminar speakers. At the society level, the dialogue can be scaled up by hosting forums where educators can pose questions and talk directly to GER experts and where GER experts can ask questions of educators.

One online model for this is the Research + Practice Collaboratory, an organization that experiments with ways to support mutual cultural exchange between researchers and practitioners. Another model, which can be embedded in conferences, is the Geoscience Education Research and Practice Forum.

In addition, AGU publications can invite researchers to submit short summaries of new research findings and their practical implications for teaching topics that align to that journal’s focus. Geoscience teaching excellence is a shared goal of geoscience educators and geoscience education researchers, and now is the perfect time to engage in a disciplinary movement forward.

Acknowledgments

A Community Framework for Geoscience Education Research was supported by National Science Foundation grant DUE-1708228. With 48 authors, the framework was truly a collaborative effort. We invite readers to explore the framework in more depth online from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. Alternatively, the complete framework, as well as individual chapters, can be downloaded from the James Madison University Library Scholarly Commons.

References

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Author Information

—Kristen St. John ([email protected]), James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.; Kelsey Bitting, Northeastern University, Boston, Mass.; Cinzia Cervato, Iowa State University, Ames; Kim A. Kastens, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, N.Y.; R. Heather Macdonald, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Va.; John McDaris, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, Northfield, Minn.; Karen S. McNeal, Auburn University, Ala.; Heather Petcovic, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo; Eric Pyle, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.; Eric Riggs, Texas A&M University, College Station; Katherine Ryker, University of South Carolina, Columbia; Steven Semken, Arizona State University, Tempe; and Rachel Teasdale, California State University, Chico

Citation: St. John, K., et al. (2019), An evolutionary leap in how we teach geosciences, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO127285. Published on 08 July 2019.
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