Helping the next generation save the planet

Droughts, earthquakes and complex global issues tackled by Carleton's Science Education Resource Center.

Krista Herbstrith, SERC Jun. 3, 2015
  • NYU's Courant Institute's HackathonStudents from 30 universities attend NYU's Courant Institute's Hackathon. During this 24-hour coding event, NYC startups present their technologies and students build original applications based on them.Elena Olivo, NYU

  • Seismologist Bill MenkeSeismologist Bill Menke interprets seismograms from the January 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti. Kim Martineau, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University

  • Photovoltaic devicesPostdoctoral appointees Ioan Botiz (left), Karen Mulfort and Alex Martinson are exploring the possibility of coupling photovoltaic devices (magnifier) and solar fuel (monitor).Argonne National Laboratory

California needs 11 trillion gallons of water to relieve the current drought, NASA says, and there’s 1.5 million tons of debris floating across the Pacific Ocean, a side effect of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.

These are merely two examples of the types of massive, global issues that students currently in high school and college will face in the coming years and decades. Environmental issues such as water scarcity, climate change, environmental degradation, and mineral extraction, require broad-based geoscience literacy and a robust geoscience workforce to ensure we are equipped to deal with the challenges that lie ahead for our planet.

With an eye towards preparing students to learn the necessary skills to solve these problems head on, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a five-year, $10 million grant to Carleton College’s Science Education Resource Center (SERC) just over three years ago. The focus: increasing the Earth literacy of undergraduate students and preparing more graduates who will bring an interdisciplinary understanding of Earth processes to bear on the environmental issues confronting our society today and in the future.

The grant established a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) Center to reshape undergraduate education about the Earth. Called InTeGrate (Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future), the program’s first goal was to develop new kinds of teaching materials to be utilized in a variety of settings, using cutting edge teaching practices. The first set of teaching modules have been completed, tested, and released, and are available on the InTeGrate website. They range from units where students explore short-term climate variability resulting from atmosphere-ocean-ice interactions to exploring how hurricanes connect the ocean-atmosphere-terrestrial systems and society.

“The students reported being engaged, interested and excited to learn about local natural hazards,” says Boise State University professor Brittany Brand, author of one of the modules that uses mapping techniques to better understand hazards that exist in a particular locales. “They gained a better understanding of the types of hazards that can be expected in their community, how hazards and society are interrelated when it comes to risk, and how important an accurate knowledge and perception of hazards and risk is to a population's willingness to prepare.”

James Ebert, SUNY-Oneonta professor and author of Exploring Geoscience Methods, adds “The structure of the [Exploring Geoscience Methods] module enabled the students to meet one of the central goals of InTeGrate: to address the societal relevance of the geosciences.”

These modules are designed to reach a diverse array of students, including those traditionally underrepresented in the geosciences as well as students whose primary field of study lies outside the geosciences. For example, Wittenberg University (Ohio) will transform its educational model, moving from isolated general education requirements toward a model that fosters interdisciplinary thinking. The team at Wittenberg will incorporate sustainability modules into existing courses, broadening participation through recruitment and training, and encouraging sustainability problem-solving within its community. Meanwhile, a consortium of Washington state colleges and universities, in partnership with a host of other key stakeholders, is exploring the use of the materials to improve STEM teacher education. They are working collectively to improve science learning and Earth literacy for all Washington state students in grades K-12.

“InTeGrate’s success is predicated on the development of an interdisciplinary community that shares its expertise. Working together to create model materials and to demonstrate how they can be used in new ways, we are creating needed opportunities for students to understand the environmental and resource issues we face as a society. By reaching out to engage our colleagues in this work, we hope to create a citizenry and workforce that can succeed in addressing these challenges,” said SERC director Cathy Manduca.

InTeGrate infuses Earth literacy across disciplines, engages younger students in the geosciences, and provides a new vision for how geoscience is positioned in higher education. Learn more at the InTeGrate website.

SERC at Carleton College

The Science Education Resource Center (SERC), an office of Carleton College, works to improve education through projects that support educators. The office has special expertise in effective pedagogies, geoscience education, community organization, workshop leadership, digital libraries, website development and program and website evaluation.