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Integrating geoscience into undergraduate education about environment, society, and sustainability using place-based learning: three examples


From water to energy, and from climate change to natural hazards, the geosciences (marine, Earth, and atmospheric science) have an important role to play in addressing a wide range of societal issues, with particular relevance to how humans can live sustainably on Earth. Although arguably important to developing solutions for many societal issues, more often than not, students have limited exposure to the geosciences in high school or college. To address this geoscience literacy problem, the Interdisciplinary Teaching of Geoscience for a Sustainable Future (InTeGrate) Talent Expansion Center has engaged members of the geoscience community and their colleagues in allied disciplines to implement and support strategies to teach geoscience in the context of societal issues and vice versa. Place-based learning is a particularly useful educational practice in helping link geoscience concepts to societal issues and other disciplines. The three examples from three distinctly different institutions of higher education—University of Utah, Metropolitan State University, and West Chester University—demonstrate the use of place-based educational strategies to connect the geosciences to societal challenges. Each of these courses uses variations of place-based pedagogy to provide students from a variety of disciplines the opportunity to learn about geoscience concepts in the context of environmental challenges in their own area. Each example describes the course in the context of its institutional setting, student audience, type of course, and learning outcomes; the geoscience-related societal challenges addressed, a description of pedagogical strategies, basic assessment information, and reflections on lessons learned and recommendations. These three examples illustrate that local places—on-campus, the surrounding community, and regional landscapes—provide a plethora of opportunities for students to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world issues. The extent to which an instructor will take advantage of the place-based opportunities is only limited by the imagination of the instructor(s) and the extent to which they want to use these pedagogies to achieve their learning objectives. Teaching geoscience in the context of societal issues using place-based educational practices illuminate the process of geoscience and build interdisciplinary problem-solving skills that connect geoscience to economic, societal, and policy issues related to a range of issues. Students think critically, ask critical questions, reflect and act on viable alternatives, and acquire knowledge, skills, and training so they can make a real difference in the world.

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This work is supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) collaboration between the Directorates for Education and Human Resources (EHR) and Geociences (GEO) under grant DUE - 1125331. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF. The authors would like to thank Cathy Manduca, Jean MacGregor, and Rick Oches for hosting the workshop that brought the authors together.

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Correspondence to David Gosselin.

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Gosselin, D., Burian, S., Lutz, T. et al. Integrating geoscience into undergraduate education about environment, society, and sustainability using place-based learning: three examples. J Environ Stud Sci 6, 531–540 (2016).

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  • Place-based learning
  • Geoscience literacy
  • Societal issues
  • Sustainability
  • Higher education
  • Curriculum change
  • Undergraduate programs