Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Partnership Involving UNO Scientists Helps Transform Geoscience Education

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A team of University of New Orleans professors helped create an online course notable for integrating not only real-world data with online, interdisciplinary instruction but also using those tools to transform teaching about the intersection of geoscience and societal issues. Ioannis Georgiou, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, led the UNO team in a collaborative effort to develop a course entitled “Coastal Processes, Hazards and Society.” The 12-week, introductory level course was offered for the first time at UNO during the fall 2016 semester and was well received by students who participated.

The course was developed through a grant from the National Science Foundation to the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and the project was led by Tim Bralower of Penn State University. The NSF grant funds an initiative known as Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future, or InTeGrate. The goal of the InTeGrate initiative and the courses it develops are supporting the teaching of geoscience in the context of societal issues both within geoscience and across the undergraduate curriculum. With the administration of this grant, NSF aims to transform the way geoscience is taught and help develop a citizenry and workforce that can address environmental and resource issues facing society. Students enrolled in the recent online course at UNO were both science and liberal arts majors.

The course development team from UNO included Georgiou; Mark Kulp, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences; and Dinah Maygarden, director of coastal education. The UNO team collaborated with faculty from other universities to conduct a rigorous review of the material and ensure adherence to standards higher than most textbook teaching materials, which is a requirement of courses developed via InTeGrate.

“One of the huge challenges for writing and teaching this course is how to deliver online student-centered, active learning. Most online learning is completely passive, in that a student reads the materials, answers some questions and moves on,” said Maygarden.

“These materials are very different. They challenge the instructors and the students to use real world data to explore different topics. Students are required to analyze real data sets and apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills to real-world coastal issues that affect human populations,” she added.

The course introduces concepts expected to be covered in a college-level geoscience course, such as the geology of coastal landscapes, coastal system processes, sea level change and the impacts of storms and tsunamis. The course is transformative in that it also covers the human aspect of these phenomena, such as coastal engineering, societal responses to coastal hazards and policy making. Additionally, students are asked to use real-world data, such as sea level rise records, shoreline erosion rates and comparison of wave data for Hawaii versus the East Coast as they apply problem-solving skills. One example of an exercise might be exploring how communities can effectively plan for emergencies such as catastrophic flooding of densely populated low-lying areas.

According to Maygarden, geoscience has traditionally neglected teaching about the human aspects of science concepts.

“Coastal science presents a perfect opportunity to address human interaction as we in south Louisiana are experiencing personally the consequences of sea level rise and coastal land loss. It is a global issue, but there is a personal connection to it that resonated with UNO students across multiple disciplines.”