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Wittenberg University: Environmental Science and Geology

Amber Burgett
Assistant Professor, Aquatic Ecology, Population & Community Ecology

Sarah Fortner
Associate Professor, Geology & Environmental Science

Richard Phillips
Associate Professor, Ecology & Evolution

John Ritter
Professor, Geomorphology & Environmental Geology

Description
Wittenberg University is a private four-year university affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). It serves 2000 full-time students from 37 states with 70% of all students coming from Ohio. Students are 17% minority and a higher percentage is first-generation college students. Environmental Science and Geology serves more students entering Wittenberg from nontraditional paths than the institution as a whole. The majority of our students receive need-based grants. Located in the city of Springfield, Ohio (pop. ~55,000) in mostly agricultural Clark County, Wittenberg is one of the top 5 employers in Springfield, making it a vital part of community vitality. Wittenberg’s mission “challenges students to become responsible global citizens, to discover their callings, and to lead personal, professional, and civic lives of creativity, service, compassion, and integrity.” All Wittenberg students are required to participate in 30 hours of community service coordinated through our Community Service Office.

Institutional commitment to community engagement expanded in 2011 with the endowment of the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement, which coordinates spring and summer internships. While institutional commitment to service is high, this year (2017-2018) marks the first year for institutional support for course engagement. The Hagen Center now provides stipends for four faculty fellows charged with developing civic engagement courses and identifying paths to expand faculty engagement. Beyond this, courses with a community emphasis are facilitated by faculty. Faculty in the Wittenberg Environmental Science and Geology programs developed a civic approach out of personal interest, an inherently easier local field site focus, and funding from the NSF InTeGrate Project that improved our intentional planning. Our programs incorporate civic engagement through community-based research projects, campus advocacy activities, and intentional collaboration community partners and alumni. Our central goal is to provide students with the skills and habits they need to address current and future earth and environmental issues. Grand Challenges in Environmental Science and Critical needs for the Twenty-First Century: The Role of Geosciences guide our foci. Through program iteration we have more intentionally incorporated challenges.

A design around grand challenges in our community provides students with the opportunity for real-world problem solving. Program learning goals (see Infographics tab) center on systems thinking, societal relevance, professional habits (i.e. inquiry and analysis), proactive applications, communication, and reflection. These goals intentionally span scientific and civic learning in alignment with the concepts included in “A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement” (AAC&U, 2012). We emphasize professional skills and habits that are placed in context. Through place-based and partner projects, our students gain practice with the nuances of real-world problem solving.

Scaffolded Levels of Student Learning
Environmental Science and Geology programs feature opportunities to engage in civic learning at all levels of the curriculum. Our introductory courses serve dual roles as paths into the major and filling general education requirements in the sciences. Most of our introductory courses include at least as many non-majors as majors. Data analyses are central to all course levels and advanced courses are designed to move community problem solving and action forward.

Introductory courses build skills that help students interpret their data and understand its limitations and implications. They also offer a local context to students and often include citizen science or advocacy activities that share science or science-informed action strategies with a broader audience. Advanced courses provide students with opportunities to gain proficiency and design and execute their own projects based on skills they gained in earlier classes, literature reviews, and advanced training in computation or field techniques. Students’ extensive services inform partner decision making (e.g. flood mitigation, community gardening, environmental protection status).

Within our lower to upper level sequence, we intentionally scaffold systems thinking, quantitative, analytical, and communication skills. Also, we vary the way students work within the community. Several introductory classes synthesize locally relevant data to inform the public in outreach or citizen science events. Partners help define needs for outreach and events and also provide feedback during the project development stage. For example, if a park or museum hosts a literacy event, they might critique draft materials before the event. Upper level courses develop projects in consultation with multiple partners interested in addressing a common problem (e.g. water quality, biodiversity, urban soil lead) and/or provide higher level training needed for employment, including for some presentations at professional meetings. All majors must present to the campus community in Wittenberg’s Celebration of Learning. A high level of professional training and interdisciplinary work informed by or in collaboration with partner experts successfully position students for internships, competitive funding, and recognition (e.g. Committed to Environmental Science, Senior Awarded Ohio EPA Scholarship). 

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While our programs are small (5 faculty across both programs), we work with 20+ agencies including: The Springfield Conservancy District, B-W Greenway Community Land Trust, Clark County Combined Health District, Clark County Soil and Water District, National Trails Park and Recreation District, City of Springfield Housing and Urban Development, City of Springfield Community and Economic Development, City of Springfield Stormwater Utility, Westcott Solar House, COSI, Springfield Promise Neighborhood, Antioch Farm, Clark County OSU Extension, the Miami Conservancy District, Parkhurst Food Services, the USFWS, Cedar Bog Nature Preserve, US Army Corps of Engineers, Beavercreek Wetlands Association, Five Rivers Metro Parks, Rivers Unlimited, Chamber of Commerce Subcommittee on Parks and Open Space, Freshwater Farms of Ohio, and we coordinate opportunities for internships with the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement. Our program also features ongoing flow and water quality monitoring through the Buck Creek Educational Corridor. This resource freely provides open data that informs class projects, watershed managers, and recreationists.

Exemplary Courses That Highlight a Civic Lens
When students enter our environmental science and geology programs they immediately have opportunities to work on place-based projects. The table below describes examples of what this entails in required environmental science courses.

Course
Project & Product
Partners (# of meetings)
Duration
Scaffolding
Student Experience

Introductory Environmental Science (ESCI 101)

Evaluating the ecosystem services & proposing a restoration strategy
Poster & Identifying Location & Nature of Restoration

Clark County Parks District (1)

9 contact hours; students gain exposure to multiple sampling strategies, statistical methods, and geospatial skills in labs leading up to the project

0-1 previous science courses

Environmental Science Research Methods (ESCI 250)

Geospatial analyses of soil lead that informs community gardening outreach.
Brochures, garden maps for partners

Springfield Promise Grows, Clark County Combined Health District, OSU Extension (4)

24 contact hours; emphasis on identifying & critiquing methods that are then employed & GIS skills

1-3 science courses in their major

Process Geomorphology (GEOL 240)

Using a local stream and gorge, newly acquired by the park district, to learn a survey of geomorphological techniques
Topical infographics on the processes, landforms, and evolution of a nature preserve

Clark County Park District (1)

6 contact hours; students gain exposure to multiple techniques for analyzing and illustrating earth surface processes and landforms

1-4 science courses in their major

Upper-level courses often begin with skill building or enforcement from early courses. For example, in Environmental Science Research Methods (ESCI 250), students practice GIS skills by examining census data and identifying high-risk tracts for lead pollution. From this they create information brochures for target audiences identified by partners. They then use literature to identify sampling strategies needed to map soil lead on properties, gaining additional GIS skills like interpolation and an improved understanding of precision and accuracy.

Our programs and interdisciplinary sustainability curricular expansion effort published several curricular resources online that provide students with a civic context for learning. These include three InTeGrate Modules that have been used by instructors across the country in a variety of institutional settings: A Growing Concern: Sustaining Soil Resources through Local Decision Making, An Ecosystems Services Approach to Water Resources, and Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources-Spanish Adaptation. Modules feature engaging students in data analyses and systems thinking to explore and address community-relevant challenges. We have also published a storymap highlighting a study abroad opportunity in Costa Rica with a community engagement emphasis.

Additionally, we have several course and activity examples published on the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) Service Learning Module. These include a Global Climate Change Course (ESCI 100), a Watershed Hydrology Course (Geology 315), and a Natural Hazards and Climate Change activity. We provide full details for Global Climate Change below, note that details are copied from the SERC website.

Global Climate Change (Environmental Science 100)
Consequences of global climate change already include increased drought, heat waves, flood intensity, glacial retreat, and sea level rise. Solutions are needed to reduce human impact on our climate system and to respond to climate change impacts across sectors vital to humanity (food, water, health). This course examines climate change at global and local scales. Students explore climate challenges faced by local experts and create climate solutions modules or advocacy resources for a public event. They reflect on implications for future problem solving. This course serves 15-30 introductory students and fulfills general education credit and is an optional course in the Environmental Science Major. For more details see: https://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/servicelearning/courses/127425.html

Watershed Hydrology (GEOL 315)
The Watershed Hydrology Course is designed to highlight methods used by hydrologists, hydrogeologists, and environmental scientists in their study of surface and subsurface hydrology of watersheds. The course focuses on watersheds watershed processes, including precipitation, infiltration, generation of runoff, groundwater flow and streamflow, and the ways by which we measure and analyze them. Class sessions focus on concepts, and lab sessions focus on methodology for collecting, modeling, analyzing, or displaying hydrologic data. The course culminates with a local watershed problem. The course requires significant field time, some of which occurs outside of class. This course serves 15-30 introductory students and fulfills general education credit and is an optional course in the Environmental Science Major.

Exemplary Project Descriptions
For more examples of our students in action, view a Public Presentation showcasing class projects and partnerships that highlights our students in action. In addition, class and program designs have been presented in workshops and webinars to the broader earth and environmental science community.

We have also created a teaching module for earth educators: Helping Students Advocate for the Earth.

Process for Adoption
Our program is attentive to the civic mission of Wittenberg University. From the beginning, we have emphasized local projects relevant to community decisions. The depth of student civic engagement has increased as we plan together and synergize with partners. We evolved heavily by maintaining design around learning goals central to geology and environmental science and a civic mission. We proactively sought synergistic opportunities from campus and external sources that provide students with new and richer ways to meet learning goals. NSF InTeGrate Sustainability Implementation Program funding provided us with intentional space to plan how we would better serve our students and align with strategic institutional efforts underway. We actively coordinated our curriculum in concert with the Wittenberg Commitment and support for Engaged Learning. We also contributed sustainability-personal responsibility curriculum to the newly launched First Year Seminar. We intentionally joined forces with many community efforts by serving on advisory boards, collaborating on public events with outside agencies, and sharing our work through university and local news outlets. Also, our collaboration resulted in published curricular resources, manuscripts, and many student abstracts at professional meetings. Students also had many informal opportunities to present to community partners within class and several attended meetings with community partners or found additional internship opportunities through class partners.

As we saw new positive results, our planning evolved to seek more, especially in areas where faculty effort is low and return to students is high (e.g. class partnership leading to internships). We make sure the Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement and Institutional leaders are briefed on our departments’ achievements, which helps us shape institutional directions. We also have increased our use of assessment to understand impacts on student learning and civic attitudes. Tracking internships, resources, and other partner-initiated opportunities for our students is something we might do in the future. Most projects and partnerships start with efforts that fit our interests and expertise and have improved in their impact out as we learn the strengths and needs of our partners.

Internal and External Influences
Institutional strategic planning, InTeGrate (Interdisciplinary Teaching About Earth for a Sustainable Future), partner interests and needs, and disciplinary guiding principles that come from the broader environmental science, geology, and educator community (i.e. the national context, such as Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences, AAC&U LEAP Initiative have all influenced the shape of our departmental design. For example, we incorporate engaged teaching practices in all our courses to fulfill the Wittenberg Commitment. Ideas about incorporating grand challenges and aligning with professional skills and habits came from our work creating curricular modules with InTeGrate, and we have designed rubrics for our courses informed by both InTeGrate and AAC&U VALUE Rubrics. For full details on our effort to expand sustainability across the curriculum, see InTeGrate Implementation Program, which expanded the sustainability curriculum and partnering at Wittenberg. This effort was initiated and led by faculty in our program as well as others (e.g. Chemistry, Physics, Communication, World Language).

For our part, we have expanded a positive impact on student learning and our community through collaborating with faculty from other programs and institutions. Wittenberg faculty designed three InTeGrate teaching sustainability modules that engage students in real world sustainability challenges. These include topics of sustainable agriculture, ecosystem services, and environmental justice. We also expanded participation in sustainability course offerings through an NSF InTeGrate Implementation Project: Wittenberg University-Engaged Sustainability, Across the Curriculum and Community. More Wittenberg faculty teach sustainability and incorporate service learning projects as a direct result of our InTeGrate Implementation Project. As a result, sustainability offerings at Wittenberg have doubled, and our program is planning for growth. We provided service learning faculty development by bringing 7 community partners together with faculty to design projects around the AAC&U Inquiry & Analysis Rubric. This project also resulted in identifying assessment tools that are now used by the Susan Hirt Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement. It also supported the development of a sustainability activity within our First Year Seminar. Students track their personal sustainability-tied behaviors (e.g. water, energy, food) and propose personal or campus action. We also support Wittenberg’s Cultures and Language Across the Curriculum and encourage students to explore cultural connections outside of the perspectives in class. Finally, we have been integrally involved in developing the Wittenberg Commitment, First Year Seminar, General Education, and Wittenberg’s 2017 Strategic Plan. In fact, sustainability curriculum is a target area for continued growth. Our expertise in curriculum planning, implementation, and assessment will continue to inform Wittenberg University into the future. Our next phase of growth will include paths for other faculty to contribute sustainability courses.

Evidence
Below are a few indicators of our departmental impact:

  • Programs involved in sustainability teaching have doubled. In two years we grew from 8 to 15 programs contributing to sustainability curriculum through our InTeGrate Grant.​
  • Environmental Science Majors have also doubled in a few years over a three-year period, and we are planning to expand our program name and offerings to include Sustainability.​
  • Students report significant gains in the skills and habits they use in our community research-based courses. See example of student reported learning gains using the Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience tool (Lopatto, 2007).​
  • Visibility for sustainability has grown in institutional & local media: 17 local articles featuring sustainability topics since 2014, 3 national.
  • We are the top-awarded programs at Wittenberg for effective teaching & community engagement. We have received national, regional, and institutional recognition. These include: Ohio Professor of the Year, Council on Undergraduate Research Volunteer of the Year, Distinguished Teaching, Community Engagement, Lou Loux Environmental Sustainability, SOCHE Teaching Excellence, Omicron Epsilon Teaching Excellence with several of these awards received by multiple faculty in our program.

Words of Advice

  • Co-teaching, partnering, or other forms of collaborative curricular design provide faculty with opportunities to grow. Developing and implementing a community-based project is a way to explore research opportunities or other synergies valued in academia.​
  • Take time to set and review program goals. This helps faculty find and address gaps in curriculum and supporting activities. Also ask: what could we easily do to expand student opportunities and better meet our program goals or serve our institutional mission?​
  • Identify meaningful assessment to understand the impact of your civic engagement. Tracking hours of involvement, learning, and attitudes at key places informs curricular decisions and helps make the case for expansion (grants, institutional initiatives). It also reveals strengths and weaknesses.​
  • Support faculty development and innovation as well as support opportunities that build training and leadership beyond the classroom. Approach teaching scholarship like disciplinary research and make a commitment to serving students.​
  • Publicize what you are doing within your institution and the community you serve. This attracts support and new opportunities and positions your program for a leadership role.​
  • Tailor resources to meet interests and constraints of faculty you want to attract to civic-oriented teaching. Faculty who show interest and enthusiasm for incorporating active learning are the best cohort to support early in your curricular expansion. They are willing to face challenges and share what works and does not to inform the expansion. Also used mixed strategies to support faculty (just-in-time training, email support, faculty-faculty pairing).

Looking for more information on the courses? Please return to the top of the page and click on the “Exemplary Course Specifics” button found under the campus logo.