The Global Change Curriculum and Minor at the University of Michigan

By van der Pluijm, Ben A. | Journal of Geoscience Education, May 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Global Change Curriculum and Minor at the University of Michigan

van der Pluijm, Ben A., Journal of Geoscience Education


A team of faculty from the natural and social sciences supports an interdisciplinary curriculum and degree program in Global Change and Global Sustainability at the university of Michigan. We offer a series of lecture courses and laboratory sessions on Earth Systems Science and Sustainability entitled "Introduction to Global Change" ( We find that interdisciplinarity, inquiry-based learning and early capture of a student s interest create an attractive alternative to today's disciplinary undergraduate education, and has the potential to break new ground in structure, content and pedagogical methodology. With three lower-level courses at its core, we designed a 'front-loaded' interdisciplinary minor in Global Change. This minor reinterprets undergraduate education at Michigan, by providing an alternative model of general undergraduate education. First, the minor is "front-loaded," meaning that students are able and encouraged to complete most of their credit-hour requirements in their second (sophomore) year at the university. We find that an early interdisciplinary experience aids students in planning their subsequent university careers and their choice of a major. Second, the minor is grounded in the interdisciplinary study of critically important global problems that engage student interest, that are thematically integrated, and that are taught from a multi-disciplinary, inquiry-based perspective. Third, the courses are taught by a team of faculty from various schools and colleges who are experts in their respective disciplines, while sharing overlapping interests in education.


Every day, millions of human and natural activities are altering the planet on which we live. Over the past century, through our ever-increasing population and mastery of technology, we have been changing the global environment at a pace unknown to natural history. The goal of the Global Change Curriculum at the University of Michigan is to convey modern scientific principles that underlie our rapidly changing world in an integrated and engaging manner to incoming undergraduate students. This is captured by the curriculum's mission statement:

To become better equipped to contribute to the important debates concerning global environmental change, resource management and societal adaptation strategies.

The University of Michigan initiated its Project for the Interdisciplinary Study of Global Change, otherwise known as the Global Change Project (GCP), in 1991, with internal funding and support from the university. At its inception, the GCP was mostly a research initiative in the College of Engineering, with an educational component that focused primarily on graduate education. The mission of the GCP rapidly broadened to include a focus on undergraduate education, as it continued to foster cross-disciplinary interactions among faculty and students. NASA grant support and particularly partnering with its Earth System Science Education (ESSE) program provided the key ingredients for these educational activities, which led to the program described here

In the early 1990's, faculty members from several UM Schools and Colleges involved in the GCP developed Introduction to Global Change, a two-semester interdisciplinary course sequence investigating causes and impacts of the changing global environment for science majors. Later in the 1990's the focus moved to non-science majors who are seeking to develop a well-rounded understanding of the changing global environment, and an ability to integrate this knowledge into future career and research activities (see also Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, 1999). The development of a capstone course, Global Change 3, and the offering of a Global Change Minor degree led to the formal organization of a small degree program, titled the Global Change Program (conveniently retaining the GCP acronym).

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The Global Change Curriculum and Minor at the University of Michigan


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