Earth System Science at the University of Arkansas is a hybrid face-to-face (F2F) and online course for undergraduates. The course serves two distinctly different audiences: Honors College students and pre-service science teachers. Earth System Science was the first course at the University of Arkansas designed to be "all Internet, all the time" - that is, all course content was derived from Internet resources, supplemented by F2F class sessions with hands-on, inquiry-based activities utilizing on-line data repositories to illustrate fundamental aspects of the Earth System. In 2001, the course received financial support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Opportunities for Visionary Academics program (NASA NOVA) to enhance utilization of NASA data products and promote systemic change in education of pre-service teachers. In 2004, Earth System Science at the University of Arkansas was named "exemplary" by the NASA NOVA program.
In order to assess the effectiveness of this hybrid course format, changes in conceptions/perceptions and knowledge of science, the Earth System, and pedagogical perspectives were documented for science, non-science, and education majors using pre- and post-test results from three class cohorts (2001, 2002, 2005). Comparisons among these groups provided a number of insights. Conceptions/perceptions and knowledge of science, the Earth System, and pedagogical perspectives determined from analyses of pre-tests were similar among all students, irrespective of academic discipline. Post-test results, however, indicated some perceptual change among all students in line with course objectives. Perceptual changes were most pronounced among non-science majors. Overall changes in measured parameters toward stated course objectives suggests a successful approach to teaching Earth System Science to students with widely varying academic backgrounds.
Over approximately the last two decades, the community of Earth Science researchers and educators experienced a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) from research and teaching focused primarily on traditional discipline and sub-discipline specific concepts to more holistic, integrative, and interdisciplinary research and education linking various global physical, chemical, geological, and biological processes (i.e. Earth System Science; Drummond, 2001). As a consequence of increased knowledge and understanding of the interconnectedness of global biogeochemical and physical systems, emphasis on the new paradigm of Earth System Science revolutionized interdisciplinary activities among scientists. Given the success of Earth Systems research and graduate programs in Earth System Science, it is not surprising that the scientific community would eventually call for inclusion of interdisciplinary content with an Earth System focus in undergraduate Earth Science curricula (Simon-Silver and DeFries, 1990; Former, 1991; Mayer, 1991 and 1995). Institutional advocates for development of Earth System Science curricula across the United States education system included the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, 1996, 1997, and 1998) and the American Geophysical Union (1997).
During the same time span, powerful arguments for significant reform in science education emerged (e.g. National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990, 1994, and 1997; National Research Council, 1997; National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, 2000). The reformist movement in science education (spurred by advances in educational and cognitive research documenting learning styles and common mechanisms of human cognition and learning; NRC, 2000), made strident appeals for wholesale reconstruction of science teaching methods (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990; National Science Foundation, 1997; National Research Council, 1997 and 1999). …