Students' Understanding of Sustainability and Climate Change across Linked Service-Learning Courses

By Coleman, Kimberly; Murdoch, James et al. | Journal of Geoscience Education, May 2017 | Go to article overview

Students' Understanding of Sustainability and Climate Change across Linked Service-Learning Courses


Coleman, Kimberly, Murdoch, James, Rayback, Shelly, Seidl, Amy, Wallin, Kimberly, Journal of Geoscience Education


INTRODUCTION

Institutions of higher education are increasingly being called upon to teach their students about concepts and implications related to sustainability (Sipos et al., 2008). For example, the United Nations declared 2005-2015 the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and issued a recommendation that institutions of higher education incorporate sustainability concepts into their teaching and research (Wals, 2014). That recommendation was echoed by scholars, such as Stephens et al. (2008), Sibbel (2009), and others. Perhaps in response, college and university faculty members are increasing taking on the challenge of teaching about sustainability (Kaza et al., 2016). Many faculty members are seeking interdisciplinary approaches to teaching about the topic. Indeed, research suggests that interdisciplinary teaching approaches lead students to more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the academic content (Newell, 2010). Models for sustainability education include creating sustainability majors and minors, infusing sustainability into courses from many disciplines, creating cross-disciplinary programs, incorporating sustainability language into campus mission statements, and establishing sustainability general education requirements (Rowe, 2002).

Given that climate change is arguably the biggest threat to global sustainability (McCright et al., 2013), discussing climate change in courses focused on sustainability is a natural fit. Indeed, climate change is an important concept often integrated into sustainability course work (Nolet, 2016). Climate change may provide concrete examples of sustainability issues, making the concept of sustainability more digestible for students. For example, teaching students about the social, environmental, and economic costs of climate change may help illustrate sustainability in concrete terms. Further, teaching students about climate change may increase their knowledge and understanding about the complexity of the challenge (McCright et al., 2013).

However, because of that very complexity, teaching climate change is challenging (Kirk et al., 2014). To help students make sense of such complexity, some faculty members have turned to project-based pedagogies that allow students to apply academic concepts in real-world context (e.g., see Sipos et al., 2008). Active teaching approaches have been shown to increase both student learning (Hake, 1998) and student understanding about the connection between personal action and climate change (Cordero et al., 2008). For example, the Interdisciplinary Teaching of Geoscience for a Sustainable Future (InTeGrate) program promotes active teaching approaches, such as place-based learning (Gosselin et al., 2016) and service learning (InTeGrate, 2015) to teach about concepts, such as climate change.

Service learning is a form of education in which students work with community partners to identify and address community needs in an academic setting, together with structured reflections designed to achieve desired learning outcomes (Jacoby, 2015). The concept of service learning is frequently conflated with related yet distinct activities, such as volunteerism, internships, and civic engagement. Service learning is set apart from these other related activities because it is a pedagogical approach. Unlike volunteering and community service, it necessarily involves structured opportunities for students to engage in reflection (Jacoby, 2015). Service learning offers many benefits for students and the community, such as deepening student personal and interpersonal development, fostering a commitment to service, improving academic learning, providing useful services for local communities, and enhancing university-community relationships (Driscoll, 1996; Jacoby, 1996; Gelmon et al., 1998). Previous studies have also demonstrated that service learning can be an effective tool in helping students achieve discipline-specific outcomes (Shuman et al. …

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