12. Fostering Change in the Academic Community: Case Studies

Undergraduate program revision efforts are multi-year processes that require patience, persistence, and leadership to maintain engagement and sustain momentum.

Implementing Change

The experience of institutions that have already carried out changes, coupled with the considerable body of literature available to help businesses implement change, should prove useful to departments and programs that are to initiating curricular and pedagogical reform. Ninety-one institutions, including two-year colleges, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate-granting institutions, submitted action plans for their individual departments as part of this study; 56 of these institutions submitted progress reports on their efforts to initiate and implement change after 16 months to three years; twelve submitted a second report approximately two years after the first one. These reports provide examples of successful strategies implemented by department heads/chairs, while also describing barriers to change encountered and approaches used to overcome these challenges. They are presented and analyzed in detail in Appendix C and are described below in the context of broader strategies for successful change management.

2 students examining cores
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Heads/Chairs' Experiences with Engaging Faculty in Curricular and Pedagogy Changes

Discussions at Summit events and the experiences of participating heads/chairs (as discussed in progress reports on their action plans; Appendix C) brought to light successful strategies and a range of barriers, problems, and challenges to implementing changes in undergraduate geoscience programs. A common theme among participating heads/chairs in their post-Summit progress reports was the need for patience in starting and maintaining curricular change efforts. Building bottom-up buy-in for making change and identifying several go-to faculty to drive review and revision efforts were seen as essential, as was maintaining full transparency and gaining the assent, if not the active engagement of all faculty, as they moved forward. The chair’s role in the progress of reform is largely facilitation through supporting faculty who expend time on these efforts through changes in assignment (i.e., modifying teaching loads), the allotment of course TA’s, and, if appropriate, direct financial support. Heads/chairs are also positioned to align departmental curricular efforts with institution-level priorities for teaching, learning, and student success.

Successful Strategies

Many strategies were used successfully across the range of institutions. The most successful practices for evaluating and redesigning curriculums were the use of backwards design or a matrix mapping approach and faculty retreats focused on the curriculum. Heads/chairs that encouraged, supported, and incentivized professional development for faculty, including attending workshops (e.g., SAGE 2YC, Earth Educators Rendezvous) saw the greatest increase in active and experiential learning. Peer mentoring, sharing of ideas among faculty, and introduction of new ideas at retreats also helped. From the progress reports, it is clear it takes at least three years for significant changes to be made to undergraduate programs, and even then, they may still not be embedded in the departmental culture.

Other best practices developed by departments include:

  • Student involvement: Showed students how courses connect, developed a curriculum roadmap that outlined expected skills and student learning outcomes, and/or developed e-portfolio programs for student assessment. Increased mentoring of diverse students and implemented training for graduate students to improve TA support of new active learning courses.

  • Flipped classrooms: One department used peer mentoring by having faculty experienced in active-learning strategies co-teach with other faculty for “flipped” classes, with the other faculty taking over after one to two semesters. They started with introductory courses and ended up “flipping” three courses for majors.

  • Employer involvement: Eight departments were successful in increasing internships by interacting with employers and/or brought employers in to discuss careers with students.

Departments also reported successful strategies for recruitment and retention of diverse students, easing 2YC to 4YC transfers, and program assessment. To recruit more students, some departments instituted new courses or changed introductory classes to active learning, revised marketing materials, advertised their programs, combined efforts with other STEM departments, and worked with college admissions offices on recruitment. For two- to four-year college transitions, departments eased the transfer process by increasing interactions between students and faculty at local community colleges and at four-year colleges/universities, including joint fieldtrips, student panels and social events, and development of clear transfer pathways.

two students helping each other
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Perhaps the most difficult endeavor was assessment: most departments found quantitative assessment of their changes difficult. Departments tried having faculty assess WOVN (Writing, Oral, Verbal, Numerical) in every course, exit interviews for graduates, and use of e-portfolios for gauging student achievement. One department used an alternative assessment, pre- and post-tests in all courses, bridging the previous and next course in the sequence. In general, departments tied their assessment of curricular changes to required annual program reviews or institutional assessments. Accreditor-motivated institutional efforts at educational assessment are both a driver and an obstacle to change, especially when these efforts are managed in a directed, top-down way. Several heads/chairs pointed out the department’s advantage to using these.

Upon analysis (taking into consideration the specificity of Action Plans), having fewer geoscience faculty in a department meant more progression toward implementing their plan (See graph in Appendix C). Although faculty sizes between 5 and 10 appear to be most successful, too few faculty was a challenge as they were spread too thin to pursue a deep dive into curriculum redesign and engage in new teaching methods. With large faculty sizes (>20), it was more successful having a few faculty members take the lead with a bottom-up approach or involving early-career faculty while receiving feedback from all faculty members. For all sizes, having a faculty champion, and the support of the head/chair, was critical.

When ‘Carnegie classification’ is considered, 2YC, bachelor’s, and master’s institutions made more progress than R1 and R2 doctoral research institutions, even when R1s and R2s had equivalently small faculty sizes. Four R1s at public universities with more than 20 faculty were highly successful (see Box 12.1). All four redesigned their curriculum using a matrix approach and mapping knowledge, skills, and learning objectives across courses. Only one of the four substantially addressed pedagogy. Two provided dedicated time for a faculty member to work on program changes. All of them agreed that these changes required time and patience.

Box 12.1: Experiences of 4 Successful Doctoral-granting R1 Public University Departments with >20 Faculty

The issues and solutions to making change are well illustrated by how these four large R1 departments were successful in making undergraduate program changes.

  1. In 2017, this department had made no progress to “reconfigure our curriculum around a matrix of courses versus knowledge, skills, and ways of mind”, though they had discussed it at length and it would be central to their education-based retreat in fall. In a second progress report in 2019, they say the “all-day retreat was REALLY worthwhile. We spent some time explaining the matrix approach and getting us all on the same page with regards to the Likert scaling. Then we broke into groups, which were fluid so people could join-and-leave multiple groups and real-time feedback could help us all get/stay on the same page.” By 2019, they had fully developed matrices for all three of their undergraduate degree programs. They also noticed that much of the transferable skills and some important concepts were only in specific classes, so the students were only exposed once. They are now trying to get these transferable skills into majors' classes so students have a chance to develop skills throughout the curriculum. So, what made the difference? The main roadblock was time, and having a retreat was critical to their success.

  2. In 2017, this department completed the “Mogk matrix” and their curriculum committee was mapping it onto their university’s learning outcomes and communicating to the Dean and Provost how these were linked. They also were communicating with corporations to develop a framework to help them “translate” transcripts so the corporations knew where “teamwork” or “communication” and other skills were being developed. By 2019, they had identified gaps and ways to fill them, but for the math skills, the university curriculum course and curriculum committee rejected their plan for a Data Analytics course (despite dean approval) so they required an existing one taught in Biology. Younger faculty were pushing for more curricular reform, not just identifying and correcting gaps but thinking “out of the box.” The faculty had not looked for overlap, a potential “hot button” issue, but some faculty are now passing syllabi back and forth between prerequisites and subsequent courses. The chairs' advice is: time (months, years) and patience, patience, patience. One step at a time worked, so it took us MONTHS to get through. You cannot rush this, faculty must see the results, ponder, then come back. All faculty think this was very good for the Department. They might not have “enjoyed” the process, but they realized it was worthwhile in bringing about change.

  3. This department made great strides in sustaining and implementing further active learning and in “flipping” classrooms by using peer mentoring (see comments on flipping classrooms; Section 6). They also successfully implemented a new curriculum (see comments in Section 5). On their success, the chair reported, “Too many cooks can ruin the soup.” “There was some initial chaos when these ideas were vetted to the entire faculty. Running all of this through a committee using a matrix ‘straw-man’ allowed us to get beyond the minutia of faculty concerns that can grind these efforts to a halt. One-on-one meetings also allowed us to get information quickly and in an environment that was not threatening to the faculty. Some buy-in and urgency from most faculty resulted from pressure to increase enrollment. Connecting personally and individually with professors built support and created momentum to continue the process.”

  4. In 2015, after a faculty member attended the 2014 Summit, the department undertook revision of a well-regarded, but traditional, curriculum with the goal of keeping what makes the curriculum strong while enhancing its depth through improved scaffolding upon lower-division courses, increasing its flexibility, and drawing more broadly on the expertise present within the department. After considerable deliberation, a plan was proposed to the faculty in the fall of 2015. Both faculty and student feedback were solicited, and a revised plan proposed in winter of 2016 was approved, but with some reservations. The plan defined core knowledge and student learning objectives first, then integrated them into courses throughout the curriculum. They are:

  • Understand how planetary-scale processes have shaped Earth systems and habitable environments

  • Apply geologic principles to acquire data and solve problems

  • Evaluate the Earth as a set of dynamic and interacting systems

  • Become an effective geoscientist

  • Employ scientific methods via geologically informed inquiry, observation, discovery, hypothesis, testing, reason, and critical thinking

  • Synthesize and communicate knowledge of geological concepts through effective written, oral, and graphical presentation and visualization, in both collaborative and individual settings

  • Apply the tenets of professional, ethical, and responsible conduct as geoscientists

The process was derailed by major changes in leadership across the entire university spectrum including a failed search, etc. In 2017, at the Earth Educators Rendezvous, the next chair, who led the previous curriculum committee, submitted an action plan and then a progress report in 2019. The chair reported he had successfully guided debate, built consensus, and got faculty approval to implement most of the proposed changes. They did not develop tracks (e.g., geophysics or geochemistry) but might in the future, and they did not allow the capstone field course to be replaced by a senior thesis, but would consider that on a case-by-case basis. Buy-in is not 100%, more like 85%. They retained much of the present curriculum structure through the revision, and the names of the courses listed look like a relatively traditional curriculum. However, more significant changes occur within courses as they scaffold in skills, knowledge, and tools (i.e. the student learning objectives) throughout the curriculum.

The curriculum revision was under review by the University at the time of the chair’s report. For the actual submission process another faculty member was granted a teaching release so they could give it their full attention. They taught all the new courses that year as a test case before the curriculum was approved. The chair’s advice is: “It’s a slow process. Have a committee of earlier-career faculty from diverse fields build a plan. We did start with learning outcomes, knowledge, and skills, and these did help the process. Altogether, it took us four+ years. Could have been a little faster if it weren’t for other distractions affecting the department, but three years would have been the fastest it could have proceeded from start to finish.”

Roadblocks and Solutions

Many challenges were similar across all types of institutions. Regardless of faculty size, many departments contended with faculty who were unwilling to change traditional curriculum or adopt new pedagogy, but with persistence many succeeded. Resistant faculty, personality issues, and intradepartmental politics interfered with attempts to make changes to undergraduate programs in about 17% of the reporting departments. In all but a few cases, these issues were resolved over time. Another 10% had to work at getting faculty buy-in and generally overcame this by either having the faculty complete the concepts and skills matrix exercise, holding faculty retreats focused on curri​culum, or as a result of support and buy-in from junior or new faculty. A number of participating heads/chairs noted that an initial sense of faculty buy-in to the need to pursue curricular change and enthusiasm for major curricular reform was often followed by a loss of interest in the process when tasks such as reviewing the existing program and/or making changes to courses arose.

The 2014–2015 survey results revealed an overall interest in making undergraduate curricular changes focusing on competencies, skills, and understanding of concepts, with 75% of the respondents indicating that their department was interested, but with only 59% indicating it was likely to happen, already in progress, or done. The 2014–2015 survey specifically asked about obstacles and barriers to implementing research-validated pedagogies and uses of technology, and the data was analyzed by faculty and/or an administrator position (Appendix A). The 2014–2015 survey results show that, regardless of rank or position, lack of time and/or support for developing and piloting new instructional approaches was the most important barrier to pedagogical reforms, with financial resources, instructional space design, and teaching infrastructure as additional challenges. Faculty without the rank of full professor were also concerned about the potential implications for annual performance reviews and tenure and promotion evaluations, ranging from 65% to 52% (decreasing with increased rank), indicating this was important to very important. Only assistant professors (45%) expressed concerns about student evaluations.

Box 12.2: Major Roadblocks

In some departments, faculty have different views on what constitutes a geoscience degree, which makes evaluation and redesign of curriculum difficult. For example:

A fundamental split exists among our faculty on what the future of geosciences should be. Some cannot see that geosciences need to be any different than what geology has been for decades. They want nothing added, nothing removed, nothing changed. They will concede adding something non-traditional (such a courses on climate or water!) as electives, but never at the expense of something they regard as fundamental. Other faculty feel that geosciences should change to meet current and future needs, and are trying to push for a curriculum that better connects geosciences with sustainability." The chair convened a small curriculum committee to write a short ‘Learning Goals and Outcomes’ document: a list of concepts, skills, and competencies that they want the undergraduate curriculum to develop. This was disseminated among the other faculty for comment and discussed at a faculty meeting; there was very little comment or discussion from faculty not on the curriculum committee. It is being incorporated into the first level courses but there has been resistance and inaction in propagating this upward through the curriculum. The chair’s concern is “I’ve realized that we have no mechanism in the department to enforce anything. There is no way to force putting these learning goals into any course, and no mechanisms to enforce assessment of these. The biggest problem to achieving our action plan is faculty inaction. This endeavor is largely not a priority for a majority of our faculty.” (Doctoral-granting R1 public university)

Another common problem was that many faculty focused only on their own courses and not the overall curriculum. It is necessary to show how intertwined courses in the curriculum are and why it is important to consider the larger picture. Even for those faculty that were receptive to programmatic changes, actualizing change was much more difficult.

Common roadblocks identified by Summit participants to getting buy-in from faculty for curricular or pedagogical changes and expressed in the comments in the 2014–2015 survey and the departmental heads/chairs action plan progress reports, include:

  • Resistance to inclusion of new content areas and/or the de-emphasis of other content areas affecting the faculty member’s own course or the overall curriculum

  • Resistance on the part of some faculty to the principles of active-learning pedagogies

  • Convincing certain faculty they might need to change their courses to include important competencies/skills

  • Concerns about their loss of control over course instruction and content, how and what they teach

  • Concerns about increases in workload, the time and effort needed to deliver the revised program.

Many heads and chairs have advice on how they overcame these issues (see Box 12.3; Appendix C). “Patience, patience, patience”, taking time, and going slow, are the most common pieces of advice. “Be persistent, encouraging, and don’t expect things to change overnight.” “Making slow and steady changes incrementally was received best by most faculty.” “Have a vision and share that regularly with the faculty, but don’t expect miracles.” Showing faculty the results of the Summits helped spur action because it provided an externally vetted set of criteria for an undergraduate program.

Getting faculty to use a matrix to analyze the concepts and skills in their undergraduate program makes them realize their students are not learning what they think they are. The next harder step is for them to change what they are doing, collectively and individually. Advice includes: leverage institutional processes; add teaching — ​the use of active learning or reforming course content — ​as part of their annual performance review; and bring in external facilitators such as the NAGT Traveling Workshop ‘Building Strong Geoscience Departments program’. Collegiality, support of leadership, departmental retreats, and the use of SERC-endorsed resources contributed to successes.

Box 12.3: Sample Advice from Heads and Chairs from Institutions Spanning 2YCs, Bachelor's, Master's and Doctorate-granting Institutions (see also Appendix C)

“Take it slow and spend the time to get faculty buy-in. Before you start, figure out how to overcome entrenched ideas regarding what constitutes a ‘real’ B.S. degree in geology; traveling workshops may help with this. Be prepared to do a lot of background research and bring that to the table before you engage your faculty in discussions involving major changes. Incentivize things that you can as chair.” (Doctoral-granting public university)

“Start early with a rational group of faculty to gather opinions. Do not let a few individuals dominate the conversation in a general faculty meeting. Some may take a position that they think is supported, but in reality the junior faculty are afraid to confront those individuals. Set guidelines for behavior in faculty meetings.” (Doctoral-granting R2 public university)

“Running all of this through a committee using a matrix ‘straw-man’ allowed us to get beyond the minutia of faculty concerns that can grind these efforts to a halt. One-on-one meetings also allowed us to get information quickly and in an environment that wasn’t threatening to the faculty.” (Doctoral-granting R1 public university)

“Use the concepts and skills matrix to your advantage, as an instrument that was nationally vetted by geoscience faculty and employers.” (Master’s-granting public university)

“Identifying a core group faculty to define goals and implement strategies is important. (Not all faculty members want to be involved).” (Doctoral-granting public university)

“Make sure that there are some mechanisms in place for driving and enforcing your proposed changes.” (Doctoral-granting public university)

“If you are at an institution where merit pay increases are possible, you can encourage change by increasing the weight of various faculty activities in your annual merit review process. If you make ‘uses-engaged learning practices’ worth 20–30% of someone’s teaching evaluation score in your merit review, and if you wield that evaluation sincerely and critically, you will get people to start using engaged learning practices."(Doctoral-granting R2 public university)

“Be the change. You have to model the change for others to see what works. And don’t be afraid to ask what others are doing in their classrooms. Encourage them to make student-friendly decisions.” (2-year community college)

“Connecting personally, and individually, with professors builds support and creates momentum to continue the process.” (Doctoral-granting R1 public university)

External pressures create challenges and barriers to departments making real change and include limited campus budgets, budget cuts, hiring freezes, and low or declining enrollments. Some heads/chairs used declining enrollments to revamp introductory classes, and/or the entire curriculum, to increase class enrollments and majors. In some departments, the slow rate of progress was attributed to bureaucracy, such as the need for higher-level curriculum approval, inadequate resources and instructional space design, teaching infrastructure, and funding for new faculty, lab space, and equipment, etc. Losing one or more faculty members with no ability to replace them, and having to fill the curricular gaps left behind, exacerbated some cases.

The 2014–2015 survey data showed fewer concerns about constraints from non-departmental sources, though 35% indicated such constraints existed in their institution.

Other external pressures causing challenges and barriers to change include:

  • Upper administration imposing its own requirements and demands on departments that are at odds with their undergraduate degree program needs

  • Changes in administrators, leading to a lack of clarity on institutional priorities, can slow or stop change efforts

  • Inability to get buy-in from other departments on changes to cognate courses, or to offer geoscience-specific courses in cognate areas (such as geo-computation or geo-communication)

  • Upper administration and university curriculum committees not understanding the need for rigorous requirements

Interestingly, while participating heads/chairs detailed their progress with faculty, only a few informed deans and other higher-level administrators about progress in curricular revision activities, or even their necessity. The few exceptions that did found it very valuable.

Some heads/chairs also talked about the importance of becoming involved in the college or university administration: “Collaborate and be involved positively with your college.” “A good relationship with the administration is useful: be positive and serve on committees.” A couple others solved their upper administration problems by becoming administrators.

As heads/chairs are the department’s primary liaison to their university’s higher administration, it is equally important for them to communicate upward about curricular review and revision efforts and the nationwide geoscience community effort to implement a consensus vision for undergraduate geoscience education. They need to show the alignment of these efforts with university-level, student learning outcomes or institutional assessment program objectives, as well as the national effort to gain approval.

Overcoming Barriers to Instructional Reforms

Although use of research-validated teaching methods is becoming more prevalent in college geoscience courses, and instructors are placing greater emphasis on the development of key skills and competencies (Egger et al., 2019), there are nonetheless significant barriers to widespread instructional reform. University faculty members across STEM disciplines report that limited training and lack of instructional and peer support hinder their efforts to reform their courses (Dancy & Henderson, 2010). Time is usually the most significant barrier: more than two-thirds of the 2016 National Geoscience Faculty Survey respondents cited time constraints as the most common reason for not introducing course changes (Egger et al., 2019). The results of the Summit efforts support this finding. Additionally, the literature documenting the successful implementation of active strategies is unfamiliar to many geoscience instructors, and at times this literature is written in ways that are alien to those who teach geoscience courses.

teaching in a modern classroom

No relationship apparently exists between the use of active learning strategies in geoscience courses and any institutional or demographic characteristics among geoscience programs. A national program of classroom observations documented no measurable differences in the use of active learning strategies and the type of institution (research/doctoral, master’s, baccalaureate, associate), the academic level of the course (introductory vs. majors), the size of the class, or the gender of the instructor (Teasdale et al., 2017).

A significant difference was evident in the extent of active learning practices used by instructors and their cumulative professional development experiences. Instructors who participated in multiday, professional development workshops were more likely to teach using research-vetted instructional strategies than those who had not participated in such programs, or who only used related online resources, but had not attended the workshop (Teasdale et al., 2017). Those instructors who completed more than 24 hours of combined professional development programs, or who participated in programs that focused on materials topically aligned with their course content showed greater degrees of instructional reform (Viskupic et al, 2019). Nearly three-quarters (72%) of geoscience instructors interviewed noted they had changed their teaching practices as a result of their workshop participation, and were using related online resources (Manduca et al., 2017). Consequently, for interested faculty or departments, the available disciplinary professional development programs offered a means to chart an effective path to instructional reform. Heads/chairs (as reported in action plan progress reports) that encouraged and/or supported faculty attending professional development workshops saw the most successful adoption of these pedagogical reforms.

Box 12.4: Impact of COVID‑19

Impact of COVID‑19

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that began in the Spring of 2020 represents the first societally systemic disruption since at least World War 2. Though the long-term impacts on society and higher education will only be realized over the balance of the decade of the 2020s, even at this early part of the full pandemic’s trajectory, it is clear that there will be lasting impacts. How will these impacts affect the future of undergraduate geoscience education and the framework presented in this document?

To address this question we will review the impacts the geoscience enterprise in the United States, which has been measured and chronicled by AGI’s National Science Foundation-funded project Impacts of COVID‑19 on the Geoscience Enterprise: How Permanent Will Academic Program and Workforce Changes Be? (Award #2029570).

What Happened?

As the threat from the pandemic in the U.S. became evident in March 2020, colleges and universities in the United States rapidly shifted the balance of their Spring semester to online-only teaching. As of February 2020, 91% of geoscience faculty reported teaching in-person only geoscience courses. By the end of April, no geoscience faculty reported teaching any courses only in-person, with 92% reporting teaching online-only courses. This rapid shift in teaching mode was disruptive, but it also set in motion several responses.

After the shift to online teaching, geoscience faculty reported continuing over 82% of all laboratory courses while changing the approaches to conducting those courses. Over 65% of geoscience faculty report implementing virtual laboratory processes and 55% report utilizing at-home capable activities. Additionally, 25% of geoscience faculty report adding additional computational-based activities as part of their lab instruction.

Similarly, field experiences also saw a shift in strategies, with only 5% of geoscience faculty cancelling field instruction. Rather, 74% reported utilizing virtual field trips and 40% using local field locations to effectively stay within a more controlled environment. Only 4% of geoscience faculty report continuing with normal field instruction.

Similarly, research activities evolved rapidly in the Spring of 2020, especially with respect to student research. Only 9% of geoscience students report active research being terminated, but about 20% reported planned research, such as REUs, being cancelled. For student research, the modes of activity changed, with 40% reporting shifting to virtual or computational approaches, and 22% focusing on literature review until traditional activities could resume.

The most striking aspect of the geoscience program response to the pandemic disruption was the immense agility and creativity of geoscience faculty in ensuring educational continuity of their programs. With at least 80% of labs, field experiences, and research experiences continuing in some productive form, and given the dramatic regional impacts of SARS-CoV-2 during the Spring, this represents substantial resilience by the geoscience faculty.

Emerging Sustained Changes

Heading into the Fall 2020 semester, over 50% of geoscience faculty reporting having less than one month’s notice about the instructional mode for the Fall, yet several new trends began to emerge early in the semester. First, both faculty and students were acutely concerned about health and safety on campus, with well over 90% of respondents indicating it was a very large COVID‑19 related concern. Interestingly, faculty and students also shared the same second and third greatest concerns — ​the ability to retain academic rigor in the new teaching environments and the availability of employment for students.

All faculty and students reported that their campuses have implemented COVID‑19 related restrictions to campus or classes, with 72% of geoscience courses being taught online-only. This has led to the use of new techniques such as virtual labs and field trips or shifting to computational-focused labs being more tightly integrated into the curricula for faculty.

Of note, is that where allowed, laboratory sections that can be in-person are being offered as such, with 49% of faculty indicating they are running in-person labs for Fall 2020. Likewise, for field instruction, the use of virtual field trips has dropped to 42% of faculty while 52% indicating they are conducting local field instruction for Fall 2020. In both cases, only 1% of faculty report cancelling laboratory sections and 3% cancelling field instruction for Fall 2020.

Though there is a slow shift back to traditional methods, which universally are being acknowledged as superior to alternative activities such as virtual field trips or virtual labs, the exposure to those methodologies appear to have lasting impact. A consistent message in faculty comments is that things such as virtual labs and field trips are ineffective substitutes for actual labs and field instruction, however, they represent strong, new pedagogical approaches to be used within the course as a whole, such as part of a lecture or in the introduction to lab projects.

Longer-Term Impacts

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has forced all faculty to evaluate their courses, consider explicitly what their expected learning outcomes are, and to evaluate new, creative approaches to ensure the continued quality of their teaching. These factors are arguably the cornerstone to the methodologies being suggested by the outcomes of the Vision and Change initiative. Will this experience make change easier? Perhaps not, but it will no longer be the first time faculty will have had to consider their courses. Additionally, as with most corporations and government agencies, universities, departments, and the faculty will be expected to be better prepared to pivot during future disruptions and thus drive for more focus on the learning outcomes of students rather than just the course scope.

The impact on higher education in general is less clear, as institutions grapple with increased costs from COVID‑19 mitigation efforts, downward pressure on enrollments and tuition pricing, a more difficult fund-raising environment, and new questions on the valuation of the physical plant of the institutions. With the coinciding of an already expected drop in new enrollments in college and a shift to more online courses, COVID‑19 is bringing to the forefront the debate over the value proposition of any given university program. With an expected decadal-scale period for economy recovery, graduate employability will become an even more dominant metric for value.

Employment in the geosciences has remained resilient relative to the direct impacts of COVID‑19, though the energy sector had already greatly contracted in its hiring of geoscientists. According to the COVID‑19 study, the geosciences experienced only a 4% annualized job loss rate during the first six months of the pandemic, with a next annual job loss rate of 1.8%, which is both far below the “full employment” standard of 5% and the prior geoscience unemployment rate of 2.1%. This resilience and the overall stability of the aggregate level of employment of geoscientists indicate that the skills are transferrable and thus a stable basis for building a career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics is still forecasting aggregate growth in demand for geoscientists by 2029. So, the ability for geoscience programs to look at ways to improve the employability of their graduates will drive many programs ability to attract students and define its value proposition to university leadership. Unequivocally, higher education is being forced through a dramatic realignment, but in change exists great opportunities for those that act swiftly and strategically.

Relationship to Successful Change Management Strategies

Although the ability to change is a foundation of robust organizations, sometimes strong motivation is required to overcome institutional resistance or inertia. While this document provides guidance for vision and change in geoscience education, the geosciences community has access to the considerable literature available on implementing change in institutional settings. After studying the efforts of multiple companies to remake themselves, Kotter (2012) concludes that the most general lessons learned from successful organizational change are that the process occurs through a series of phases and generally requires a considerable amount of time. Furthermore, leaving out any of those phases frequently leads to failure in the process. Here, we relate the change framework of Kotter (2012) to the experiences reported by geoscience departments and make recommendations on how to cement that change.

Kotter’s framework consists of 8 sequential steps. They are:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency

  2. Create the guiding coalition

  3. Develop a vision and strategy

  4. Communicate the change vision

  5. Empower employees for broad-based action

  6. Generate short term wins

  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change

  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture

In establishing this framework, Kotter points out that successful implementation depends on the realization that change is a multi-step process and that a strong, persevering leader is needed to steer the organization through these steps. In geoscience departments, it is the departmental head/chair who must lead the faculty through these steps from beginning to end.

Results from the Summit and associated workshops show that department heads/chairs have already had considerable success establishing a level of urgency around implementing curricular and pedagogical reform. Leaders need to work hard at eliminating complacency among faculty and other stakeholders.

Summit participants also reported that having a group of faculty members who strongly advocate for the change, i.e., a guiding coalition, has been key to advancing change. Per Kotter (2012), make sure the coalition is sufficiently powerful and respected so skeptics cannot derail progress. Though engaging the skeptics is important so they feel their voices are heard.

This document presents a community vision and strategies for implementing change. Individual organizations will need to refine that vision and develop their own strategies for achieving success within their own institutional framework. Leaders using this document must help their staff fully understand the direction of change and motivate them to act, even if it is not in their short-term interest. A powerful vision is a powerful motivator.

Communicating the vision successfully comes from keeping it simple and using analogy or metaphor, repetition in multiple forums, and lots of give and take among stakeholders. This is consistent with department heads/chairs admonitions “to be patient”. If the vision is under-communicated, then it will not take. It has been observed that leaders, in organizations with solid communication, are not afraid to discuss how actions and behaviors can help achieve the vision or undermine it.

The admonition to “empower employees” is about preventing perceived barriers from stopping change and is central to how department heads/chairs can remove barriers. For example, with respect to the “not enough time” complaint — ​how can department heads create time?

Showing faculty that change is possible via short-term wins, such as modifying a few courses or implementing some pedagogical changes and celebrating them, makes a difference. This approach makes the bigger objectives seem surmountable. Once a few short-term wins are in place, it becomes easier to consolidate and grow the process, though participants cannot be allowed to think that short-term wins represent complete victory.

A good illustration of a short-term win not being enough is provided in Box 12.1 (example #4). A department developed a revised curricular plan in 2015 that faculty approved in 2016 (short-term win). After implementation was derailed for unforeseen issues (a loss), it was restarted in 2017, and was sent to the university for approval by 2019 (a second short-term win). Only when it is approved and becomes anchored in the culture will it be fully implemented.

Anchoring the changes into culture is a huge challenge and may take many years. Kotter and others list many examples of organizations that successfully completed all the steps up until this last one, and failed. Even with near-term successes, institutional success cannot be taken for granted. Resistance will hide in many corners, and change will depend on people getting into alignment. One of the most important lessons learned is to ensure that when leaders change, the successors will continue to exemplify the new approach. The progress reports in this study showed that in cases where one department chair completed a preliminary progress report describing curricular change efforts, and was replaced by a department chair with little knowledge or interest of those efforts, much of the initial work was lost. The good news is that when the torch was passed appropriately among both leadership and staff, changes became institutionalized.


  • Heads/Chairs need to encourage, facilitate, and support faculty working on changes to undergraduate programs, allocate needed resources, align curricular efforts with institution-level priorities for teaching, and keep the upper administration informed of these activities and the national effort that necessitates these changes

  • Review, revision, and changes to undergraduate programs and teaching are best accomplished through bottom up efforts and identifying, depending on size, one-to-a-small group of faculty to drive the effort while maintaining full transparency with the rest of the department

  • Recognize that, using Kotter’s change framework, it takes time and patience to implement change in undergraduate programs.