Designing Curriculum from the Ground Up Earns Recognition

Sep 23, 2015

A new approach to the geology and geophysics curriculum that addresses skill sets students need and industry requires has earned recognition from the university teaching center.

David Sparks, associate professor of Geology and Geophysics and associate department head for undergraduate affairs, has been designated a Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Curriculum Fellow for the 2015–16 academic year. Sparks is being recognized for “exceptional leadership in the area of curricular redesign exceptional leadership in the area of curricular redesign,” according to his letter of notification.

The Department of Geology and Geophysics partnered with CTE a year ago to implement   Texas A&M’s curriculum revision process to rebuild its degree programs and course offerings.

“We were operating with a curricula put into place in 1997 after the geology and geophysics departments merged,” Sparks said.

The department’s needs and capabilities changed significantly over the years, facing more than 50 percent in faculty turnover, a rapidly changing job climate for geologists and geophysicists, and a nearly five-fold increase in the undergraduate population, culminating in more than 500 majors in fall 2015. Surveys of former students, employers and faculty at other universities revealed more reasons to address the curriculum, including the growing need for strong skills in oral and written communication and facility with software. 

“Our challenge was to accommodate a growing enrollment while maintaining strength in our traditional instructor-intensive activities such as microscopy and field mapping. We also sought to improve our graduates’ non-geological skills, such as communication, software use, teamwork, and problem solving. Furthermore, learning these skills also helps to insulate them from volatility inherent in our discipline,” Sparks said.

A curriculum study group of faculty members, advisors, curriculum experts and students gathered information, analyzed the data and developed a detailed set of learning outcomes for the entire degree.

“For each criteria we defined several assessable measures of proficiency from novice to exemplary. From this matrix of measures, we are building the course descriptions that will define the new curricula and developing assessment tools to gauge the success of our the program.” 

The department is in the final process of organizing those learning outcomes into the set of classes that will comprise the curriculum. Over the next few months, all of the courses will be restructured and the resubmitted for approval as part of the new curriculum requirements.

In addition to the designation as a Fellow, Sparks received a $3,000 award. The Department’s design process and new curriculum will be presented this fall at educational sessions at the national meetings of the Geological Society of America in Baltimore and the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Members of the curricula study group, in addition to Sparks, are Julie Newman, Ryan Ewing, Franco Marcantonio, Brent Miller, Tom Olszewski, Bobby Reece, David Lewis, Akhil Amara and Suzanne Rosser of Geology and Geophysics, and Debra Fowler, Maria Malik, Carolyn Sandoval of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

By Karen Riedel