Auburn University's Department of Geosciences recognized for excellence in education

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Auburn University's Department of Geosciences has been selected to receive the 2016 University Senate Departmental Award for Excellence in Education, an honor that carries with it a $30,000 grant that will be administered in three yearly installments of $10,000 and used for activities that enhance teaching and learning.

"The Department of Geosciences is to be commended for its teaching excellence and progressive planning, and for putting together an excellent proposal that reflects their departmental goals," said Auburn University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Boosinger. "The award recognizes the faculty's dedication to their students."

The award, established at Auburn in 2013 and first presented in 2014, is administered through the University Senate Teaching Effectiveness Committee on behalf of the Office of the Provost. The Department of Geosciences will be formally recognized as the recipient during the faculty awards program in the fall.

In early 2016, academic departments across campus were invited to submit to the Teaching Effectiveness Committee pre-proposals summarizing the departmental philosophy of teaching and learning and a narrative describing the approaches used to achieve and measure excellence in those areas. Four finalists were selected to give presentations detailing learning excellence and plans for future activities to enhance teaching and learning.

The winning proposal for the Department of Geosciences was written as a team effort by Department Chair Mark Steltenpohl and faculty Ronald Lewis, John Hawkins, Stephanie Shepherd, Daniel McGowin and Carmen Brysch.

"The Department of Geosciences is made up of a diverse set of transdisciplinary researchers and teachers for whom the whole Earth is our laboratory," Steltenpohl said. "Our faculty bridge both the social sciences and the natural sciences, perhaps more so than any other unit on campus. We emphasize traveling the globe to involve students in field- and laboratory-based research and educational experiences that include study abroad courses, always placing a human face on science."

Offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in geology and geography, the Department of Geosciences serves 30 master's candidates, approximately 110 undergraduate students and thousands of students annually in core sciences courses.

Plans for the award funding include a focus on undergraduate programs by implementing a sophomore-level professional development course that will facilitate the development of professional student ePortfolios; developing an apprentice program in which upperclassmen work with freshmen and sophomores in both lab and field research; the use of Engaged Active Student Learning, or EASL, classrooms; and development of a more rigorous internship program with input from a 27-member Geosciences Advisory Board.

The department also will make increased professional use of everyday technology by teaching students skills such as how to gather data for geologic mapping, how to produce images of landforms and methods of documenting interviews in human geography.

"Often we will be using the same pieces of equipment that students already use in their personal life, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops," said Lewis, associate chair for the Geology Program and chair of the Departmental Curriculum and Teaching Committee. "The funds will be put to good use in obtaining the needed hardware and software for this program."

Another focus in the future will be a move into one facility. The department's programs currently are housed separately, with the Geology Program in Petrie Hall and the Geography Program in Haley Center, but plans include moving both into a new facility in a few years.

"Many of the curricular changes provided for by the grant were strategically drafted to allow the department to be well positioned to occupy our new home," Lewis said.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.