The Department of Meteorology (now Atmospheric Sciences) at the University of Utah faced reductions in state funding in 2008 that reduced support for nontenured instructors at the same time that the faculty were becoming increasingly successful obtaining federally supported research grants. A faculty retreat and subsequent discussions led to substantive curriculum changes to modernize the curriculum, enhance course offerings for undergraduate and graduate students, and improve the overall efficiency of the academic program. Maintaining discipline standards and existing teaching loads were important constraints on these changes.
Key features of the curriculum revisions for undergraduate majors included eliminating a very rigid course progression; shifting the emphasis from required courses to elective courses; offering many courses only every other year; and relying on half-semester short courses to survey subject areas rather than focusing in depth on fewer ones. The curriculum changes were evaluated through surveys and individual and focus group discussions of students and faculty. While the feedback suggests that the changes overall were beneficial, the transitional period during which the changes were implemented was difficult for faculty and students alike.
Faculty members have opportunities now to adjust courses based on their experiences gained teaching these courses in their new format. The feedback from students and faculty suggests that building improved relationships and interactions among co-enrolled undergraduate and graduate students is the greatest need in order to improve the classroom learning environment.
BALANCING STUDENT, FACULTY, AND DEPARTMENTAL NEEDS.
Substantive curriculum changes intended to improve the student experience and maintain an appropriate balance of faculty teaching and research can be productive as well as have unintended consequences.
Nearly all educational programs, including the University of Utah, faced substantive budgetary pressures in 2008 and subsequent years. The University of Utah funding of academic departments such as the Department of Meteorology rewarded departments that maintained existing levels of total student credit hours and penalized those that did not with additional cuts. Our department had limited choices and elected at that time to begin reducing support for lecturers and teaching assistants, thereby potentially increasing the teaching burden of academic faculty. At the same time, we were benefiting substantively from increased research funding. Increasing academic faculty teaching loads in this situation would be counterproductive in the long term. Teaching loads vary widely depending on institutional expectations. As a Ph.D. granting department with 11 academic faculty members,1 we average 9 semester hours of instruction per year.
In addition, we had not examined our curriculum holistically in many years, although instructors were continually evaluating and updating their courses to take advantage of new developments in the various subdisciplines. The structure of our course offerings were designed primarily to satisfy the GS-1340 federal requirements for employment as a meteorologist, even though only a few of our graduates have obtained such positions recently. Our curriculum was overly constrained by prerequisites and required courses that limited the appeal of courses to students in related disciplines and hampered introduction of new courses in emerging subdisciplines such as wind energy.
Further, the faculty had not discussed in depth the increasing time and financial pressures faced by our predominantly commuter-school undergraduates and the changes in their learning styles over the years (Roebber 2005). In contrast to the trend at many universities for increasing numbers of atmospheric science undergraduate majors (Knox 2008), our enrollment has been fairly stable with ~9 graduates per year. Faculty members were increasingly concerned about the “quality” of the undergraduate students in terms of their preparation in math and science on entrance into upper-division courses. At the same time, we were increasingly recruiting topnotch graduate students into the program.
These competing pressures led in June 2008 to a day-long retreat involving the faculty and undergraduate and graduate student representatives. We needed to seize this opportunity to evaluate the goals of our program and propose effective changes that would enhance its efficiency. A unanimous decision was made to rename the Department of Meteorology to the Department of Atmospheric Sciences to more accurately reflect the diversity of our educational and research activities.
Discussions regarding the goals for our undergraduate program paralleled those underway within the discipline, such as the panel presentations and lively audience feedback (particularly from students) on higher education curricula at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Nineteenth Symposium on Education in 2010 (Pandya et al. 2012). A broadening of the goals for our program was consistent with the following addition to the AMS policy statement on the requirements for a bachelor's degree in atmospheric sciences adopted by the AMS Council in 2010 (AMS 2010): “The main purpose of an undergraduate program is to prepare students to work as professionals in the field or to pursue graduate study. Increasing the number of members of society knowledgeable about atmospheric science is also an important goal for the profession, independent of the students' eventual careers.” To meet our revised goals, substantive changes to our curriculum were implemented beginning during the 2010 fall semester. Those changes were framed by the following principles:
Focus on enhancing student preparation, retention, and abilities as opposed to increasing the number of students enrolled in the program.
Increase student and faculty flexibility by decreasing the number of required undergraduate courses for majors, while increasing the number of elective courses that may also appeal to majors in related fields.
Require majors to develop an educational plan including a capstone course, project, or internship relevant to their interests.
Maintain the GS-1340 federal standards for meteorologists for those interested in such employment as well as follow American Meteorological Society guidelines for recommended curricula in the atmospheric sciences (AMS 2010).
Independent of the extensive curriculum changes, we also recognized the need to expand hands-on experience with instrumentation for our students (Borys and Wetzel 1997; Takle 2000; Schroeder and Weiss 2008; Etherton et al. 2011). That led to a proposal in 2009 to the Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Support from the NSF during 2010–12, in combination with a donation of equipment and training from Campbell Scientific, Inc., fostered the development of classroom and field laboratories to increase student exposure to instrumentation. The sidebar provides more details about this effort. In addition, we have increased undergraduate involvement in local research field studies, such as the Persistent Cold-Air Pool Study (Fig. 1; Lareau et al. 2013).
The NSF TUES project was also intended to evaluate the impact of our curriculum changes on students and instructors in the context of current learning theories (Charlevoix 2008). Student surveys and focus group feedback were evaluated in combination with faculty interviews. Four common themes emerged from the feedback centered on the impact of the changes on student learning; teaching strategies and challenges; program/course logistics; and relationship building.
All of the feedback suggested that the revisions were worthwhile to students and the faculty. However, implementing the changes was more complex than anticipated at the outset. We now summarize the successful aspects of the changes to our educational program as well as issues that require additional attention.
The Environmental Instrumentation course during spring 2012 was the initial offering of the class in its new format and reflects the challenges to provide a course appropriate for undergraduate and graduate students in atmospheric sciences and related fields. Undergraduates (8 juniors, 10 seniors, and 2 non-majors) enrolled in the 2-credit half-semester course while graduate students (4 in atmospheric science and 1 in mechanical engineering) enrolled in a semester-length 3-credit course. During the first half of the semester, lead instructor John Horel handled the overview of sensor types, measurement practices, and laboratory content with the help of two volunteer teaching assistants. More in-depth graduate-level instruction was provided during the second half semester by David Bowling (Biology; measuring carbon dioxide and other trace gases); Eric Pardyjak (Mechanical Engineering; turbulence flux measurements), and David Whiteman (Atmospheric Sciences; Arduino microcontrollers and building inexpensive sensor systems).
Providing a productive learning environment for 25 students in an instrumentation class lasting only 8 weeks and relying on only 3 contact hours per week was possible only through a generous donation from Campbell Scientific, Inc., through their Imagine Grant program. A classroom laboratory was remodeled and equipped using university and NSF TUES funds specifically for this course to seat up to 30 students with space (albeit cramped) for students to work in nine small teams. University and NSF TUES funds helped purchase laptops suitable for both the laboratory and field use while Campbell's donation included a base set of sensors, dataloggers, and ancillary equipment used as part of Campbell's datalogger training course. Several other courses now take advantage of this classroom laboratory as well.
Given the limited time available, the first half of the semester centered on lecture content combined with three assignments completed in the laboratory shown in Fig. S1 (datalogger programming, time response of sensors, and measuring precipitation and snow depth) and two in the field at the mountain meteorology facility shown in Fig. S2 (rawinsonde launch and installing automated weather stations). The midterm for graduate students and final for the undergraduates required in part that they program independently a data logger to record solar radiation and then take measurements outdoors.
Feedback from the students was generally very positive: “This class made me want to buy my own datalogger and set a weather station in my backyard (or someplace with a better siting location). I loved the hands on experiments. It made me more excited to learn about the weather.” However, issues commonly raised regarding the courses with co-enrolled graduate and undergraduate students need to continue to be addressed. One student stated, “I really liked learning about the sensor and then experimenting with it. It was a good flow of work and play. A minor problem that I did have was having graduate students set up the logger and programming for us. Those that were experienced seemed to hook it up so quickly that it was a little hard to learn because we were not as experienced. I would suggest having those experienced ones let us not so experienced ones help or see how they are doing it.”
IMPLEMENTING A MORE FLEXIBLE CURRICULUM.
We expected undergraduate students in 2008 to complete 122-semester-hour units with 35 prerequisite units (chemistry, computer science, math, physics, and writing), 45 units required in the major, and 18 elective units outside of the major. Nearly all of our undergraduate classes were traditional 3-semester-hour lecture courses. After the curriculum changes, prerequisite course units were reduced slightly while the required units for majors dropped to 32.5 and the number of elective units increased to 34. While the core requirements for graduate students (9 units of required classes and 18 units of elective courses) remained unchanged, graduate-level instruction was affected substantively by the curriculum revisions.
Details regarding the specifics of our present curriculum are online (Department of Atmospheric Sciences 2012). The revisions to our curriculum that had the largest impacts were as follows:
changing from a rigid course progression for majors to distinct even and odd year sequences;
shifting the emphasis from required courses to elective courses for majors;
offering many required and elective courses only every other year and reducing prerequisites for many of those courses;
offering some required and elective classes as half-semester short courses for undergraduates only; and
having undergraduate students enroll in the first half semester of a course that continues for graduate students for the entire semester.
Undergraduates, graduate students, and the department as a whole benefited from these changes to the curriculum. Undergraduate students now have increased flexibility to select courses tailored more closely to their interests. One student summed up the advantages of more flexible programming by saying, “With the change in the curriculum I finally got to take a course I have been wanting to take for years.” For example, students do not have to take the courses required for federal employment as a meteorologist but most continue to do so because of their interest in forecasting-related careers. Additional graduate student electives also are now available (e.g., mountain meteorology and advanced dynamics). The benefits to the department of these changes included improved instructional efficiency and increased enrollments in many classes while keeping teaching loads largely unchanged.
A significant aspect of the curriculum revision was to introduce 13 half-semester-length short courses. Simplistically, this might be viewed as taking a semester-length course and breaking it into two halves with separate instructors (e.g., the physical meteorology course divided into half-semester classes in radiation and cloud physics). However, considerable effort was required by those instructors to redefine course content and identify what concepts should be exposed to all students in required courses, what is appropriate content for elective courses, and what material would have to be dropped. Hence, two classes that were nominally a year-long sequence in physical meteorology were redesigned into three half-semester courses with thermodynamics and radiation required and cloud physics offered as an elective.
Concurrent enrollment of graduate and undergraduate students in courses such as physical and mesoscale meteorology had been an issue for many years given their differing expectations, interests, and abilities. We attempted to address this situation by creating 1) separate required classes for undergraduates and graduate students (e.g., physical); 2) co-enrolled half-semester elective classes appropriate for upper-division undergraduates and graduates (e.g., wind power); and 3) survey courses for undergraduates co-enrolled during the first half semester with graduate students who then continue to cover additional topics in more depth during the latter half of the semester (e.g., mesoscale, statistics, and instrumentation).
Potential negative impacts resulting from these changes were recognized at the outset and continue to be of concern. For example, students and faculty alike have been affected by the scheduling issues related to offering some courses only every other year; students must plan ahead and instructors must design course content to be largely independent from that in other courses.
EVALUATING THE IMPACTS.
Prior to the retreat in 2008, all faculty members completed a baseline survey on the strengths and weaknesses of our academic program. Not surprisingly, a broad spectrum of opinions emerged from the survey regarding the undergraduate program (e.g., limitations on our curriculum imposed by inadequate student preparation in math and physics vs the value of qualitative as well as quantitative understanding of atmospheric sciences).
To assess the impacts of the curriculum changes, eight faculty and three teaching assistants were interviewed. In addition, separate undergraduate and graduate focus group sessions with 8–10 students in each were undertaken. Relying on qualitative research methodology (Corbin and Strauss 2008), conversation and interview data totaling ~700 specific codes (hereafter referred to as objects) were condensed into four general themes. As summarized in Table 1, three of the four major themes emerging from the student and faculty responses were not surprising when considering that any type of change will affect a variety of constituents, present challenges, and result in evolving processes and procedures: 1) student learning, 2) teaching strategies and challenges, and 3) program/course logistics. Students and faculty were about equally concerned regarding the impact of the changes on student learning, while faculty were more concerned about teaching strategies and challenges and program/course logistics (Table 1).
The fourth theme, relationship building, was more surprising because of the difference in the numbers of instances this theme was raised by students (their second highest) and faculty (their lowest). Student perceptions regarding student–faculty relationships were consistent with the body of literature that positive interactions between students and faculty result in favorable student learning outcomes (Astin 1993; Pascarella and Terenzini 2005). However, most of the relationship issues raised in the focus groups centered on undergraduate–graduate student relationships, not faculty–student relationships.
The concept maps shown in Figs. 2–5 summarize the key responses obtained from student and faculty feedback within each of these four main themes (Hoffman et al. 2006). The impact of the changes on student learning centered on content and format of courses, the differences in learning levels between student cohorts, and the students' perception of the need for the changes (Fig. 2). Student feedback clearly showed that students recognized that their profession was changing and they needed to adapt to those changes. As one student stated, “. . . a broad knowledge of all different kinds of meteorology, which is what the half semesters are good for, is just getting the basics of different things.”
Comments surfaced in nearly all discussions related to the length of time for learning in the half-semester short courses and/or the sequencing of content from one course to another. Both undergraduate and graduate students talked about issues that impacted their learning. Several undergraduates felt that they did not have enough time to learn the content and that it seemed as if their course work was cut short at midsemester, “like it wasn't finished yet.” Graduate students reported that the bulk of their learning was unequally distributed as they had much harder content crammed at the end of the semester, hindering their learning overall.
Concerns with inadequate student preparation in math, physics, and computer programming raised prior to the curriculum change were amplified by the new course structure because of the broadening spectrum of students in some classes: junior and senior undergraduates and graduate students. One faculty member stated, “The undergrads are much more likely to have fundamental deficiencies in their background, which forces me to spend a little more time on elementary stuff that for the most part the grad students do not need.” However, the graduate students reported that this was not as much of a problem as the faculty thought. One graduate student stated, “I wasn't as bored as he [the instructor] might have thought I was,” and another said, “I appreciated the somewhat slower pace [in the beginning].”
The challenges faced by instructors and the approaches taken to meet those challenges are summarized in Fig. 3. The limited time available in half-semester classes surfaces as a challenge in nearly all areas (i.e., both for the instructor and for student learning). Faculty reported that they required more preparation time, while students commented on the lack of time to learn in the half-semester class: “One concern that I have though with the half semester for me … usually the last several weeks of the class is when I finally feel like I am putting pieces together.”
The students and faculty tended to be satisfied with the content of the courses affected by the curriculum change. It should be noted that the burden of changes fell unequally on some faculty more than others as the structure of some undergraduate-and graduate-level classes did not change. The faculty discussed many different strategies they used as they reworked their content for the short courses. One instructor added supplemental materials to the course to help students lacking adequate math preparation. Another strategy was to provide an overview of the major topics and revisit the topics in greater depth with the graduates in the second half of the semester. One faculty member described how this change provided an opportunity to raise the level of rigor for undergraduates. Another course was divided between two instructors, where one provided an overview of main topics for all students and the second applied that information in more depth in the computer laboratory during the second half of the course for graduate students.
The transition from a rigid curriculum to a more flexible one introduced a number of logistical issues for students and instructors (Fig. 4). The students appreciate the new flexibility but also realize they need to be more responsible for their schedule. One student said, “It definitely requires a lot of advanced planning to figure out what you are going to take.”
As mentioned earlier, the most problematic issue associated with the curriculum changes focused on the classroom climate that is created when cohorts of students at different academic levels are interacting in the same learning environment (Fig. 5). Students reported that students sat in separate groups in the classroom (i.e., junior, senior, and graduate cohorts) and did not interact much until required to do so. The undergraduates reported they felt intimidated about asking questions and made comments such as, “If we have a question, they just seem annoyed that we have to ask this question and well we don't know anything about it.” One graduate student commented, “I would think there is like a certain intimidation factor that the undergraduates would have being in a classroom with graduate students . . . they are not going to ask questions they really have.” One undergraduate stated, “I know if I was in a classroom with just undergrads and the professor I would feel a lot more comfortable asking questions about what I didn't understand . . . when you are in there with the grad students it gets a little more intimidating asking a question like that.”
These affective issues of “comfort level,” “not looking stupid,” “not knowing the grads,” “being able to work in groups with the grads,” etc., were clearly underestimated by the faculty. One faculty member felt the uncomfortable classroom climate was related to the amount of time the students were together: “I think it is because the half semester is too short and they didn't get familiar with each other yet.” There was discussion in the student focus groups about how the two groups of students had different goals for their college work. One graduate student commented, “I think really the big disparity between the two groups isn't so much one's ability as it is one's motivation.”
Were the curriculum changes worth the effort to implement? The majority view from faculty and students is that they were. While individual courses were undergoing continual refreshing prior to the changes, our faculty viewed the academic program as increasingly out of date and inefficient. The changes implemented in 2010 are viewed now as simply an important first step. A faculty meeting in June 2012 led to the adoption of guiding principles to frame the continued evolution of the program. They are based on the Building Engineering and Science Talent (BEST) examination of over 100 successful programs for recruiting and retaining minority students in sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (BEST 2004; Pandya et al. 2007).
As summarized in Table 2, we have identified straightforward action items to address eight core principles. Some of our activities that have been in place for many years address those principles but need ongoing encouragement and recognition. For example, several graduate students indicated a willingness to help mentor undergraduates so that they develop a better relationship with the department and become “more invested in the department and discipline.” Involving undergraduate students in laboratory and field research is recognized as critical for students to apply theories and concepts presented in the classroom (Quardokus et al. 2012). Federally funded local field projects have made it possible for our undergraduates to participate in them in spite of their heavy course loads and off-campus work schedules.
Other action items listed in Table 2 have been implemented recently, such as hiring a new staff member to advise and recruit students. In addition, the capstone mentoring requirement for undergraduates is taking effect for seniors graduating in 2013. We recognize now a clear deficiency in the level of computer programming instruction offered to our undergraduates and some graduate students. We expect that would be best handled within the department since our computer science department has diminished substantively course offerings relevant to scientific computing. However, the course content needs to be considered carefully given the breadth of computing needs and approaches in our field: for example, spreadsheet programs; mathematical and statistical toolboxes such as Matlab or IDL; and parallelized Fortran codes. The exploding use of Python in the atmospheric sciences provides an exciting new approach to introduce students to programming concepts (Lin 2012).
Based on the student feedback, we intend to incorporate more inclusive active and collaborative learning activities to help integrate the undergraduate and graduate student cohorts from the outset of our courses (Crouch and Mazur 2001). Approaches to enhance student interaction may include requiring mixed cohort collaboration for classroom assignments and small group projects (Quardokus et al. 2012), encouraging both oral and written questions and participation from everyone (Tinto 1997) and developing an awareness of the differing levels of learning inherent in the cohort groups (Ambrose et al. 2010).
We are bridging now what had been increasing gaps between how our students learn, what they need to learn to be competitive in our expanding field, and what instructors have traditionally felt comfortable teaching. Bridging these gaps requires ongoing dialogues among the faculty and all student cohorts combined with continual adjustments within courses and the academic program as a whole.
We wish to thank the students and faculty members in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences for their participation in the development and implementation of the curriculum changes. We also wish to thank those in the department who provided feedback on this manuscript and to Alyssa Jenkins for her participation in the project as an undergraduate teaching assistant. Funding for this effort was provided by Grant 0940558, “Observing snow and wind: Using the environment to engage students in science and engineering,” from the National Science Foundation with supplemental funding from the University of Utah's Interdisciplinary Teaching Seed Grant and Undergraduate Student Experts in Teaching programs.
The addition of two faculty members within the past three years of financial stress reflects recognition by the University of Utah's administration of the outstanding research programs underway in the department. In contrast, we fall below average in terms of metrics based on total student credit hours generated.