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Changes in Degree Programs and Curricula in the Department of Environment and Society and their Relationship to Assessment Planning

 

The Department of Environment and Society (ENVS) is in the process of making extensive revisions to its constellation of degree programs and their curricula.  While assessment data and other forms of student feedback have played an essential role, the flow of information and logic in implementing change is also derived from an intensive process of external review, strategic planning, and plan implementation over the period 2013-2016. These fundamental changes set the context for, and are responsible for some discontinuities in, the flow from past to future assessment planning in ENVS.

2013 External Review.  In accordance with the Utah System of Higher Education Board of Regents’ 7-year cycle, in Fall 2013 the Department of Environment and Society was reviewed by a team of two external and one internal examiners.  Based partly on a Self-Study, their review emphasized that the reorganization of the College of Natural Resources, through which ENVS was formed in 2002, had led to a collection of competing degree programs that lacked coherence at the departmental level.  Faculty in the areas of Bioregional Planning, Geography, Human Dimensions, and Recreation Management were collected into ENVS by historic circumstance rather than a common plan or vision for the development of the department’s degree programs and areas of research strength. 

The review team recommended that ENVS should “Develop a unified vision and strategic plan to move the Department forward while emphasizing current strengths. Ideally, this should be done by prioritizing the hiring of a new, external Department Head to lead this initiative.”  The reviewers further recommended “Development of a strategic faculty staffing plan that recognizes and incorporates the resources of other colleges and university programs is imperative and should be done soon if the Department is to remain viable and integral to the College. This staffing plan should be based on needs identified in a strategic vision and curricular revision process.” The review emphasized hiring in emerging areas (e.g. social-ecological modeling) and strengthening geography.

With respect to undergraduate programs, the review team “highly recommended” that ENVS conduct “A thorough curriculum review that includes revision of majors and major requirements… both based on outcome assessments and with attention to overlapping courses and other efforts across the unit.” They also recommended streamlining graduate programs under the ‘Environment and Society’ umbrella; initiating a graduate program coordinator or committee; requiring introductory theory and methods courses for all incoming graduate students; and improving funding commitments to attract quality graduate students.

Subsequently, ENVS hired Dr. Christopher Lant as Department Head effective August 2014.  Social-ecological modeler Dr. Jacopo Baggio joined the ENVS faculty in August 2015, and a search has been initiated for a faculty member in Geospatial Analysis of Human-Environment Interactions to begin in August 2017. A Graduate Selection Committee was formed in late 2015. ENVS graduate students now start their common coursework with ENVS 6840/7840: Graduate Introductory Seminar in Environment and Society and ENVS 6700/7700: Research Approaches in Human Dimensions of Ecosystem Science and Management.

2015 Strategic Plan. In 2015 ENVS engaged in a Strategic Planning process that produced an “Adaptive Management Strategy” (AMS) that ENVS Faculty adopted by a vote of 12-1-1 on October 23, 2015. The planning process was guided by the most widely cited text on strategic planning in the non-profit sector: John Bryson’s book, Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations (5th ed.) and the accompanying Creating Your Strategic Plan Workbook. The complete planning process and adaptive management strategy plan are found here. With respect to what students require and expect of ENVS, the “Adaptive Management Strategy” states:

“Feedback to the AMS Committee from the groups consulted in this process inevitably reflects divergent perspectives.  Nonetheless, important themes emerge. Students find the quality of teaching and mentoring in ENVS to be high; however, both students and colleagues look to a shift in emphasis from sometimes-redundant presentation of knowledge on the history of environment-society relationships and current environmental problems, toward development and utilization of skills and analytical methods needed to build solutions to these problems, both in research and as credentials important to graduates in the job market. This shift points toward a renewed emphasis on data analysis, as detailed above, as well as qualitative skills such as communication, legal analysis, and service learning. At the same time, increased teaching of analytical tools will not supersede instruction in concepts, theory, and critical thinking. We will teach students that analytical methods are meaningful only in a context of critical research questions, often formulated through deliberation with stakeholders. Students will learn the full spectrum of the research process, from theory to problem formulation, research design, data collection, analysis, and dissemination and application of results.”

2015-6 Degree Changes.  At its May 5, 2015 departmental retreat, ENVS voted to consolidate its diverse menu of graduate and undergraduate degree programs. Upon approval of the Utah State Board of Trustees on March 4, 2016 and the Utah Board of Regents on April 1, 2016, these actions became effective for the 2016-17 academic year.

Actions taken at the graduate level were:

  • “Human Dimensions of Ecosystem Science and Management” was re-named “Environment and Society” at both the Ph.D. and M.S. level after the well-named department and recommendation of external reviewers. Analysis of data from Google Scholar also revealed that use of the “Human Dimensions” designation in titles of peer-reviewed journal articles peaked around 2000 and has since rapidly declined.
  • ENVS ceded the shared Bioregional Planning program to Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning due to the retirement of the department’s sole faculty advocate of this program and ensuing declines in enrollment.

Independent M.S. degrees in Geography and Recreation Resources Management (RRM), as well as engagement with the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Ecology were retained.

Actions taken at the undergraduate level were:

  • The major in Geography Teaching, with an enrollment of two and no mandate to serve secondary education in Utah, was discontinued, although students interested in earning a Geography Teaching endorsement may still meet this requirement through the Geography Teaching minor.

B.S. degrees in Environmental Studies, Geography, and RRM were retained.

2016-17 Curricular Changes.  Upon surveying each Regional Campus Dean or Executive Director to assess student demand, a distance learning option is being developed for the Environmental Studies B.S. degree. The undergraduate curricula for Environmental Studies and Geography are also currently being updated with an emphasis on skills development. The basis for this revision is founded in feedback from student exit interviews as well as focus groups held with undergraduate students during the strategic planning process. IDEA data indicate that ENVS courses and faculty are well-received by USU students, but curricular integration across degree programs has flaws. While perspectives among students naturally vary, a central theme was well articulated by one student:

“What I’ve noticed throughout my 5 years as an ENVS student is that there is a lot of overlap in course materials (e.g., ENVS 2340, 3330, 4000). I believe this is also what some of the other students meant about us being very well informed on the history of humans and the environment, and not so much on the skills aspect of it.”

Additional feedback indicates that students desire more instruction in skills such as GIS, economics, legal interpretation, survey design, and communicating and engaging with stakeholders.

Two degree-specific committees are engaged in curriculum revisions. Drafts were favorably received at the May 2, 2016 ENVS faculty meeting.  Revised updates were considered at the August 19, 2016 ENVS departmental retreat. Proposed revisions to the Geography program were accepted by the faculty. Proposed revisions to the Environmental Studies program were discussed and the faculty asked that the revision process be extended.

The Curriculum Committee members are:

Environmental Studies Program: Ros Brain, Mark Brunson, Nat Frazer, Robert Schmidt

Geography Program: Shannon Belmont, Peter Howe, Claudia Radel