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Course introduces students to critical zone science

Critical zone science focuses on the thin outer layer of Earth that supports all human life – stretching from the top of the tallest trees down to the deepest fresh water underground. Scientists working in Critical Zone Observatories study complex interactions between rock, soil, water, air and life. Image: Illustration by Jenny Parks/Southern Sierra CZO
September 5, 2017

A new course encourages students to take a highly interdisciplinary approach to dealing with pressing environmental challenges.

The curriculum is an introduction to critical zone science, an emerging field that brings together scientists with diverse backgrounds to study the place where rock, soil, water, air and life meet.

Complex interactions taking place in the critical zone directly impact life-sustaining resources like food and water. Scientists working across disciplines are examining those interactions and sharing their data in new ways through critical zone science.

The undergraduate-level course will ask students to take a similar interdisciplinary approach in hopes that they may someday find new insights into larger questions about Earth’s surface.

“What’s interesting and important about critical zone science is that it’s highly interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary,” said Tim White, a senior scientist with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State and lead-author of the course.

“Even if the students take the course and don’t go on to become critical zone scientists, they are learning how to think across disciplines and how to think about things that are relatively complex with lots of societal relevance,” he said.

The 15-week course is the first developed to teach critical zone science. It was created through the InTeGrate project, funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant administered by Carleton College.

InTeGrate seeks to boost Earth science literacy among undergraduate students, and enable students in the greater Earth surface and environmental sciences to work with other stakeholders to address future climate and land use challenges, according to its website.

Critical zone science focuses on the thin outer layer of Earth that supports all human life – stretching from the top of the tallest trees down to the deepest fresh water underground.

“We’ve been thinking about Earth’s surface for a long time,” White said. “But what’s been left out are the things going on just a little deeper than what’s classically been thought of as important and relevant to what we see out our windows.”

The NSF funds a network of Critical Zone Observatories (CZO), where much of critical zone science takes place. The Susquehanna Shale Hills CZO is managed by Penn State in the Shaver’s Creek watershed southwest of University Park. Susan Brantley, distinguished professor of Geosciences at Penn State and director of EESI, is the principal investigator.

White said he hopes the course draws more students to the field and helps foster a common language between the many types of scientists who work at CZO locations – including geologists, ecologists, hydrologists, biologists, chemists, physicists and sociologists.

“We are trying to take brains that aren’t hard-wired yet and train them to think across disciplines early in their careers to break down disciplinary boundaries,” White said. ‘We want to bring students along in a way that allows them to sit in a room and have a productive conversation with scientists who otherwise might be considered as from a different discipline.”

White and his team worked for two years to develop, test, review and revise the curriculum. It has been taught eight times at five universities and colleges and is available for the first time this fall to universities across the United States. More information about the course is available online at the InTeGrate website.

Adam Wymore, University of New Hampshire; Ashlee Dere, University of Nebraska, Omaha; Adam Hoffman, University of Dubuque; James Washburne, University of Arizona; Martha Conklin, University of California, Merced; and Susan Gill, Stroud Water Research Center, are co-authors.

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