2007 GSA Denver Annual Meeting (28–31 October 2007)

Paper No. 3
Presentation Time: 8:30 AM


THOMAS, Robert C., Environmental Sciences Department, University of Montana Western, 710 S. Atlantic St., Box 83, Dillon, MT 59725 and ROBERTS, Sheila M., Department of Environmental Sciences, Univ of Montana Western, Dillon, MT 59725, Rob.thomas@umwestern.edu

During the fall semester of 2004, The University of Montana Western became the first public four-year university in the history of the United States to teach classes one at a time across all curricula. Through this immersion-learning model, students and professors focus on a single class for 18 instructional days and then move on to a new class after a 4-day break. The impetus for adopting this system was a faculty desire to apply the idea that students at all levels learn more deeply when they are immersed in “authentic practice” in the discipline of study. Once the system was adopted, the Environmental Sciences faculty reduced lecture time and focused on field-based projects.

The geoscience group is really pushing the envelope by altering the entire undergraduate curriculum to accommodate field and project-based learning. We are taking the salient concepts in each course and finding projects that provide students with direct experiences applying those concepts. Students now use the research literature instead of textbooks and a major aspect of assessment is the quality of project reports and presentations. The structure and tectonics course, for example, is designed around field projects that require students to obtain a wide array of structural data in different tectonic settings. They use their own data to make land-management decisions, which they defend within the confines of environmental rules and regulations. Projects are often collaborations with land-management agencies and consulting firms, so students gain experience with potential employers.

Early results of this experiment show that it not only improves learning, but it also improves the fiscal health of the campus. Across campus, faculty report that students rarely miss class, they are more engaged in the material and they are doing better on assessments. To top it off, the fiscal health of the campus has never been better. Student enrollment numbers are the highest in the history of the campus, student retention is up and student satisfaction surveys show a substantial improvement over the traditional semester system.