Informatics Professors Receive NSF Grant to Improve Instruction in Sustainability Science

December 10, 2021

Informatics Professors Bill Tomlinson and Andre van der Hoek of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) have received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of their efforts to improve sustainability education. The grant, “Improving General Education Sustainability Science: A Pilot Study in Engaging Students with Complex Topics through Knowledge Graphs,” aims to serve students in colleges and universities in the United States.

“Educating future generations about sustainability science is a critical problem for humanity’s collective future,” they say in the grant abstract. Their pilot project will better engage students from all majors as they take a general education (GE) course on sustainability science.

Building on assignments developed with Hayden Freedman, a second-year software engineering Ph.D. student who is being co-advised by Tomlinson and van der Hoek, the project leverages knowledge graphs. These graphs, which are computational information networks of interconnected concepts and relationships, can better engage students by more accurately representing the challenges of sustainability science. “One of the things that makes understanding sustainability concepts challenging is how many different pieces there are, everything from geophysical factors to ecological relationships to social issues,” says Tomlinson. “It’s hard to get your head around how they’re all connected.”

The researchers have developed a novel computational platform that takes a knowledge-graph-based approach to learning sustainability concepts. They will assess the platform by deploying it to more than 2,000 students taking sustainability science-related courses at UCI and USC. Their assessment will focus on three core research questions:

  1. Can knowledge graph-based educational modules help students improve their understanding of sustainability concepts within and across fields?
  2. Can student contributions to a shared knowledge graph form a useful foundation for later pedagogical activities?
  3. Can students contribute accurate and relevant sustainability information to a global, public knowledge graph through their coursework?

In the grant, they stress that “the importance of this project lies in helping the next generation of undergraduate students learn sustainability science more effectively.”

Shani Murray