Closing the academia-to-industry gap in undergraduate environmental science using curriculum-to-careers programmatic mapping

Streamed Session

Brief Abstract

In an undergraduate environmental science program at a large online institution, we addressed the skills gap between industry and higher education.  Development of a curriculum-to-careers program map synthesized industry needs with education outcomes. Consequently, program graduates will be prepared with content knowledge, industry skills, and the ability to use both.


Jacquelyn Kelly, Ph.D. is an Associate Dean in the College of General Studies responsible for STEM courses and programs. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction – Science Education from Arizona State University, a Masters of Science in Materials Science & Engineering form Arizona State University, and an undergraduate degree in Physics/Chemistry from California State University, San Marcos.
Tomáš J Oberding is a coastal ecologist, course designer and an instructor for the University of Phoenix College of General Studies Environmental Science program. His work has taken him from the UNESCO world heritage site of HaLong Bay in VietNam to the Permian oilfield of New Mexico. His research interests are in the fields of hydrology, mariculture, coral ecology, and environmental remediation.
Dianna Gielstra is a biogeographer, course designer and an instructor for the University of Phoenix College of General Studies Environmental Science program. Their research interests are in human and environmental connections, geography, polar, mountain, and riparian environments. Their research work includes the use of technologies to engage K-12 learners in geoscience education through virtual reality and is a team member and content contributor to GeoEPIC, and are a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Faculty Fellow.

Extended Abstract

The Problem: College-to-Career Gap

Business and industry require graduates of institutions of higher education to enter their workforce. Ideal employees will have necessary subject matter expertise and applicable career skills to successfully contribute to the workforce. Sought skills are often apparent in job postings and within organization specific professional development opportunities. These skills can be fluid and respond to the ever-changing needs of the workforce. They may or may not be communicated to institutions of higher education. They may or may not be incorporated into programmatic mapping within institutions of higher education, which is an already complex process that is not set up to evolve at a rate similar to the needs of the changing workforce. As a result, the gap between institutions of higher education and business industry is widened. This causes the college-to-career gap for students.

To address this gap an education-informed program map must be synthesized with a skills-informed program map to create a curriculum-to-careers programmatic map. The goal of this action research is to describe the process used by a large, online institution of higher education serving non-traditional adult learners for an undergraduate environmental science program. 

Creating the Curriculum-to-Careers Programmatic Map

Creating the curriculum-to-careers programmatic map requires synthesis of both foundational knowledge and skills. To ensure the needs of industry, both for foundational knowledge and skills, are represented in a degree program, first, communication mechanisms and feedback loops between industry and institutions of higher education must be created.  Second, an education-informed map, using best practices from assessment frameworks can be developed. Third, skills required from industry can be collected, consolidated, and organized to develop a skills program map. Fourth, the curriculum and skills maps are synthesized to create a combined and integrated curriculum-to-careers programmatic map. And, finally, the map iterative feedback cycle between industry and the institution of higher education commences. The following sections outline this process for an undergraduate environmental science degree at a large online institution of higher education serving non-traditional working adult students.

1.Communicating with Industry through Advisory Councils

To gain insights about sought employees stills from industry an Industry Advisory Council (IAC) was formed and job analytic reports were examined. First, IAC members were recruited. Second, clear outcomes were established for the IAC. Third, IAC meetings were conducted which included eliciting feedback from participants about perceived effectiveness of the IAC. Fourth, emergent themes were collected. Fifth, job analytic reports were analyzed. And, last, information from both industry sources were synthesized. Then the process continued in an iterative cycle.

2.Developing the Curriculum Program Map

First, the traditional knowledge associated with the program was considered. This included the knowledge and information required for students to demonstrate proficiency in the field of environmental science. Programmatic Student Learning Outcomes (PSLOs) were developed. Feedback about these PSLOs was obtained from the IAC. Second, the course sequence for students was determined. This allowed for determining the appropriate level of rigor associated with knowledge and outcomes in each course. Third, Course Student Learning Outcomes (CSLOs) were determined for each course. Each CSLO was aligned to a PSLO so that assessment of students at the course level, for each CSLO, could be used to infer proficiency in a particular PSLO. Feedback related to CSLOs and levels of rigor was solicited from programmatic faculty and the IAC.

3.Developing the Skills Program Map

Industry job analytics reports were examined to identity trends in current job postings aligned to the field of environmental science. The report provided a list of most prevalent technical skills, common skills, and software skills in job postings for graduates of bachelor’s programs in environmental science or related fields. Industry skills were analyzed and sorted into themes. From the themes, Program Level Skills (PLSs) were created. Skills within the theme of each PLSs, were aligned to individual courses as Course Level Skills (CLSs). Each CLSs was aligned to a PLSs so that assessment of students at the course level, for each CLSs, could be used to infer proficiency in a particular PLS. Feedback related to PLSs/CLSs was solicited from programmatic faculty and the IAC.

4.The Synthesis: Curriculum-to-Career Map

The Curriculum-to-Career map was developed by synthesizing the Curriculum Program Map and the Skills Program Map. Each PSLO was aligned to a PLS. Each CSLO was aligned to a CLS. As a result, the Curriculum-to-Careers Map included traditional knowledge and industry skill outcomes for students in every course and at the conclusion of the program.  To support the integration of these two maps, skill descriptors were created for every CSLO/CLS pair. These skill descriptors were short statements that described how the traditional knowledge associated with the CSLO was aligned and demonstrated by the development of the CLS. Skill descriptors were student facing statements to support students with understanding how to communicate the knowledge and relevance of their knowledge within the context of industry needs in environmental science.

5.Maintaining and Refining the Curriculum-to-Careers Map

In each subsequent IAC meeting, various prototypes of courses were shared to gauge impact of the program development and redesign. Results from newly launched courses were explored. Discussion and assignment details were reviewed in depth as aligned to course resources linked to business and industry labor force needs. Based on analysis of IAC feedback and response, subject matter experts and instructional designers articulated the needs assessment feedback to the showcased artifacts. Then, this information was used to inform development strategy best practices for future course development. Consistent feedback cycles of quantitative and qualitative data synthesis were conducted and used to inform the alignment of course content to the curriculum-to-careers map.


Businesses and industries need institutions of higher education to facilitate and accelerate new hires’ transition to the workforce (Beckwin, 2018; Brainard, 2022; Prior, 2022). Ideal employees have the necessary subject matter expertise and applicable career skills to contribute to the workforce post haste. The gap between education and industry under current labor market conditions has potential, significant consequences. Gaps in STEM knowledge and skills mean there will be decreased support for functioning industry systems. Our goal is to create a workforce capable of maintaining these systems that care for human health and safety and environmental quality.


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