ARCHIVED CONTENT: In December 2020, the CZO program was succeeded by the Critical Zone Collaborative Network (CZ Net) ×

O'Neill, 2015


Making connections: Linking human and natural systems through education and outreach at the Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory

O’Neill, K. P. (2015)
Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD  



From food production to the plant, water, and soil resources needed to sustain a growing population, human communities and institutions depend upon the complex interactions between biotic and abiotic systems that occur at the Earth’s surface. The NSF Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) program is a national network of land-based observatories that focus interdisciplinary research towards quantifying processes within the Earth’s Critical Zone, which extends from the top of the vegetation to the base of weathered bedrock. Here, we discuss the potential for using emerging science from the CZO network to promote education about coupled human-natural systems with specific examples from the Calhoun CZO.  Like much of the southern Piedmont, the landscape represented by the Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) retains the legacy of soil erosion and water degradation caused by agricultural practices during the 18th - early 20th century.  Research at the Calhoun CZO seeks to integrate both natural and human forcing factors into our understanding of Critical Zone dynamics and provides an opportunity for students to explore interdisciplinary scientific research within the context of land management, environmental history, and social/cultural institutions.


In addition to outlining the framework for education and outreach efforts, this poster presents examples of educational modules and activities that incorporate data and emerging science from the Calhoun CZO.  The pedagogical framework is intended to promote learning that (1) builds from observations of natural systems, (2) organizes concepts within a spatial context, (3) reflects long-term perspective and (4) addresses complex phenomena from a systems perspective (following Kastens & Manduca, 2012). Activities incorporate collaborative learning techniques along with field, lab, and computer-based activities (GIS, Google Earth, STELLA) and are nested to provide opportunities for a range of student audiences, from introductory courses for non-science majors through upper-level majors courses.  Modules end with an experiential component that promotes the development of ‘expert thinking’ (Bransford et al. 1999) by requiring students to apply the concepts learned from previous activities towards a new situation.  Modules and activities promote quantitative inquiry into Critical Zone science as well as provide an entry point for discussion of interactions between human management, resource availability, and ecosystem services.


O’Neill, K. P. (2015): Making connections: Linking human and natural systems through education and outreach at the Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory. Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD.

This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.