Friday, August 21, 2009

Geoteaching Out of the Box

Followup, Saturday Aug. 29: This wedge is now up over at Dino Jim's Musings.

Criminy... almost forgot this. This month's Accretionary Wedge topic is geology teaching out of the box... lessons and methods different from (and perhaps improving upon) traditional approaches.

This is a topic that's near and dear to my heart. The traditional K-12 curriculum with respect to geology in particular is a mess... a pastiched-together set of activities that teachers (who often have never had a college-level geology class, let alone any broad knowledge of the field) perform by rote year after year, generation after generation, because that's what they've always done, and are they same lessons they had when they were in eighth-grade earth science. Following the Sputnik launch, there was a push toward more intense science education efforts in this country, to bring our technological achievement levels more in line with where we perceived the Soviet levels to be. Some really fine curricula, often referred to now as "the alphabet curricula," were developed as a result. The finest K-12 earth science textbook I've ever reviewed had its origins in that era, and I'm pretty certain it was still in print at least through the mid-90's.

As a group, these curricula emphasized what we would today call inquiry approaches over rote memorization. "Hands-on" approaches are fine as far as they go, but what we as teachers are trying to get at is "minds-on." We want students to be challenged enough that effort is required to solve a problem, but not so challenged that they see no point in trying. The problem with many of the alphabet curricula was that they were perceived by teachers, students and parents as being too challenging. It would be more accurate to say they were unconventional, new, different, and therefore threatening.

I have done educational work- consulting, reviewing, curriculum development and so on- for a number of groups, mostly in Oregon and California, and worked as a some-time instructor here at Oregon State University in the Department of Science Education. But I've always been a little frustrated that I haven't had more opportunity to do more geology material. One project I worked on was a teacher's guide and lesson plans for the ODP/JOIDES educational cd, Mountains to Monsoons (~225 Kb PDF; there is a short summary here if you don't want to mess with the PDF.). There are thousands and thousands of geology teaching ideas and activities out there, so one can't be certain that a particular idea is new, but I always took pride in developing teaching methods that were new to me. Here are a few from the manual:
  1. Use construction paper to more accurately depict the relationship between sediment layers' thickness vs. areal extent, while getting across the fundamental idea of stratigraphic superposition in a way that is intuitive to students. Use different colors to represent different kinds of events and periods of deposition.
  2. Create a 1:1,000,000 scale cross section of the earth and its core (13 meters in diameter) to talk about convection in the mantle (The ideas presented in this lesson are a little out of date now; convection is thought to be more chaotic than the old idea of organized cells. But that could be easily addressed) The crust in this model would range from 5 mm (5 dimes in thickness) to about the height of a dollar bill. The tallest buildings ever built would be about half a dime thick.
  3. Using iron filings, paper, contact plastic and a magnet to make a model illustrating how magnetic inclination can be used to determine paleolatitude.
  4. On pages 68 and 69, I have a summary lesson I had forgotten. Students read a paragraph summarizing global climatic conditions during the ice ages, then are assigned a hypothesis that they are supposed to (mentally) test using the analysis techniques developed in the unit. Students are asked to choose a small number of key techniques and identify differing results depending on whether the hypothesis is correct.
The manual has plenty of shortcomings, but it's still a piece of work I'm pretty proud of.

No comments: