Wednesday, November 28, 2012

AW #52: Geology Dream Course

Note: This wedge has now been accreted at Agile Geoscience.

For Accretionary Wedge number 52, Shawn asks us to expound on a dream course in geology. I'll start by pointing out I've already taken quite a few courses that were ever so much more exciting and engaging than I could have imagined they might be. One that comes to mind is "The Tectonic Evolution of Western North America," by Bob Yeats, which was both far more complex and far more fascinating than I had any inkling it might be. And the Petrography/Petrology Sequence by Harold "Sharkey" Enlows... perhaps the best indicator for that one is that we were expected to spend 6 hours of scheduled lab time per week on that one, and I regularly spent 12 or more hours, just so I could see and learn more. It seems selfish to ask for other courses I might take.

One option offered is to design a course we might like to teach. I'd been contemplating sitting this one out, but a confluence of factors has forced me to choose otherwise. First, most geology people love their subject, and I'm no exception. Second, as I've said before, first and foremost, I consider myself to be a teacher. I can't help it. If geology comes up in conversation, I'm going into teaching mode. Internally, the discussion goes, "What do they know? What do they want to know? How do I get them there? What is the minimum of new information I need to bring up to accomplish that?" Then off I go. Third, another point I've made repeatedly is that I'm often appalled at the lack of regard and respect for the earth sciences, especially given our dependence on both the planet's resources and comparative peacefulness, even as we deplete the first and disturb the second. Finally, and I don't know that I've mentioned this, the main work I've actually done in science education involves curriculum design and evaluation. I don't bring it up much, even in face-to-face conversation, because I find it extremely tedious. It also happens to be in high demand, but people don't want to pay for the background, effort and patience it takes to do it right- much like the rest of education.

So it seems obvious I should come up with a course that helps address my concerns in point three, while enjoying aspects of points one and two, and taking advantage of my skills in point four. What I've come up with is a class with the working title, "Earth Systems and Society." As an overview, it would provide a minimal background with respect to geology and other earth sciences- notably oceanography and meteorology; it's focus, as the title indicates, is really more on the interactions of earth's systems and the human population those systems support.

I've spent enough time on this that, while the outline is more telegraphic than I might like, I think it's fairly clear what I might do with a class like this. This is by no means developed to the degree I would normally expect, but I do think it works as an outline.

Prerequisites: {What I consider to be a basic high school math education:] Algebra I and II, geometry and trigonometry. Basic skills in written English and expository and persuasive communication.

My philosopical positions/assumptions:
  • Western culture generally, and US culture particularly, does not grasp the intimacy and necessity of human interaction with earth systems, let alone the complexity and feedbacks that can make those relationships profoundly difficult to grasp in their entirety.
  • This is particularity true of people in non-science disciplines.
  • Too few people are well-educated in science to substantively shape national and international debates on issues that not only affect all of humanity, but in fact make the medium to long term survival of Homo sapiens a question of real concern.
  • Despite the overall complexity of interactions between Earth systems and society, individual components are intuitive and easily grasped. The difficulty lies in trying to plausibly project the outcome of simple processes and actions interacting with innumerable other processes and actions.
  • Science does not reach social decisions, but informs them. Thus other social skills- including communication, argumentation, processes of political valuation, along with the values of disparate interest groups and individuals- are of great importance in applying and using scientific results
  • To address the problems outlined in the above points, I propose a class focusing on 1) Simple facts regarding earth systems and processes, 2) opportunities to think about and practice projecting how different processes can and do interact to create outcomes that might not necessarily be intuitive, but nevertheless can be foreseen.
To assure the broad goals of this class are addressed and achieved, the following approaches will be important:
  • Start with broad frameworks and the most familiar aspects of earth processes.
  • Move into less familiar processes, but still focus on broad frameworks.
  • Work toward more specificity in various earth system/resource knowledge as term proceeds, while at the same time frequently tying new knowledge back to broad frameworks.
  • Revisit earlier topics frequently and explicitly, to illustrate interactions, reiterations.
  • Expect students to be able to use basic algebraic skills; simple mathematics will play an important role in homework. Students should be able to work with scientific notation.
  • Expect students to show competence with written English.
  • Ramp up critical thinking, evaluation and critical skills expectations as course proceeds, with extensive feedback to written assignments ahead of two major written works, along with at least one required review of each draft of latter, and other reviews as requested by students.
  • Given my background, the solid earth will ground the course [heh], and other component systems will be related to that foundation. However, those based in other science disciplines should have no problem approaching this from another basis, for example bio-science, oceanography or atmospheric science.
  • Above all, keep it exciting. There is much that can be frightening in this topic, but always balance potential scares with potential solutions, alternatives and adaptations.
General Outcomes: Students will be able to
  • Review and analyze environmental risks of a small (>50 km sq, about the area of a medium-sized town) area of their choosing, using historical media reports, skills and knowledge developed in class, along with information from relevant local to national level government agencies. Other source materials should be cleared with instructor. (This will be the final project, and I want to avoid asking S's to go to primary literature.)
  • Recall fundamental terminology and concepts accurately, and use it appropriately in context.
  • Give multiple examples of the concept of opportunity cost, and explain factors that can lead to forgoing more valuable opportunities for less valuable opportunities in terms of earth resources.
  • List ways to increase preparedness, and decrease risks of injury and mortality, with respect to a number of different natural hazards (e.g. floods, earthquakes, tidal surges, tsunamis, lahars, volcanic hazards, etc.)
  • For selected hazards, describe methods of avoidance (e.g. floods, tidal surges, tsunamis, lahars, etc.)
  • Given examples of common household items, describe earth resources used in the production of each.
  • Describe current thought regarding global climate change. This is not intended to be ideological, and I don't care whether you "Believe in it." Even if you don't, you should be able to explain accurately why others do, and in general terms, what their predictions are.
  • Describe feedbacks that could worsen or moderate climate change.
  • List and explain examples of resources whose availability may potentially be affected- for better or worse- by climate change.
  • Keep a log (or blog, preferably) of media stories about earth resources, hazards, processes, and other stories relevant to the content of this class. Include comments, which should note strengths and weaknesses of the story, "flashing lights," that is, evidence that the story should treated with caution or skepticism, and thoughts of how the topic covered in this story relates to other topics relevant to this class.
  • Given hypothetical situations (or generalized portrayals of real situations), create an argument to support one of two or more options. The point here is not to have the "right answer," but to muster pertinent information to argue for one choice from what might be a number of options. As an example, Federal, state and local governments heavily subsidize rebuilding after floods and coastal storms. This encourages people to rebuild/use resources in areas that have in the immediate past been proven vulnerable. Potential options for this problem include 1) The system works as it is, albeit with weaknesses. Don't change anything. 2)a] Require those in vulnerable areas to purchase government-subsidized insurance; 2)b] Require insurance coverage that reflects the best assessment of real risk; 2)c] Require insurance that is overpriced with respect to real risk, thus discouraging development in vulnerable areas. 3)a] Prohibit rebuilding in areas that have been proven by experience to be high risk for calamitous disasters; 3)b] Prohibit rebuilding in areas that have been proven by experience to be high risk for calamitous disasters, with exceptions on a case-by-case basis [e.g, sites of historic importance]. 4) Some combination or variation of the above possibilities, or [an]other[s], suggested by student.
  • An important component of the course will be a summary and conclusions essay. This should be about 3 pages long, and discuss the following: 1) What topics regarding resources, risks, and earth systems should be addressed by your state and/or local government in the near future? 2) In what ways do you think this course may affect your thinking and future decision-making with respect to natural and man-exacerbated risks and hazards, and consumption of resources? 3) What topics in this course did you find of particular relevance or interest? 4) What aspects of this course were less interesting or less relevant? 5) Overall, how would you rate this course? As with the previous point, I'm not looking for any particular answer, but rather your choices regarding the pertinent information you bring to bear and the coherence with which you frame your answer. I'm thick skinned, so don't be afraid to be critical where it's warranted. I suggest you start keeping notes in whatever format is convenient and effective for yourself from early in the term.
[I've spent my career and entire college student-hood in a quarter system- my feeling is that this might be too much for what I think of as a ten-week term, but it might work better in a semester system. Nevertheless as an outline, here's a general overview of what I'd like to tackle. Each bullet represents a lecture & discussion- format class period, with the exception of assignments due at the ends of weeks 8 and 9.]

Week 1
  • Intro, rationale, overview/outline, "deep time" and intro to surface processes
  • Fluvial processes
  • Mass Movement
Week 2
  • Internal processes: plate tectonics and the big picture. Global outline of active areas
  • Seismicity
  • Volcanism. Focus on North American tectonics.
Week 3
  • Integrating surface and internal processes: the consequences of an active planet
  • Exam
  • Geosphere-atmosphere interactions
Week 4
  • Geosphere-hydrosphere interactions
  • Interactions [of previous 3] with the biosphere- elemental cycling
  • The centrality of life in creating earth as we know it today: the importance of microbes and "The age of bacteria."
Week 5
  • Living on a limited planet: risks, hard walls, options, and choices
  • A delicate balance: to use or not to use.
  • It's complicated. Land and resource use versus natural, man-made, and man-exacerbated hazards
Week 6
  • Exam
  • Stuff we take for granted I: energy resources
  • Stuff we take for granted II: metallic resources
Week 7
  • Stuff we take for granted III: industrial and construction resources
  • Stuff we take for granted IV: water and land
  • Stuff we take for granted V: an unchanging planet [climate and other large-scale environmental change]
Week 8
  • Site-specific risks: thinking about risks from floods and mass movement. [do so before land purchases!]
  • Site-specific risks: thinking about risks from seismicity and volcanism. [and special associated mass movement risks]
  • Site-specific risks: atmospheric phenomena and erosion
  • Final project due
Week 9
  • A culture blind to earth systems
  • How to talk to others: dos and don'ts
  • Reasons for optimism: it's too easy to be fatalistic. Life is and has always been a puzzle with lives at risk.
  • Summary and Conclusions essay due
Week 10
  • Study session, Q&A
  • Final Exam
Now, in honesty, I don't have the stamina to teach anymore- I get tired too quickly, and apathy can shut me down without warning. Even if I was offered a generous salary to teach something like this, I would be hesitant to accept it. I'm very reluctant to take a job I'm not certain I can complete. But the fact is, I think this would be a very good experience for non-science folks: enough science to be a valid science "credit," but at the same time, drawing in aspects of life most people wouldn't think of as "hard science." Geo-types get exposed to this kind of uncertainty and ambiguity over and over again throughout their education and career. The thing that I'm curious about is can a similar education be condensed into a one-term class for non-science folks?