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Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences
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Water: Where, What, Why, How?

Vicki Hansen
,

Department of Geological Sciences, University of Minnesota Duluth

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Summary

Students in groups of 2-3 are charged with constructing posters that deal with the role of water in selected Earth environments. This is the last exercise in a series of poster 'events' in the class. These posters will emphasize rigor and quantitative detail in specific environments, with the collective group of posters used as means to bring many Earth systems together (in space and time) through the 'film' of water. Posters are displayed in a public space on campus, and all students will submit brief evaluations of all the posters, to be shared with fellow students. The class 'final exam' will consist of a guided group discussion of individual posters and connections between the topics of individual posters.

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Context

Audience

I will use this exercise in a sophomore-level course, which includes geology majors and minors, students working toward teaching degrees in life sciences and Earth and planetary sciences, and interested others. (Although this is a 2000-level course, students are sophomore to senior level). I have not found a good textbook for this course; instead I have a library of articles from Scientific American, American Scientist, Elements, and even Nature and Science for the students to read throughout the semester.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

This activity will be a culminating activity with an emphasis for individual posters on rigor and quantitative detail, and the group of posters used as means to bring many Earth systems together (in space and time) through the 'film' of water. This is the last exercise in a series of poster 'events' in the class. The first poster will deal with 'How we known what we know", the second is yet to be determined (possibly student choice, with the goal toward student exploration), the third poster is centered on individual areas of Earth's surface (such as Australia) and the task of the students will be to present a cross section from the surface to the core-mantle boundary, and a brief discussion about how the various elements in the crust, lithosphere and mantle tomography might contribute to surface elevation.

Goals

Content/concepts goals for this activity

I want the students to be able to explain the role of water in key processes within selected Earth environments. Students will need to identify embedded assumptions, explain the operative processes, construct logic/flow diagrams of various pathways and feedbacks, temporal scales, spatial scales, inputs, outputs, and variables; students will need variable amounts of background chemistry, physics, and geology.

I want the students to know how to find information about specific topics and to be able to clearly communicate that information to others.

I want students to take ownership of, and responsibility for, their own learning.

I want the students to be comfortable working together and discussing topics with one another; I want the students to use one another as colleagues and resources/sounding boards.

I want the students to be able to take difficult concepts and to be able to simplify them with concept diagrams in order to organize key connections.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Research information on a specific focused question, and present/communicate that information to a peer audience, and to the public.
Evaluate the logic of others' presentations, and evaluate a variety of different, but related, concepts, questions; and evaluate effectiveness of other poster communications.

Synthesize material across and between posters with the goal of developing a more coherent, integrative, and complete picture of a complex system, and embedded complex systems.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

Students in groups of 2-3 are charged with making posters that explain the role of water in key processes within selected Earth environments. Each group will be given a poster board. Student groups will chose from a list of possible environments: 1) upper mantle; 2) role of water in the asthenosphere; 3) hydrothermal systems at spreading centers; 4) water in subducting slabs to ~100 km; 5) arc magma generation; 6) water in subducting deep slabs; 7) water in the lower mantle (reactions with metallic iron to form hydrous phases); 8) water in the mantle transition zone; 9) continental basins; 10) upper crust/ground water; 11) mid-continental crust; 12) water in fault zones; 13) interaction of climate and tectonics; 14) origin of Earth's water. [By the end of the semester I should know student well enough that I can help guide students toward topics of appropriate interest/difficulty as necessary].

Posters will include: a) a concise statement of: the environment, and the key process(es) in which water plays a role (I prefer that the students stick to one major process if possible); b) concept maps/logic diagrams as a means to organize the key questions, processes, information, 'knowns', and unknowns; c) figures/illustrations to elucidate key concepts; d) concise text to guide the reader through the poster; e) unanswered questions/concerns; f) one or two key references; g) a complete list of references.

Posters will be displayed on a public location in on campus. (We have a wonderful extra-wide hallway/alcove the Department of Geological Sciences that serves this purpose). Each student will view each of the class posters and submit a written evaluation of each poster. Evaluation will follow specific items including content, clarity, value of visuals, and creativity. To focus students' evaluation we will have an evaluation form that is consistent throughout the semester, used for all poster project activities. (past experience tells me the form will evolve). Evaluations will be signed, and all evaluations will be shared with the co-authors of the appropriate poster.

As a class we will have a guided group discussion of the individual environments and the connections between environments. Poster authors will help guide discussion/answer questions during the discussion of their environment. The discussion will take place instead of a final exam, but during the scheduled exam time (2 hours).

Beginning reference materials:

I am in the process of gathering appropriate reference material to get students started. A preliminary list follows:

Determining whether students have met the goals

Assessment will be in the form of students' evaluations, and the final discussion. Peer evaluation is a powerful assessment tool. Students will hand in written evaluations of each poster prior to the final discussion (except the one they co-authored). Evaluation will follow specific items including content, clarity, value of visuals, and creativity. Students will be evaluated both on their poster and on their evaluation of the other student posters. To focus students' evaluation we will have an evaluation form that is consistent throughout the semester, used for all poster project activities.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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