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Undergraduate Research as Teaching Practice
Cutting Edge > Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum > Case Studies > The Rock Project

The Rock Project

Rob Thomas, The University of Montana Western

Summary

This activity is designed to give students the opportunity to go into the field to collect and analyze primary data and to apply their knowledge of processes learned in class to reconstruct geologic histories. Although the module can be altered to accommodate the available geologic resources, the basic approach is to have each student sample an igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock from exposures in the field. They use these data to construct a professional report that includes: (1) a complete description of each rock sample and its location, (2) an analysis of the processes that form each sample; and (3) a thorough explanation of how each sample fits into the geologic history of the area. Students present the top three projects at the local middle school and samples are donated along with reports to the school.

Context

Audience

This is an activity used in an introductory-level geology course.

Class size

This activity can work with a small or a large class.

How the activity is situated in the course

I designed this module when I was a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Washington (Seattle), where I was grappling with how to get students in the large, introductory courses into the field. I am now at a small campus that employs the block-scheduling system, where students take a single course for 18 days, and the project stills works very well as shown by a ten-year review of teaching evaluations.

Goals

The primary goal of this project is to get introductory students into the field to collect primary data, which they analyze and synthesize into a professional report on their own.

Description

The lecture format for teaching general education geology courses can result in a great deal of memorization and regurgitation of nomenclature with little field application of the material learned in lectures and labs. The relatively large number of students in these courses and the short duration of each class meeting often make it difficult for them to engage in inquiry-based projects in the field. As a result, fieldwork is rarely required of students in introductory courses and they almost never work independently on a field project. These experiences are immensely important because they provide students with context for the material learned in class and it boosts their confidence in their abilities to use the class information to solve geologic problems on their own.

To overcome the hurdles to field-based inquiry projects in general education geoscience classes, a module was designed to allow students to work on an independent project ("The Rock Project"). The project requires data collection, application of processes learned in class and reconstruction of geologic histories. Although the module can be altered to accommodate the available geologic resources, the basic approach is to have each student sample an igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock from exposures in the field. They use these data to construct a professional report that includes: (1) a complete description of each rock sample and its location, (2) an analysis of the processes that form each sample; and (3) a thorough explanation of how each sample fits into the geologic history of the area. Students present the top three projects at the local middle school and samples are donated along with reports to the school.

As an example, if a student samples a piece of granite for their igneous rock, they describe and document the granite as it is exposed in the field. They apply information they learned in class to describe how granite forms. So, in this case their report might include a thorough explanation of the processes that cause partial melting in subduction zones. Having determined that a subduction zone likely existed in the area in the past, the student then searches the geologic literature to explain the timing and paleogeography of this event, including the tectonic and erosional events that exposed the granite at the surface where it was sampled.

Students may either collect their data for the project independently or in teams of two, but all students construct a final report and the top three are involved in public outreach with the local middle school. Each project is essentially unique, with students having to answer the question of how their samples fit into the geologic history of the area. Using what they have learned in class, they must figure out what data they need to collect and how to analyze it to reconstruct the geologic history for each sample they collect in the field. They are essentially on their own, but this is the strength of the project because they are motivated by the independence they have been granted and the confidence that the teacher has in their ability to get the job done. In addition, the competition of having the top three students present at the local middle school improves the quality of their reports since they know the reports may be used by someone, rather than simply ending up in the circular file at the end of the semester.

In many cases, the students are reconstructing geologic histories of rocks that have not been studied in any depth, so they can be contributing to new knowledge. More than one student who decided to major in the discipline has taken her/his project and turned it into a senior thesis where they can explored a specific question related to one of their samples. The public outreach component helps to educate the public about the geologic history of the area, and is good practice for the students, especially those in teacher education programs. I am told by my colleagues in the Education Department that this project shows up in many of the portfolios that students submit for entrance into the Teacher Education Program, and many students employ the project once they are teaching, so they are clearly proud of their work.

I have always been very proud that this module teaches introductory students the scientific method through independent, field-based work. However, I have come to realize that the most important result has been the fact that many students who become public K-12 teachers use the project in their own classes, bringing a much-needed, inquiry-based approach to the public schools. I guess the project now has a legacy!

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations

A thorough review of course evaluations show that students list The Rock Project as their favorite part of the course (71% of all student evaluations over the last ten years). Anecdotal statements from the evaluations show that the students gain confidence from the project because they apply concepts learned in class. Students also comment they have a sense of ownership in the project because they worked on it independently. Many students in the K-12 teacher education program on campus include these reports in their portfolios and they tend to incorporate the project into their own classes once they are teaching.

Assessment

Teaching Materials

References