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Our Geologic Environment: Role in the Program

(Page Prepared for SERC by Sadredin C. Moosavi, Ph.D.)

A discussion of the design and implementation of a general education lab science course at the Minnesota State University - Mankato, created by Sadredin C. Moosavi, Ph.D.

A description of this course and its goals is available.

What Role Does this Course Play in Teacher Preparation?

This course is not specifically targeted toward pre-service teachers. The content within it, however, is similar to that required for the geology component of the earth sciences that pre-service K-8 teachers would utilize. Curriculum constraints within the MSU system preclude using Our Geologic Environment as a pre-requisite to Earth Science for Elementary Educators. The resulting curriculum disconnection accounts for some of the challenges in that course. The inquiry based approach to broad geoscience content found in this course is appropriate as a basis for developing pre-service teachers.
  1. Students complete a writing-intensive, place-based case study of a specific Special Place of their choosing.
  2. Students gain a broad understanding of the physical and chemical foundation of our world to accurately assess environmental information used to make educated decisions pertaining to natural resource and environmental issues.
  3. Students are exposed to a broad overview of the structure and processes occurring on earth; students address the fundamental question: Why is the natural world the way it is?
  4. Students gain experience in observing natural processes and insight into how science strives to determine the interrelationships between earth, water, atmosphere and biosphere in an objective manner before examining the subjective aspects of natural resource and environmental decisions.
  5. Student practice group research and presentation skills in conducting detailed projects on specific environmental issues.

How does the Course Address Each Role?

  1. In the Special Place project students complete two major essays, weekly writing, peer review of similar papers, analysis of topographic maps and stratigraphic structures relating to a place of their choosing. The topis analyzed in the assignment parallel and utilize the content of the course.
  2. The group projects relating to gulf anoxia and climate change in particular require students to investigate geologically related scientific data and apply it to real world problems in a highly politically charged environment. Through the process of debate in the town hall meetings the students gain an appreciation for the role of scientifiic uncertainty and complexity of resolving competing political and social agendas in a geologically constrained world.
  3. Laboratory exercises, readings and lecture address the fundamental principles of Earth science in the context of earth as a system.
  4. All the laboratory exercises and projects begin with observation of natural processes before extrapolating to larger earth principles. For example, laboratory inquiry into basic physical and geological principles such as albedo, latent heat, differential solar heating with latittude, oceanic circulation via density differences, etc. provide insight into mechanisms for Pleistocene glaciation thereby elucidating possible mechanisms and feedbacks for anthropogenic global warming.
  5. The two group projects which end in town hall meetings have a strong component drawn from speech communication courses requiring students to develop their oratory and presentation skills along with their understanding of the content. Some students having completed speech classes comment on the similarity in format thereby reinforcing the benefits of those courses.

How do Students Integrate Learning & Teaching?

The Special Place Project provides students an in depth experience in tracking their own learning as they ask questions, explore content, propose hypotheses, test their understanding, and revise their explanations and draw conclusions. Successful completion of this project depends in large part on the student's ability to articulate details of the place they are analyzing in written and oral form to their peers in the writing group and instructor. To gain the benefit of those external reviewers, each student must teach as they learn about their places. This same approach occurs to a lesser extent in the group research projects and laboratory exercises.

How does the Course Transition Pre-service Teachers into the Classroom?

This course does not directly transition pre-service teaches to the classroom though techniques used within it have been found to be highly instructive for pre-service teaching students in Earth Science Methods profiled on this site.

How is the Course Content Aligned with the National Science Education Standards?

The content within this course meet all the geologic and many of the atmospheric science standards in the National Science Education Standards and could be used to substitute for these standards currently assigned to other courses within the MSU curriculum.

How does the Course Meet Certification Requirements?

This course is not currently in the sequence for teacher certification.

What Challenges have been Encountered in Teaching this Course? How have they been Resolved?

Our Geologic Environment is a well liked course that meets the general education needs of many students. The greatest challenges in its delivery come from:
  1. Limited Class Time

    Our Geologic Environment has ambitious goals for a large general education course serving a population weak in science considering it meets for 2 hours each of lecture and lab per week. Many topics do not receive the full depth of investigation that one would prefer. Class time limits the amount of group work and inquiry based laboratory exercises that can be conducted. Student evaluations support the impression that time is in critically short supply at present.

    Partial solutions to the time limitation has come by managing the size of the lecture and lab sections to create smaller lab sizes (24) at the expense of larger and larger lectures (currently 72). While this structure limits the larger venue to lecture, large group discussions, mass media viewing and mass production assessments such as exams, it creates a lab environment that is small enough for student to be able to interact meaningfully with their peers and instructor.

    Further time savings in both venues have come through the Special Place Project and group projects which use class time to seed discussions but require significant outside time commitment by students. Much as students comment on how 'this 100 level course requires more work than 400 level courses in my major', the students relate that they appreciate the opportunity to work on subjects in depth once these have been shown to be relevant to their lives. The fact that all students must meet with the instructor face to face for 20 minutes to talk about their Special Place goes a long way to establishing the importance of the individual student's project and learning to the instructor and most students reciprocate the effort.

    In an ideal world lecture and lab would be increased to 3 hours each.
  2. Large Class Sizes

    Demand for Our Geologic Environment greatly exceeds the supply of sections that can be provided by the current staff at MSU. To give a sense of scale, the equivalent general education courses in biology and physics have enrollments exceeding 700 per semester compared to 72 in this course. Data collected about student interest in earth science and the experiences of the instructor suggest that demand for geology is similar to that in biology, especially as students become increasingly interested in environmental issues. Meeting this demand in a program without graduate students to assist with lab sections or grading remains a serious challenge.

    Previous iterations of the course used combined lecture and lab sections with 40 students each. This model was very inefficient for faculty preparation and made assistance and feedback to students during lab nearly impossible. Creating the large lecture/small lab format greatly improved the quality of the experience for both faculty and students. This model also allows for increased numbers of lab sections as more faculty become available for labs. On the negative side, assessments within the large lecture section are forced by the numbers to less desirable formats such as multiple choice tests. These forms of assessment are disliked by students and instructor relative to the other methods utilized. However, the current balance limits this form of assessment to 1/3 of the total, providing a reasonable balance for students in such a large class. A long term solution to this situation will require further faculty positions and support from graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants. Such a solution is fiscally viable given the economics of this course model.

  3. Curricular Misalignment
    This problem is specific to pre-service elementary teachers. Our Geologic Environment is the natural beginning to their training in the earth sciences. Similar introductory courses leading to advanced courses blending pedagogy and advanced topics exist in physics and biology giving students a better learning curve in these topics compared to earth science with its single 2 credit advanced course Earth Science for Elementary Educators. Adding Our Geologic Environment as a requirement to the Elementary Education program may provide the balance between the sciences sought by the National Science Education Standards.