Initial Publication Date: January 16, 2007

Al Werner

Department of Earth and Environment, Mount Holyoke College

Al Werner

What are the key issues related to the role of the affective domain in teaching geoscience that you would like to engage at the workshop?

Ways to improve science literacy.

What expertise or experience (in study of the affective domain or teaching of geoscience) will you bring to the workshop? How would you like to contribute to the workshop?

I teach a large enrollment Environmental Geology course and I have come to realize that I have a huge responsibility with this course - it is often the only science course students will take.


Essay: I'm no good at science!

Many students come to college confident in their belief that they are no-good at science. Perhaps they had a bad experience in a middle or high school science class, perhaps they don't have particular strengths in science and math or worse, perhaps they have been encouraged away from the sciences or have learned that being too clever in math and science classes is unattractive (especially for young women). Whatever the reason, many students find themselves in a required science distribution course and in many cases this is an intro geology course (because chemistry, physics and biology are considered "harder" and more quantitative). This one required science course may be the only science course that a student will take during her college career and it is in this course that they will learn science material, learn how to think scientifically and most importantly, solidify their perspectives of science and scientists. In short, this one required science course can greatly influence their understanding of how science works, their perspective of scientists, and their understanding of the role of science in everyday life. Even if we don't make scientists of these science-phobic students, we need them to understand science and to appreciate the value science — at very least we don't want to validate their "I can't do science" ideas.

Introductory geology courses can be very effective at breaking down these "I can't do science" walls because most students can personally relate to the material covered in intro. geology courses and because this material (e.g. earthquakes, flooding, climate change etc.) is timely and constantly in the news. These personal connections and the timeliness of the material are important in-roads for student engagement and can facilitate science thinking and quantification. At Mount Holyoke College we have developed intro labs that give students a taste of what it is like to work as a geologist by having students work on real-life problems in the lab component of the course. For example, we require them to determine the discharge or the campus stream by measuring water depth and velocity across the channel, we ask them to find the best place in the local area for a new landfill and we ask them to determine the source, direction of ground water flow and extent of contamination of a leaky underground storage tank on campus. In these labs we give them reasons to need to be quantitative and to think scientifically.

Scientists are often perceived as indecisive and contradictory and therefore it has become easy for officials, politicians and the media to dismiss scientific perspectives. This of course comes from the fact that science is full of theories and different possible interpretations and in fact this is how we (and why we) continue to test our hypotheses and eventually move closer to the truth. Unfortunately, this approach is often viewed as "wishy-washy" and unsatisfying to those who want (demand) definitive answers. I believe that we need to teach the scientific method in our intro. courses, we need get students familiar and comfortable with evaluating all of the information and then we need to debate the merits of various interpretations/actions. For example, everyone who has determined the 100 year flood zone for a river knows that it is often based on a limited understanding of past river behavior — yet it is considered one of the best ways to determine the magnitude and the recurrence interval of river flooding. Similarly, the climate change debate is complicated and confusing but students must understand this complexity as best as they can and realize that just because an issue is complicated (and there are conflicting perspectives) doesn't mean that the scientific perspective should be dismissed.

Introductory geology courses are great vehicles for engaging students in science because they are timely and student already have a connection with many of the topics discussed. Investigations and quantification in the lab can often break-down the "I can't do science" barriers and discussions in lecture need to provide students with an understanding of how science works. For many (most) students this will be the only science course they will take in college and we need to teach more than geologic concepts and terms.