Initial Publication Date: January 16, 2007

David Mogk

Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

David Mogk

Essay 1: Teaching in the Field

"We're going on a field trip!" the instructor announces enthusiastically to the class, expecting that all students will share this enthusiasm. Field trips are part of the culture of the geosciences and of geoscience education, and much of what we see and do on a field trip is second nature to us. We know what to expect during the trip, what is expected of us, how to function (and behave), and how we will benefit from the experience. But, what is going through the minds of our students: Where the heck are we going? What are we going to do there? I've never done anything like this before, and I'm very unsure about what I have to do. Will we have to hike a long way, will I be able to keep up? What about the weather, will we go if it rains? I'm terrified of snakes! What about bathroom stops? Will we eat on time? I have hypoglycemia/diabetes and really need to regulate when and what I eat. Will we be back in time for me to pick up my kids at day care? I still don't understand how to use a Brunton compass and what it does. What do we have to turn in for credit, and how will it be graded? Facing all of this anxiety and uncertainty, how can learning possibly happen? Following the work of Orion and Hofstein (1994), learning cannot effectively happen until a student's "novelty space" is minimized. There are three aspects of novelty space that must be considered when planning and implementing a field exercise:

  • geographic novelty, which refers to the students' familiarity with the field trip site,
  • cognitive novelty, which refers to the skills and concepts the students encounter and are expected to master on the field trip, and
  • psychological novelty, which considers the social aspects of field trips, and related issues such as personal safety and comfort.
The larger a student's novelty space, the less the student is likely to learn. Therefore, these factors should be carefully considered when planning an implementing a field trip to optimize student learning in the field. Mogk (1997; and further discussed the concept of novelty space, and related issues of setting appropriate goals, objectives and outcomes for learning in the field. Field trips are often cited as an important means to recruit and motivate students to learn geoscience--but this will be true only to the extent the field trips are memorable and positive learning experiences.


Orion, N., and Hofstein, A. (1994), Factors that influence learning during a scientific field trip in a natural environment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31(10), 1097-1119.

Mogk, D. W., (1997), Field Notes, In: Brady, Perkins and Mogk (eds.), Teaching Mineralogy, Mineralogical Society of America

Essay 2: Learning Environments - Designing a Computer Laboratory

Co-authored with William Locke, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Our department had the opportunity to add computer stations to our Introductory Physical Geology laboratory. In planning for the installation of the computers, we had to make informed decisions about the design of the laboratory. Would the computers be installed on desks in rows looking to the front of the class, in "islands" (e.g. using hexagonal tables), arranged around the perimeter of the room...? Our final design is pictured below. Here's how we selected the design for this laboratory:

diagram of a computer classroom setup

  • We started by asking "what instructional modes will likely be used"? We anticipated that the computers would be used for some "canned" exercises (e.g. on-line activities developed for direct use) and some open-ended discovery exercises using the computers (e.g. students search the web for information). We also wanted to maintain our traditional use of physical materials-maps, rocks, groundwater models, etc. And our Environmental Geology class does a lot of group activities including debates, preparing poster sessions, and other types of presentations.
  • We decided to place the computer stations around the perimeter of the room so that the instructor stand in the center of the room and scan across all the work stations to make sure that students were generally on task when using the computers. The students also had to have eyes front when the instructor (or other students) were making a presentation-not looking at or over the computers (or surfing or playing videogames). We were able to purchase 10 computers, which meant that two students share each computer to do assigned tasks. The keyboard is located on one side of a two-person desk, leaving room on the desktop to place documents, take notes, etc. The monitors are turned so that two students can see the screen at the same time. Two computers are stationed side-by-side so that we can form 4 person working groups for collaborative assignments.
  • Printers have been the bane of our existence due to cost and maintenance. We originally had planned for students to print off completed lab assignments at the end of each class. However, we have had to take these off-line. But, with ease of access to portable data storage devices (e.g. "thumb" drives), the students are able to take their class work with them, revise if needed, and print their work on their own printers.
  • The computer boxes were originally placed on shelves on the wall above the monitors to keep them off the floor and away from dust and slush (during Montana winters). But, to accommodate some of our disabled students, some of the computer boxes are now placed under the tables to facilitate access. All of the computers are equipped with head phones to access audio programs so students can listen and not disturb neighbors at adjacent stations. In one instance, we had a legally blind student, and we installed special software that enlarged text and images (rather than an audio substitute) so that she could have access to the computer-based resources.
  • Other tables are arranged in a U-pattern in an inner ring just behind the computer stations. This was done so that students could turn around in their seats and have access to physical materials-rocks, lay out maps, etc. We believe that it is important for students to be able to easily integrate computer-based resources and manipulative materials. The U-shaped distribution of the tables also allows all students to be able to see each other during whole-class group discussions.
  • A computer station with a projector is dedicated for the instructor and can be rolled to the front center of the room as needed-this allows the instructor to make presentations, and is also used by student groups making presentations, debates, etc. This station is used occasionally for overflow attendance or if another computer malfunctions.
  • We were constrained to design the laboratory around the existing physical structures which could not be moved: white board, bulletin boards, sink, windows (indicated by rectangles at left and bottom of diagram), and structural supports (indicated by X's).

This room configuration gave us the most flexibility to accommodate a variety of instructional modes: lecture, discussion, demonstration, independent and small group work on the computers, integration of computer-based and physical resources, and ability to form small groups of 2 or 4 for collaborative learning. This also helps the instructor to be aware of what students are actually doing during lab time, and facilitates rapid interventions if students appear lost or distracted. We have used this room configuration for the past 8 years with no significant need to modify or reconfigure. Although we have done no formal assessment of student attitudes about this set up, the students appear to work well in this environment. The design has withstood the test of time.

An excellent resource on designing Learning Spaces was produced by Project Kaleidoscope, What Works Volume III: Structures for Science, A Handbook on Planning Facilities for Undergraduate Natural Science Communities. "This step-by-step guide to planning facilities is intended for use by colleges and universities that are thinking about, or in the process of planning for, new or renovated spaces for their undergraduate programs in science and mathematics." See: