Earth Systems Science

Colleen Stapleton

Mercer Univers, College of Continuing and Professional Studies
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs


Earth is studied in terms of how different physical and chemical systems interact with each other.

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Course Context:

This in an introductory course with prerequisites of at least one science lab course and pre-algebra. This course is not a prerequisite for other courses. It is required for Education majors who are concentrating in middle grades science. About 70% are education majors and the remaining students use this course for science general education requirements or as an elective. Lab is an integrated part of this course.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to use appropriate geologic data to evaluate how plate tectonic activity changes a given area of Earth's surface.

Students should be able to evaluate how differences in physical and chemical properties between land and ocean influence global wind patterns and ocean currents.

Students should be able to analyze an argument on global warming and critique whether the argument is supported by scientific data.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Jigsaw activities will form the backbone of the course. In these, students will practice skills needed to achieve course goals. The initial activities will involve analyzing and synthesizing geologic data. In following jigsaw activities, these skills will be built on by analyzing published research papers that use similar types of data but reach different interpretations. The papers will be evaluated to see if the data satisfactorily support the interpretations. Lastly, jigsaw activities will examine published research on global warming as well as the non-scientific reports and presentations, or news stories that are based on the given published research.

Other activities will involve Just in Time Teaching to focus preparation for class, experiments to measure natural changes in some Earth systems (solar flux, heat transfer), and quantification of some Earth processes.

Assessments will include:
1. oral presentations which synthesize instructor-specified aspects of a jigsaw activity
2. peer-review of oral presentations which synthesize instructor-specified aspects of a jigsaw activity
3. short papers from each student which synthesize instructor-specified aspects of a jigsaw activity
4. Final exam: Essay exam critiquing the scientific validity of argument(s), taken from scientific and non-scientific sources, on the effects of an Earth process/event (related to what we've studied). Instructor may ask specific items be addressed from the assigned papers.

Skills Goals

quantitative skills
critical thinking

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Quantitative skills will be practiced by students as they recaste data from some scientific publications into graphical or other appropriate forms. Students will analyze data to interpret or calculate rates of change of some Earth processes. Students will quantify some Earth processes by performing experiments. Assessment will be done through the jigsaw activity assessments.

Critical thinking will be practiced mainly during the jigsaw activities through data analysis, and analyses and comparisons interpretations. Assessment of critical thinking will be part of the jigsaw assessments, especially in the peer-review of oral presentations and short papers. Assessment of critical thinking will be a major part of the final exam.

Attitudinal Goals

1. Increase students' abilities to become independent learners
2. Change students' beliefs about the "authority" of science
3. Build confidence in students' abilities in science, Earth science in particular
4. Develop students' sense of stewardship of the Earth

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

1. Activities are designed so that students are actively learning, not listening to lectures.
2. Students analyses and critiques of interpretations in scientific papers and non-scientific reports will force students to evaluate their understanding of "who's right" in arguments/debates that use science to support points.
3. Jigsaw activities will make students practice skills that they develop (at the beginning of the activities) in groups where they are only expert in that skill.
4. Study of interactions and feedbacks in Earth processes, perhaps especially in global warming, may help students to evaluate their own role in the interactions and feedbacks (that lead to global warming).


I concentrate on how students critique data and interpret data. Data used to make scientific arguments must be appropriate for the argument. Interpretations must be supported by data. Most of my assessing is carried out by verbal means, usually in written form.