Minerals in the Biosphere

H. Catherine W. Skinner
Yale University
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Class is meant to expore
1)the continuum of geological, geochemical and biochemical environments
2)the logic in health issues in the USA
3)provide a multidisciplinary approach to personal and public health.

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upper level geology, chemistry, biology students who are looking to apply their knowledge to global health problems

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Intro chemistry, geology and biology so that terms are familiar and papers in each of these field related to environmental issues can be discussed.

How the activity is situated in the course

Full semester undertaking


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students explore in a seminar situation the natural environments of the chemical elements, mineral materials and their transposition or use by humans, and by the body to sharpen their understanding of risks and hazards.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

students learn about the natural processes that influence geological distribution of materials, study elemental cycles and as a project 'do' a particulat element, its history and cycles globally and for a human/animal system.

Other skills goals for this activity

They present a summary of their work to the class and prepare two papers on their element, one on the geologic/ biogeochemical areas where it is found and transported, and the other relating the contribution of the element to some aspect of health/disease.

Description of the activity/assignment

Background (review) papers covering the atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere brings a diverse undergraduate group (not all are geology majors) together with consistent information. The first few weeks gets us all on the same wavelength with similar vocabularies. A global introduction is necessary to enhance their understandings of what is known/unknown and to help them to select a specific element for more concentrated (personal) attention. Students write two papers based on their element. One as it is in nature (mineral source), the anthropogenic means of extraction and use (a way to bring up physical and chemical attributes, e.g. speciation, isotopes), and a second paper on the significant biologic spheres and health issues for that same element. In the latter they use information from the first paper to illustrate the different (or similar) chemical concentrations and transport mechanisms in the human body. This brings out quantitative issues and discussion. I enlist speakers to broaden exposure to topics they are unlikely to know about, always a practicing professional, e.g. A radiologist to show how to diagnose lung disease, a nutritionist on diets and a hygienist to explore general living conditions, especially in other countries. Each student presents to the class.

Determining whether students have met the goals

This is a seminar situation. I evaluate their individual contributions to the discussions, i.e. their ability to phrase appropriate and informed questions as well as write cogent papers.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

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Supporting references/URLs

I will supply the semester background reference list as well as weekly reading lists to anyone who wishes to see them personally. The course changes from year to year with the topics of interest to myself and the students.