Relative Dating with Art

Jennifer Cholnoky
Skidmore College
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This activity asks students to make observations of an artwork and to deduce the sequence of events or processes that occurred during the creation of the piece.

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introductory physical geology course for both majors and non-majors; intermediate level interdisciplinary science literacy course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Assumes no prior knowledge. Students have been encouraged to use their observational skills in other activities/labs during the course.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is done during a unit on relative dating midway through the semester. It has been used both as an introduction to the topic and as an activity within the unit.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students discover principles of relative dating using artwork. Students create a timeline or sequence of events using their observational skills. Students translate the concepts from art to geologic outcrops.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Applying observational skills to a new object (artwork); Analysis of the processes that formed the object; Formulation of algorithms for creative process; Synthesis and sequencing of events; Evaluation of timeline including gaps in the information.

Other skills goals for this activity

Working in groups; dealing with uncertainty/ gaps in data

Description of the activity/assignment

When standing in front of an outcrop, geoscientists use relative dating principles to determine the sequence of events that occurred. These concepts are used by geoscientists to develop a narrative for an area.

This activity gives students practice using their observational skills to develop a timeline for a piece of art in a college museum. It is particularly geared towards students who are taking GE-101 to fulfill a college distributive requirement and who may be intimidated by a college level science course.

Students are split into small groups and given a worksheet that asks them to consider a single artwork carefully and develop a timeline for the lifespan of the piece from initial concept through the current display of the piece. Students were limited in their choice of artwork that could be used for the activity. (The pieces were chosen ahead of time, criteria included having obvious multiple steps in the creative process, relatively simple/identifiable art techniques or processes, some uncertainty as to the order of processes and/or gaps in time.)

As a wrap up, the entire group gathered in front of each piece and the groups reported out on their timeline and rationale for the sequence they chose.

Determining whether students have met the goals

There was no quantitative assessment for this activity. Groups were assessed during their reporting out on the following: observational skills and attention to detail, sequencing of events that was supported by their observations, consideration of confusing/conflicting processes and ideas of how to address the uncertainty, understanding of where there are gaps in the timeline.

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