Project-based Instruction in Structural Geology

Meredith Bush, The University of Texas at Austin / Deep Springs College

Project-based instruction provides students with the opportunity to make sense of the world – in this case, the record of deformation preserved in rocks - by actively building knowledge as they interact with and observe the world. Within this paradigm, instructors serve as facilitators and consultants to students as they direct themselves through the content.
This constructivist instructional approach has been implemented in many K-12 classrooms, but undergraduate courses often involve a more superficial or traditional form of "project". In a geology class that incorporates not just sustained, field-based projects, but the five-step framework for PBL, students become active participants as scientists rather than passive recipients of knowledge. The framework for project-based instruction can vary between authors, but as presented by Krajcik generally involves five critical components:
(1) A driving question or problem to be solved
(2) Authentic, sustained and situated inquiry
(3) Collaboration to develop, refine, and critique ideas
(4) Use of technology to gather, analyze, and communicate information
(5) Creation and public presentation of a final artifact
By addressing core learning objectives through projects in the undergraduate structural geology curriculum, students gain the knowledge and skills through project work, rather than just applying skills learned during stand-alone lectures or labs.
A project-based instructional approach for an upper-division undergraduate structural geology course is presented, including the course and project structure, learning outcomes (skills and competencies addressed), potential limitations, and application to other courses.
This approach was implemented in the GY315 Structural Geology course at Colorado College during the 2016-2017 academic year, with the course divided into two projects. The first project focused on brittle deformation through field and GIS-based investigation of faults and fractures in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The second project focused on reconstructing a multi-stage deformation history and identification of fabrics, including a week of data collection in the Picuris Mountains of New Mexico.
Each project involved student developed proposals, data collection and analysis, and presentations, addressing the five components of project-based instruction through each project. Among the benefits that students derive from this style of course are a deep understanding of the content, experience with critical thinking, the ability to collaborate with others, the ability to communicate clearly, and ongoing reflection/metacognition. Many of these skills are not currently privileged in the undergraduate classroom, where traditional summative assessment techniques such as homework, labs, and exams are prevalent. Reimagining the long-established norms of structural geology instruction within the project-based instruction framework will better prepare our students with the content and skills for their lives outside of the classroom.


Teaching Structural Geology and Tectonics