Geology in Family Photos

Wayne Powell
Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Author Profile

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This course-bracketing activity was inspired by an idea presented by Matthew d'Alessio at the Cutting Edge Urban Students and Urban Issues workshop. By presenting their perceptions of geology expressed within a family photograph of their choice, students draw connections between earth science and family life. Instructors can learn about student backgrounds, interests, and preconceptions, and use those insights to plan the remainder of the term accordingly.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This classroom activity is designed for an introductory non-majors earth science course with culturally diverse urban students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

No prerequisite skills or knowledge are required.

How the activity is situated in the course

The photo activity is assigned on the first day of class. Initial photo presentations and discussion occur in the second week of class. The second round of photo presentations occurs on the last day of class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

No specific content goals are addressed.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to evaluate identify aspects of earth and environmental science in day-to-day and family context.
  • Students will reflect on their learning process in the course.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will prepare concise and clear oral presentation.
  • Students will import graphics into an electronic format compatible with PowerPoint.

Description of the activity/assignment

This assignment aims to increase urban student awareness of the many aspects of the earth and environmental sciences that surround day-to-day experiences in their lives, and connect their introductory geology class directly with family events/history. At the end of the first week of class, each student brings a family photo in which they can identify some aspect of earth science, and electronically scans the image. Outdoor photos should be encouraged because these can show the greatest diversity of geological features (e.g., landforms, climate, weather, soils, erosion). However, indoor photos, and even portraits, may allow for a deeper exploration of our reliance on natural resources by examining such things as jewelry, decorative items (e.g., paintings, sculptures, ceramics), and household goods (e.g, china, silverware, glassware) that are within the photograph.

By the beginning of the second week, each student submits the image file, along with a paragraph that describes the geological context, along with the date, location and historical/social context of the photo. (This is most easily done through an online course management system such as BlackBoard.) In class, the instructor leads with a personal family photo and describes its geological and personal context, in order to set the tone. Then each student projects their photo, and describes their photo and its geological context in a 2 to 3 minute oral presentation. If the class is large, then students can present within groups with print outs of the photos. Each presentation is followed by discussion and commentary. The instructor notes interesting details and connections that are inspired by the student's observations and interests for incorporation into later class lectures or activities.

Students are required to repeat the experience with a second photo on the last day of class. In one or two paragraphs, students reflect on how their perception and understanding of earth science has changed by the end of the course. A grade is assigned for this reflection.

Determining whether students have met the goals

This assignment is graded in a portfolio fashion. Students are assigned a grade of "Satisfactory" or "Unsatisfactory" on each of the photograph descriptions. Unsatisfactory descriptions need to be revised and resubmitted until they are acceptable. A grade is assigned for the final reflection of their progress in the course: what aspects of earth science do they see now in day-to-day life, and how has their understanding of geological processes and materials changed over the term.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials