Teaching time: A cultural approach to an old topic

Phil Stokes, Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona

On the subject of mortality, poet Robert Hunter penned:

But it's just a box of rain1
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long, long time to be gone
and a short time to be there.

In a sense, Hunter was describing the human lifespan relative to the age of the Earth. The verse captures the essence of a scientific concept in non-scientific terms. Frustratingly, those who aren't scientists- or poets- struggle to assimilate scientific knowledge regarding geological time. I speculate that the media is most culpable for confusing the public by offering inaccurate portrayals of science facts. Additionally, I believe that teaching time through traditional methods is not effective at reaching diverse audiences in the classroom.

Teaching the concept of geological time is one of the most difficult educational tasks that I've encountered. Some common misconceptions include humans and dinosaurs living together and uncertainty of the age of the Earth. I believe that most of these misconceptions are unintended. Certainly, religious beliefs play a role, but there are other factors which do a more thorough job of confusing the non-science community. For instance, in the popular TV series Terra Nova, humans are sent back in time to live with dinosaurs. Though the show announces that it is set in the Cretaceous, there is no context for the viewer to understand the tremendous span of time between the past and the present. Other inaccurate depictions of science in the media reinforce these misconceptions. The challenge, as I recognize it, is to help learners to separate science fiction from science fact.

One additional piece to solving the time jigsaw is cultural in nature. Traditionally, earth science courses, both in high school and in college, were not designed to appeal to traditionally underrepresented students. Semken (2005) and colleagues provide an ideal model for teaching earth science to undergraduates. Unfortunately, too few schools and universities have implemented similar types of place-based education in earth science. My teaching strives to invoke a sense of place in audiences. The lessons and activities center on themes which have relevance to most members of the audience. The questions that I try to answer, even before addressing specific content, include:

  1. Is this topic relevant to my audience?

    • Specifically, "Where did the audience grow up? How long has the audience lived in the current area? Has the audience already formed a connection with the topic?"

  2. Is this topic important to my audience?

    • Specifically, I ask "How can I get the audience to think about this topic with respect to their daily lives? Families? Careers? Other identities?"

Designing teaching materials to address these questions is different from traditional approaches but I believe that the payoff is worth the effort. Students will be more engaged with the material and will find new value to what they have learned. And, hopefully, they will be able to point out scientific discrepancies in the next blockbuster.


Semken, S., 2005. Sense of place and place-based introductory geoscience teaching for American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduates. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53 (2), p. 149-157.


(1) From the song, Box of Rain. The term 'box of rain', for which Hunter takes some artistic liberty, is a metaphor for the enclosed nature of our world.

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