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Callan Bentley: Using Carbon, Climate, and Energy Resources at Northern Virginia Community College

About This Course

A traditional introductory-level physical geology course.

52
students

Two 75-minute lecture
sessions and
one 165-minute lab
session per week
large suburban multi-campus
two-year-college

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 553kB Nov30 15)

This is a traditional introductory-level physical geology course. The course investigates the nature of Earth materials and features, the processes by which these materials and features form, and their exchanges of matter and energy. It also explores the techniques and thought processes by which we understand Earth and its processes, and the implications for Earth history.

Course Goals and Content

The course is intended to provide an introductory-level understanding of Earth processes and products. Infused throughout with the theory of plate tectonics, it covers minerals, rocks, geologic hazards, geomorphology in the context of process (fluvial, groundwater, glacial, aeolian), structural geology, and climate change. It counts as a science laboratory course for the college's associate's degrees, and transfers to partner universities as a 4-credit lab science.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

I piloted the module over two weeks in an introductory physical geology course . Most of the students were enrolled in the course to satisfy their liberal arts core curriculum requirement, though there were a few geology "majors" in the group as well. The entire module was adapted to the course setting, with one unit per class meeting over the two weeks (Units 2 and 5 were taught during the slightly longer lab periods; the other units were taught during lecture).

The activities in the Carbon, Climate, and Energy module had students in my introductory-level physical geology class up and out of their seats, looking at and discussing the same data that scientists use to understand climate variability over geologic time and modern perturbations to the carbon cycle.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

I piloted the module at the end of the semester, in the two weeks before summer break. This is traditionally the point in the semester when I would be discussing climate change anyhow, but the two solid weeks of carbon-focused lessons was new. The students were a relatively typical group for this course at NOVA — a diverse group with differing abilities and motivations.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to My Course

This course was a single 16-week semester in length, so the 2 weeks of InTeGrate module materials represented an eighth of the course. As the syllabus shows (link above), every other topic in the course preceded the InTeGrate carbon module. Because the module is specifically focused on grounding an understanding of anthropogenic climate change in the context of physical and historical geology, I think it fit very well, drawing on concepts such as weathering, deposition, and subduction, as well as materials such as limestone and bituminous coal.

Unit 1

  • We had a lot of fun with this one. Everyone has experienced logically incoherent arguments, and so there were some hilarious moments as students recounted them. There was a moment of awkwardness where a student gave "religion" as his example of the "argument from authority" logical fallacy, and I was forced to publicly acknowledge he was correct in his identification, which may have bothered some of the other students who have strong religious feelings. I suppose that anytime a discussion elicits open feedback from students, there is the potential to open a can of worms like that, but the flip side of the issue was that certainly he boldly gave a clear and familiar example of that particular logical fallacy, and everyone heard it loud and clear. Doubtless, it helped facilitated learning for some. There were multiple activities in the unit, and it felt rushed at the end, so in revisions, we fixed that in the version that is published as Unit 1 now.

Unit 2

  • This was one of the two units that I authored, and as such, I had an intuitive sense of how it was intended to flow. This is the crux of the module: communicating a sense of the multiple processes that move carbon between reservoirs in the Earth system is critical perspective for thinking clearly about climate change. The unit went smoothly: students were especially engaged with the game and the circle-drawing exercises. Time went by quickly, eyebrows were raised in surprise at some of the things that were learned, and we finished on time. It was very satisfying to see it come off so well.

Unit 3

  • This was another of the units I authored, but I somehow deluded myself into thinking it would be realistic to get through the entire process in one class period. I modified the activity by preparing and printing the graphs in advance, and distributing them to small student groups (as opposed to having the students plot their own data). This worked, but I think the ideal circumstance would be to give the students more time to think deeply about the data. Manipulating it as a homework assignment would be one way to do that.

Unit 4

  • During the pilot we found that students were not very engaged with our original content, so the new presentations you will find published in the module are much more interactive and focused on key concepts. Students come away with an understanding that coal, oil, and natural gas are not eternal entities, nor magically generated by fossil fuel fairies waving magic wands. Instead, they are physical products that result from palpable processes at operation over long spans of time. No matter which fossil fuel you follow, the source of their trapped energy is photosynthesis by ancient organisms. This is fundamental to understanding what makes cars go, or where our electrical power comes from.

Unit 5

  • The human-facilitated transfer of carbon from geologic reservoirs into the atmosphere and oceans is one of the most profound aspects of the modern Earth system. This unit examines the historic accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere by setting Mauna Loa's record in the context of seasonal variation each year and "ice ages" over the past million years. The lesson concludes with a motivating question for Unit 6: Now what?

Unit 6

  • This was an enjoyable way to cap off the module. A problem I have encountered over the past decade when teaching about global warming is that I am primarily focused on the science denoting the problem, and I am less engaged with the details of policy that may (or may not) follow from science's insights. As a result, I fear that I have left a great many students with the question of "So what do we do now?" unanswered. So having this unit was really helpful as a means of compensating for my own tendencies to focus on verifiable data and the Earth system. It is a multidisciplinary approach to the pros and cons of various policy actions, and a great opportunity for students to apply the lessons of Unit 1 in the context of the information gleaned from the other four units.

Assessments

I used all the assessments as presented in the module, and I found them to be useful indications of how much learning had taken place. The assessment questions were effective at helping me determine how well students had processed the new materials and ideas from this module.

I modified the Unit 3 quiz (by dropping the Snowball Earth questions) so that it reflected the class's modified version of the lesson. I also screened out some of the questions from the Unit 4 quiz so that it matched the others in length, and could be reasonably assigned in the short time available.

Outcomes

My vision for this module was to give my students the ability to ground any discussion of modern climate change in a sound geologic context. It is not clear to me what the right choices for our society are at this point, considering the tremendous benefits we have reaped from our utilization of fossil fuels, but also our liberation of naturally-sequestered carbon represents at some level a clear and present danger to a large portion of human civilization and the modern Earth ecosystem. So much of the public discussion that I have heard is ignorant of the basics of the natural cycling of carbon through the Earth system, and therefore cannot properly consider policy options for the future. Therefore, the goals for the module were to discuss (a) what is happening now, and (b) what we do about it, only after students have practiced identifying logical fallacies and learned how fossil fuel formation is a natural process that is a key part of the carbon cycle, and how climate has varied naturally in the geological past.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »