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Martha Conklin: Critical Zone Science at University of California-Merced


About this Course

An upper level course for Earth System Science majors and non-majors
18
students
2 times a week, 75 minutes

Syllabus for Critical Zone Science (Acrobat (PDF) 275kB May15 17)

The Critical Zone (CZ) is defined as the Earth's outer layer from vegetation canopy to the soil and groundwater that sustains human life. Teaches the importance and overall functioning of the CZ, and the temporal and spatial scales at which the CZ may be studied.
This course targets undergraduate science and engineering majors interested in learning about the more about Critical Zone, defined as the Earth's outer layer from vegetation canopy to the soil and groundwater that sustains human life. Multiple processes (climate, biology, geology, topography, disturbances) work together to form and evolve the CZ. The introductory portion of this course will provide participants with the framework and tools for considering Critical Zone (CZ) science. The CZ will be introduced by stressing the importance and overall functioning of the CZ, and the temporal and spatial scales at which the CZ may be studied. This part of the course will focus on outstanding questions in CZ science, how to obtain and use baseline data from various federal agencies to help understand the CZ, and an introduction to the basic concepts of system modeling.

The body of the course will focus on cross-disciplinary science in the CZ and will focus on the large quantity of interdisciplinary data available from the existing NSF-funded CZOs. The material will be organized topically in the following categories: CZ Methods; Land-Atmosphere exchange; Water transfer through the CZ, Landform and landscape evolution; and, Geochemistry/biogeochemistry.

The final portion of the course will focus on how interdisciplinary and collective CZ science is accomplished, with consideration of the state and management of the CZ. The course content will be focused on reading, field-trips, and learning activities that access CZO data.
The broad overarching goals of this course are to:

  • Examine the Earth's critical zone, extending from tree top to the groundwater zone, to better understand the relative role and importance of land-based biogeochemical interactions.
  • Use a large variety of scientific and mathematical principles to analyze how Earth's land surface works (to develop the ability to solve interdisciplinary problems).
  • Analyze technological advances, breakthroughs in interpretation, and new observations to build an understanding of the critical zone in and beyond the class (to develop geoscientific habits of mind).
  • Apply data sets and observations from six existing CZO sites to test ideas and summarize critical zone services (to use geoscience data as a method of inquiry).
  • Describe the critical zone as a complex system of interacting regolith, water, air, and life (to illustrate broad principals of systems thinking).

Course Goals: At the end of the course the students will be able to:

  • Integrate multiple lines of data to explain critical zone processes
  • Summarize the effects of anthropogenic activities on local and global critical zone processes
  • Explain the role of critical zone services on supporting terrestrial life, including humanity
  • Analyze how the water, carbon, nutrient and energy flow through the critical zone and how they drives critical zone processes
  • Interpret the role of critical zone processes in the evolution of landscapes and landforms through time
  • Evaluate how critical zone structure influences modern critical zone processes/services
  • Participate in integrative critical zone science activities and research

Turning students on to the "critical zone"

My course was a full semester, upper level multidisciplinary course that met twice a week for 75 minutes. This course was taught with short lectures, online readings and group activities both in and out of class. It culminated with a research paper and a 10-min presentation of the research paper. The class is now permanently on the schedule as an upper division course in the Earth System Science major. We have prerequisites to insure the students the necessary quantitative skills and scientific background.

The students were engaged throughout the class. The class was open to all majors – so I had students with a variety of backgrounds (Biology, Earth System Science, Environmental Engineering and Political Science). I was excited about the level of participation. The in-class exercises helped students to become comfortable with the material. We had an optional fieldtrip to the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory and the trip was right after we had dug a number of soil pits at the observatory – so the students could see the in situ soil heterogeneity. This class helps students synthesize the interconnection of critical zone processes (from soil forming to the role vegetation plays in the water balance) and the role these processes play in their lives.

California was in the midst of a four-year drought, I tried to link the material to the role the critical zone in mountains plays in storing and releasing water. This course made the students think of the critical zone processes involved in providing their tap water.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

I used the course material as provided by the website. I found the material provided depth and breadth with learning goals clearly stated. The variety of pedagogical approaches allowed me to experiment with how I delivered the content.

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

My course was a semester long. Per my syllabus, I followed the outline provided on the website. The course is cumulative, so I made sure that lectures and exercises built on previous material. I usually modified the lectures given so they reflected my pedagogical style.



In the first class, I gave the outline of what the class would cover, stressing the role of in-class activities as well as homework, and reviewed the final paper and its schedule. I had the students form groups of 4-5 students and we kept these groups all semester.

What I found was very helpful was to provide a road map of what we were going to do for each module as we started it. I called them "action plans." These covered the reading materials (and links to them), the in-class activities, and homework. I carefully spelled out group vs individual activities. My background is hydrology, so I ended up biasing many of the modules with a hydrology focus. The beauty of this course is that the instructor can pick a thread of his/her interest and weave it throughout the course. This provides a continuity as students see the interconnections between processes and compartments.

An example action plan for Unit 1.1:

  • Reading Groups - Each group will pre-read and report on one of the 4 major overview articles. Upload your presentations (before class) to xxxx called "CZO Background Reports". Remember: focus on the Big Picture -
    • What do CZO's do?
    • Why is this important? What are the common objectives?
    • Put in the context of the four driving questions:
  1. How do variations in and perturbations to chemical and physical weathering processes impact the CZ?
  2. How do biogeochemical processes govern long-term sustainability of water and soil resources?
  3. How do processes that nourish ecosystems change over human and geologic time scales?
  4. What processes control fluxes of carbon, particulates, and reactive gases over different time scales?
  • Class activities:
    • Class reports: Reading Groups report on reading assignments
    • Lecture: CZO Overview
    • Review Course website
    • Introduce semester Project
  • Next time: In-class Web browsing (requires computers/internet)
    • While instructor meets with students to discuss semester project ideas, students will explore the 5 web sites listed

For the first week of the soils module I had the students do pre-class reading and browsing. I did a brief lecture on soil forming factors and we watched some of the videos. We did a think-pair-share class discussion on: What aspects of the Critical Zone other than soil are impacted by soil erosion and other threats to soils, and are those impacts beneficial or deleterious? Each pair reported out. I was impressed with the insights the students provided. The next week the students explored soil maps, picking their own site for an indepth exploration. We explored the Web Soil Survey together (the site has powerpoint slides explaining how to use, I used a subset of those). The students prepared individual soils report (working on it in class and completing it for homework). Soils action plan was:

First week:

  • Review what worked in presentation
  • Lecture (summary of Brady and Weill reading)
  • In-class video
  • Class discussion. Think-pair-format

Second week:

  • Class discussion. Think-pair-format on 12 Orders Report:
    • Do you observe any generalized pattern to the distribution of any of the soil orders?
    • If so, can you attribute the distribution to any understanding you may have of the state factors of soil formation?
    • Can you draw any conclusions regarding the relative importance of any of the state factors of soil formation from your observations?
  • Review NRCS WebSoilSurvey
  • In-class activity

For the Methods module, I invited the University Librarian in to review how to use library resources, to download articles and to make an annotated bibliography. I met with the students individually to discuss their paper topics. The students prepared an annotated bibliography for homework, many of them used the same papers for their final paper. The class did their first group assignment (data analysis) and presentation. We spent some time discussing useful/readable graphs. The action plan for the two weeks was:

First week:
  • Discuss pre-class reading
  • Lecture
  • Prepare data analysis ppt & share
Second week:
  • Unit 2.1.2 spreadsheet skills
  • Unit 2.1.1 research skills including developing an annotated bibliography – the university librarian will show you how track down references, download articles, find reports....

For the Land-atmosphere exchange module, I ended up giving two formal lectures on the material as it was new to most of the students. I also made sure the students became visually familiar with the sites for which they were using data. Action plan:

First week:

  • Unit 3.1, Lecture on Water & Energy: Fluxes & Budgets. Do pre-reading:
  • Rasmussen, et.al, 2011, An open system framework for integrating critical zone structure and function, Biogeochem, 102:15-29. DOI 10.1007/s10533-010-9476-8 (link may require Springer on-line subscription)
  • In-class activity to explore the CZO Met/Flux database and examine metadata that will be crucial to understanding the data record.

Second week:

  • Lecture on carbon cycle
  • Discovery activity -- Examining annual carbon flux graphs (group activity)

For Water Transfer module, I used the lectures and activities provided. All activities were started in class. My action plan was:

First week:

  • Cover montane water balances & in class activity Unit 4.1.1: water balance on a tree & review energy balances
  • Look at water balance for a basin and start homework estimating how much runoff will make it to a creek

Second week:

  • Learn to interpolate point measurement to area measurements.
  • Start water basin activity in class and it will evolve to a homework.

When I taught this course, Landform and Landscape Evolution was after Water Transfers. We spent time with structured discussions in class with preassigned question for class discussions -- that went well. I had student groups present on different landforms and processes. Probably my coverage for remote sensing was the weakest part of the whole course for me. I ended up giving a lecture with videos. My action plan was:

First week:

  • Lecture on landform and landscape evolution
  • Pre-reading Anderson et al. with focus questions for an in-class discussion:
    • Do you think all soil parent materials were subject to erosion and deposition?
    • Are some soils the result of weathering of bedrock in place, that is not subjected to erosion and deposition?
    • If so, how do soils developed directly from bedrock differ from soils developed on unconsolidated material, if at all?
  • In class exercise/homework on bedrock maps

Second week:

  • In-class group presentations & discussion using case studies provided for bedrock and surficial geology maps (emphasizing):
    • Soil catena
    • Role of topography
    • Characteristic landforms
  • Review websites (e.g. National Geologic Map)
  • Introduction to Remote Sensing and Aerial Photography (Lecture)

Geochemistry and Biogeochemistry is a very integrative module that builds on previous concepts. I followed most of the activities provided. The use concept maps was very effective.

First week:

  • Lecture/website on P & N; provide some data and questions to discuss.
  • Students use observations, models and data analyses to identify and analyze the anthropogenic influences on the Critical Zone.
  • Discuss the question: are there solutions to P pollution? (using a TED talk and a paper refuting the talk).

Second week:

  • Lecture/discuss N and P control (include best management practices). Do a group assignment creating a concept map about mitigating eutrophication by nutrient control. Share with class.
  • Spend a class discussing whether soil is in peril (think-pair-share activity)
I used Humans in the Critical module to test my students knowledge about dead zones in the ocean and the condition of soils. We used Model my Watershed to focus on trade-offs between landscape surface types and infiltration. Action plan (1 week):
  • Explore ways to reduce human perturbations on the critical zone while maintaining or improving economic, political and social conditions using the Model My Watershed application using the provided worksheets.

Assessments

I made sure that I had a number of assessment tools, so students would receive individual credit and credit for group activities. I ended up with about 40 graded assignments, including their research paper. To be successful, students had to complete all components of the course. Students were given rubrics for most assignments, so they knew how they would be graded. The research paper was in lieu of a final exam.

I like the approach of multiple assignments (varying from extremely short to longer) and the product ranging from a presentation to a spreadsheet to a formal paper. The students began to synthesize ideas and that was fun to watch. The oral presentations of the research projects were generally complete and polished.

Outcomes

My goals was to teach students to critically think about the critical zone. I found the students were receptive to this type of learning and many of them brought to the table the skills they had learned in other courses.

I do think we hit many of the course learning goals (e.g. Integrate multiple lines of data to explain critical zone processes; Summarize the effects of anthropogenic activities on local and global critical zone processes). We did not achieve the final goal and I will restate it when I teach this course again -- the students did not participate in critical zone science integrative research. They did learn to think critically about critical zone processes -- which was my overall goal.

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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 »