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Rachel Teasdale: Teaching Living on the Edge in Geological Hazards at California State University, Chico

About this course

This course fulfills an upper division general education science requirement for students who are not geology majors.

50
students
Three 50-minute lecture
sessions per week
No lab

Comprehensive university

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 607kB Mar5 14)

This course satisfies an upper division general education science requirement for students who are not geology majors. In addition to the instructor's science content goals, the university has determined that the non-content goals of the course include skills in oral and written communication, critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and active inquiry.

Course Goals:

"Geological Hazards" is an Upper Division - Natural Sciences general education course. It is included in several pathways at the university: "Diversity Pathway," "Ethics, Justice, and Policy Studies," and "International Studies." This course specifically addresses the following student learning objectives:

  1. Oral Communication: Demonstrates effective listening and speaking skills necessary to organize information and deliver it effectively to the intended audience.
  2. Written Communication: Demonstrates the ability to question, investigate and draw well-reasoned conclusions and to formulate ideas through effective written communication appropriate to the intended audience.
  3. Critical Thinking: Identifies issues and problems raised in written texts, visual media and other forms of discourse, and assesses the relevance, adequacy and credibility of arguments and evidence used in reaching conclusions.
  4. Mathematical Reasoning: Demonstrates knowledge of and applies mathematical or statistical methods to describe, analyze and solve problems in context.
  5. Active Inquiry: Demonstrates knowledge of and applies research techniques and information technology appropriate to the intellectual and disciplinary context.

Course Content

The purpose of this course is to provide students the opportunity to learn the science behind geologic hazards and gain an appreciation of how these events shape both our lives and the development of societies. The course will focus on, but will not be limited to, the science behind geologic hazards, a discussion of how much of a disaster is a natural phenomenon and how much a tragedy is imposed by the designs of populations. Along the way, we will develop the methodology of science and build on our writing and quantitative skills.

A Success Story in Building Student Engagement

I piloted the module in a course taught by another faculty member while I was on sabbatical during the pilot time period. The module was taught among other topics of geologic disasters such as floods, storms, volcanoes and earthquakes. The module was piloted in weeks five and six of the 15-week semester, just after the instructor had completed introductory/background information on plate tectonics, Earth's interior and energy systems.

With a slightly larger class (50 students), I needed to be super-organized with group activities and especially the jigsaw activities of Units 5 and 6. The effort of incorporating group activities into my classes has always been worthwhile—they engage students to work together, think, plan, and interpret information, which really brings their learning to a higher level. The Living on the Edge module makes concepts of hazards and risks of plate boundary activity personal. Students were not only excited to be using real data, they found that considering the societal impacts of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions (both in far-off places or closer to home) to make the activities personal and relevant. This relevance led to students taking more care with the activities; they really wanted their results to be high quality so that their mock-school would be awarded funding for earthquake safety retrofitting, and they took it personally when they saw the damage to the town they had been working on.

My Experience Teaching with InTeGrate Materials

My observations during the Living on the Edge pilot included students becoming invested in the activities (will "their" location survive the eruption?!), taking personal views on the probabilities of earthquake occurrences in Los Angeles and San Francisco (many of my students' hometowns are near one of those cities or the other), and struggling with not having enough data. What a concept—non-science students who complain about not having enough data!

Relationship of InTeGrate Materials to my Course

I used the Living on the Edge module in the first third of the 15-week semester, following background information to get students ready to understand basic ideas of earth deformation. Laurel Goodell's Plate Tectonics primer (http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/google_earth/examples/49004.html) was used the week before Living on the Edge and worked well to introduce ideas of plate tectonics used in the module. Hazards and risks were referred to repeatedly throughout the rest of the semester as other geologic hazards were explored, and the probabilities of other hazards (floods, hurricanes) were better understood because of material covered in Unit 1.

Unit 1

  • I walked the students through the probability calculation, but I think it will work better to have students work together in groups so they can move through the calculations at their own pace. Timing is of great importance so that students have enough time to complete the probability calculation and enough time to discuss the questions at the end of the class (also used as informal assessment). One thing I did was to go through the San Francisco calculation together and had the Los Angeles solution completed; I walked them through those results so that we had the information to compare the two sites for discussion, but we did not get too bogged down in the calculations. Timing might be more of an issue for larger classes than for smaller ones.

Unit 2

  • Students very much enjoyed working with the maps of the schools they were assigned, determining the vulnerability calculations and comparing theirs with those of other groups/schools. Students take a vested interest in their school getting the funding and were so engaged that they were disappointed to learn that some other schools had worse situations than theirs! I recommend that instructors have packets of maps for each group ready at the beginning of class, especially with large classes where handing things out to groups can take some time (my class had 50 students). An extra person in the room would be ideal, but asking students to help works well, too. Be sure to save time at the end of class to get to discussions, which means being very efficient at the beginning of class. Students really need the recommended amount of time to do the calculations before discussions can happen.

Unit 3

  • Students liked using real-world data for the African and Icelandic examples, I would recommend minimizing time spent on recapping the prework and move quickly into the activity that asks students to examine and discuss the earthquake and eruption data available to them. Efficient use of time at the beginning (e.g. minimizing prework discussion) will help instructors (me!) get to the discussions at the end of the unit. Next time, I will emphasize to them that scientists do not always get the complete suite of data that they would like to have—sometimes because the data was not collected, instruments were damaged, or because data collection is expensive, so not all forms are available.

Unit 4

  • I had to really streamline the discussions at the beginning of Unit 4 for my 50-minute class period. The prework is a great introduction to monitoring, and discussion of inflation/deflation can be done relatively quickly so students have time to make their predictions and compare those to the actual real-time GPS data series provided in the activity. Giving students latitude to work through their predictions and then to move on to the actual data and discussion questions is empowering to them, and for the most part, students rose to the challenge; only a few got bogged down in not understanding the data. For the most part, students in groups were able to help each other when some were confused (possibly because they skipped the prework!), which is great, too. Consideration of the GPS and seismic data is a great use of data (and use of multiple data sets) and can be done even before all the GPS questions (e.g. before #6 and # 7 if some groups are ready before others).

Unit 5

  • Students were challenged (happily so) to understand the data in this unit and were definitely engaged in trying to determine an appropriate eruption forecast. By now (in the module) students understand that they may not have enough data, and I heard several saying they wished they had more data of another type (e.g. the tilt group wanted earthquake data, and the gas group wanted tilt data, and several groups mentioned GPS data). My standard response was that scientists in the field often say the same thing—they want to see all the information even though some of it is not available. In big classes, it is important to make sure that students can all get started so some introduction to the data types is useful. Students are pretty used to earthquake data by now, but the groups looking at gas and ash data were not as familiar, so a quick sentence or two of instructions will help.
  • Another factor (especially for large classes) is to be super-organized at the beginning (and before) starting the Unit 5 and Unit 6 combo so that students know they will need to remember the type of data to work on for the prework to Unit 6 as well as their assigned location for the Unit 6 prework. I divvied up the groups for Unit 6 and wrote their location and group numbers for Unit 6 on the worksheets we used in Unit 5. They took their Unit 5 worksheets home with them and knew what to work on for prework. Then, they brought those worksheets back with them for the day of Unit 6, and knew they needed to sit with their new, mixed group that day.

Unit 6

  • Students really enjoyed the emerging scenario of the eruption. I added instructions to the class PowerPoint (Eruption Scenario) so students could see what they were supposed to be doing (sharing data with their new groups and developing their third eruption forecast) in addition to having articulated those instructions verbally. By the middle of class when I announced that the eruption had occurred, they eagerly awaited the appearance of their town in the slideshow. Students reacted with groans and laughter or "YES!" when they learned of the damage (or survival) of their location. It became personal, and more meaningful.
  • Logistics for Unit 6 took a bit more time than for Unit 5 when students were working in groups they were very familiar with (from having worked together previously). A few students were clearly caught off-guard to have to work with different people. A short introduction of this idea might help them feel more comfortable working with brand-new people.
  • Organization is key again for Unit 6, but good preparation before Unit 5 helps a lot. One issue I still struggle with is how to deal with the students who miss the first day of the activity (Unit 5) and need to get caught up on the day we do Unit 6, and the students who came for Unit 5 but not the next day for Unit 6, leaving gaps in the groups. One idea is to assign students who miss class a data type according to their last name so they can do the prework (e.g. a note on the class management website, Blackboard, etc.), that says if your last name starts with A-I, do the work for Tilt, last names J-P do the work with Earthquake data, and last names starting with R-Z do the work with Gas/Ash data. Then those students can be plugged into groups that are missing those data types. If there are extra people who missed the first day, they can work together or can be doubled up with someone who learned the same data type in Unit 5). More for me to test!

Assessments

I embedded the unit assessments in the class PowerPoint files so that I could either a) have students work on the questions in their small groups (if there was enough time or if some groups finished main activities faster than others); or b) use the questions for slightly faster-paced questioning from me to the students to get shout out responses, which I needed to do in Units 1 and 2 when I did not save enough class time to allow for small group discussions plus an all-class debrief. Summative assessment questions were given on the midterm (a week after completing the Living on the Edge module) and a variation of the question on the final exam. In both cases, the questions were an earlier version than is included in the module now and did not work as well as the current summative assessments, but I am looking forward to using the newer summative assessments as they have worked much better for other instructors (Selkin).

Outcomes

I wanted to participate in the InTeGrate project because I am a firm believer in active learning and in helping students in all science classes—but especially in introductory courses—better understand the context and significance of scientific research and activities. I realize that the majority of my intro students are taking the class to fulfill the science requirement for the GE coursework, which I also realize translates to the class becoming their "terminal" science class (rather than the somewhat misnamed "introductory science" label!). So, given that this is a significant opportunity to influence their understanding and approach to science, I want them to find relevance. My observations during the Living on the Edge pilot included students becoming invested in the activity (will "their" location survive the eruption?!), taking personal views on the probabilities of earthquake occurrences in Los Angeles and San Francisco (many of my students' hometowns are near one of those cities or the other), and struggling with not having enough data. What a concept—non-science students who complaining about not having enough data! The Living on the Edge module certainly fulfilled and exceeded my expectations and I am running it again this fall (2014) in two classes, one with 80 students (an intro geology class for science/engineering majors) and in an intro class for non-science majors with 140 students! I am sure they will enjoy it as much as I do and will learn a lot about the practice of science, use of data, and the relevance of science to their lives and those of communities living on the edge of plate boundaries!

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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 »