Introduction to the methods of geoscience

Anne Egger, Central Washington University
Geological Sciences and Science Education
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Initial Publication Date: October 20, 2012 | Reviewed: July 6, 2017


Secondary science education students read an article that describes methods of inquiry in Earth science and answer questions in preparation for developing lesson plans in Earth science. The article explicitly describes how the methods used in Earth science differ from those classically taught in school science, and provides a new framework for secondary science teachers to put in place in their teaching.

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Learning Goals

The goals of this activity are to:
  • explicitly introduce students to the methods of inquiry used in the Earth sciences;
  • give students the opportunity to reflect on how those methods differ from what they know or have learned in the past;
  • build a framework for teaching Earth science concepts that they can use in developing their own lesson plans.

Methods of Geoscience

The reading explicitly describes the methods of geoscience.

Context for Use

This reading and activity was designed for a course for pre-service secondary science teachers from all disciplines. It is a foundational reading and homework assignment, best placed at the beginning of the course, that only requires access to the NSTA journal The Science Teacher.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students are assigned the reading Multiple Modes of Inquiry in Earth Science from The Science Teacher, NSTA's publication for high school science teachers, by Kim Kastens and Ann Rivet. They read this outside of class and answer questions online prior to the following class. These questions are used as the basis for a discussion in class.

I used the following questions and had students submit their answers through Blackboard:

  • The authors contrast what geoscientists do with the classic "scientific method" as it is taught in schools. What is the difference between those two things?
  • List the Earth science methods that the authors describe, and give a brief example for each method (a different one than is given in the article).
  • Pick one of the methods that geoscientists use and describe how you might use that method to teach a geoscience lesson in a high school classroom.
  • How can you modify that classic scientific method to be more inclusive of what all scientists do, including geoscientists?

I read through their answers prior to class in order to start a discussion. The students in this class are all secondary science education majors, but they may have specialties in chemistry, biology, physics, or math, in addition to Earth science. In class, we have a discussion about the commonalities and differences between the different disciplines, and how you can draw attention to that in the classroom.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Kastens and Rivet highlight six methods used by geoscientists:

  1. Running classic laboratory experiments,
  2. Developing and experimenting with physical models,
  3. Developing and experimenting with computer models,
  4. Observing change over time,
  5. Observing variation across space, and
  6. Using modern analogs as proxies for past processes.
I found that students had the most trouble with the idea of a modern analog, mostly because they conflated the words "analog" and "analogy". When I asked them to describe a modern analog for a past process, they all gave me great analogies instead. So we focused on defining analog.

The students found our discussion quite eye-opening. They had always felt that Earth science was slightly different from chemistry, for example, but couldn't quite articulate why or how. After reading this article, answering the questions, and discussing in class, they were much more likely to talk about "what geoscientists do" than they were before. It provided a great foundation for the rest of the course.


I graded the questions they answered prior to class, but the main assessment came later in the course in three places:

  1. The students are assigned a practicum, in which they teach a field-based lesson to local high school students. Part of the requirement of the lesson was to include am emphasis on the methods of investigation used by geoscientists, so this was part of the grade for the practicum;
  2. In a take-home exam, students were asked to provide an example of a modern analog for a past process, and how they would incorporate that into their teaching;
  3. The final project for the course was to design a data-rich lesson plan, a component of which also had to include the methods of geoscience.

References and Resources

Kastens, Kim A., and Rivet, A., 2008, Multiple Modes of Inquiry in Earth Science : The Science Teacher, v. 75, no. 1, p. 26-31.