Earth Systems Science

Kim Hannula, Department of Geosciences, Fort Lewis College.

This page is a supplement to the original course description found here

Short description of the course:

Earth Systems Science is an introductory geoscience course with a lab, covering solid Earth, weather and climate, and a little oceanography. Approximately 10% of the students take the course as part of the elementary or secondary education majors. Most of the rest register for the course to fulfill general education requirements. The course can also serve as the first course for the geology major, primarily for students who choose to switch majors after taking the course.

Design Philosophy: How is teaching the methods of geoscience integrated into the course?

The course goals are partly set by the Colorado state requirements for a general education natural science course with a lab. My specific goals include "Students will be able to evaluate multiple hypotheses based on field observations or other geologic data."

The course is structured in part as a fairly traditional survey course that includes three lectures (broadly defined; this includes discussion) a week and one lab a week. Some of the content goals of the class are achieved by assigning online pre-class questions based on the reading; this makes it possible to use lecture time to discuss some topics in more detail, or to go into more depth when students have questions about particular aspects of a topic. At some point during each lecture topic, there is discussion of how we know the information in the book (what can we observe? how do those observations relate to the bigger conclusions?) or how a technique could be used to answer a larger question. In addition, throughout the semester students work on a project involving monitoring a local river, and that provides a specific example for discussing what scientists do. Other labs emphasize other approaches to geoscience (for instance, a lab on glaciers involves the planning and implementation of an analog modeling experiment on factors that control how fast a glacier moves).

Key Activities: How do these activities address teaching the methods of geoscience?

The lab includes a group research project, which is spread across about five lab periods. The goal of the project is to monitor the water quality of the Florida River, a local stream that is used as the water source for the city of Durango and for irrigation, and which crosses all of the major geologic units and climate zones of the Durango area, and which travels from a wilderness area through ranchland and suburban development into the natural-gas-producing San Juan Basin. To prepare students to collect and interpret data, we integrate the Florida River into a number of other labs. The Florida River basin is used for examples and problem-solving during the topographic maps lab. Students are required to graph existing discharge data by hand, and then to graph past water quality data on Excel (and to discuss observations based on the graphs). Then students are divided into groups to prepare for data collection in four groups (discharge, sediment load, and two water chemistry groups). Groups turn in short papers explaining the type of data collection they will be doing and speculating about the values that they should get. Each lab section is assigned one reach along the river for data collection. After we collect data in the field, one lab period is devoted to discussing the changes in the data between different sites and between different years (and seasons). Finally, each group writes a short paper discussing their data.

Assessment: How are the methods of geoscience assessed?

Currently understanding the methods of geoscience is assessed by:

  • a rubric used to evaluate the final paper for the semester-long river project
  • a final exam question asking students to propose possible explanations for data collected by a past class working on the semester-long river project