Using Research to Teach the Methods of Geoscience

Anne Egger, Geological Sciences and Science Education, Central Washington University

For seven years, I taught at a highly selective, research-intensive institution that attracts very intelligent students. My job at Stanford University included recruiting students into four different undergraduate majors in the School of Earth Sciences, teaching introductory geoscience courses, and running our undergraduate research program. In all of these venues, students told me about their perceptions of the geosciences, and what I learned in that process had a profound effect on how I taught and talked about my discipline.

It will not surprise anyone reading this that few students arrived at Stanford intending to major in the geosciences. My introductory courses were not populated primarily by wide-eyed freshmen seeking a calling, but by seniors in various engineering majors who were fulfilling a natural science requirement. I liked having the engineers in the class: they were smart, had excellent technical writing skills, and didn't put up with anything they saw as busywork. They also chafed under my inquiry-based teaching style, in which I usually let them struggle with data or rock samples or maps, collecting their own data before doing any explaining. I often received comments that were some variation of, "All of this exploration is inefficient. Just tell me what I need to know."

But their presence in my classes gave me the opportunity to point out the different ways that engineers and geologists called on the same concepts and applied them in different ways. I called on the mechanical engineers to tell me how they used stress and strain: to manufacture a material that had low strain under high stress, perhaps. I contrasted that with how geologists use stress and strain: measuring strain to determine the past (or present) stress. The equations and concepts were identical, but the methods with which they were deployed were discipline specific. When I made these connections, I saw many engineers start to nod their heads in class. Ah, I could see them thinking, that makes sense.

Engaging the engineers in class was satisfying, but it was not my only goal. I sought to engage students from a variety of backgrounds in research in the Earth sciences, whether or not they chose to major in it. This meant casting a wide net, explaining what constitutes the Earth sciences, and helping students from majors like computer science, electrical engineering, physics, and history, to name a few, succeed in real research in the Earth sciences.

Casting the net clearly needed to go beyond my introductory courses. Though there were, indeed, a few intrepid freshmen and undecided students who waded into this class, most had already chosen a discipline and were pursuing it. They thought the Earth sciences were a sort of quaint backwater where people actually had to touch real stuff (like rocks) rather than computer keyboards. As a result, I created a 1-unit course aimed at freshmen who just wanted to learn more about what was going on in the Earth sciences at Stanford. A different faculty member visited each week to talk about their research. I worked with them to ensure that they were talking about their research at the level of a student who might be smart but have no background in Earth science. I also asked them to talk explicitly about the methods that they use to do their work. Across the board, without my prompting, they all talked about how they used several methods to develop multiple lines of evidence to support their ideas. A number of students who took this class chose not to major in the Earth sciences but did get involved in research with our faculty, convinced that there were exciting an innovative frontiers here as elsewhere. They either saw how their skills could contribute to Earth sciences research (often the case with computer science majors) or they simply wanted to pursue a topic they were interested in.

Bringing these students from other disciplines into the Earth sciences to conduct research was no small task, however. By casting the wide net, we were catching students who had never taken an introductory geology course or been on a field trip to look at rocks. To accommodate this variability in preparation, I developed a course with a faculty member in Geophysics to introduce these students to research. While much of what we did was broadly applicable to the research process as a whole (reading scientific journal articles, working with your advisor), certain topics focused on the methods of Earth science specifically. How do you develop an hypothesis for a field-based, non-experimental study? What is the goal of developing a model for, say, a volcanic eruption? Why do your peers in other disciplines start writing up their results at the end of the summer when you are just beginning to process your samples?

These experiences working with undergraduate students in research fed back into all of my teaching, at all levels. My classes evolved to include what I consider much more frequent and explicit mentions of what it means to be a geoscientist, the methods that geoscientists use to address questions, and the nature of ongoing research in the geosciences. In my introductory course, I ended every topic by talking about who in the school at Stanford was doing research in that area and the kinds of questions they were still asking. This invariably provoked discussion and occasionally inspired a student to pursue more classes or research. In my more advanced courses, we spent time discussing acceptable levels of uncertainty going back further into geologic time.

In general, in my geosciences classes, I think of myself as narrating what we are doing at every step of the way. That narration might include contrasting the approach a geologist would take with that of an engineer or geophysicist. It definitely includes the methods used, and what other lines of evidence support a given conclusion. It includes actual contributions by actual people, and the questions that those people still have about a particular phenomenon. And importantly for me, it includes the things a student would have to do to get involved in addressing those questions: who to talk to, classes to take, skills to develop.

However, I am also now in a very different setting, teaching classes filled with elementary education majors. Aside from the fact that many of these students are science-phobic, the emphasis in the elementary curriculum (and thus the teacher preparation curriculum) is on experimentation. Despite the differences between these students and (for example) engineering majors, I am able to employ similar tactics to introduce them to the methods of geoscience. My emphasis shifts to highlight alternatives to experimentation for testing ideas and for how it is possible to incorporate those alternatives into an elementary classroom. The association of "experiment" and "science" is very deeply engrained, however, and it can be challenging to overcome not only with these students but with faculty in more classically experimental disciplines that teach these courses.

I suppose that my ultimate goal in narrating the process of geoscience so thoroughly is to find something in there for everyone. The future engineer will be interested in the borehole strain measurements reflecting plate boundary processes; the computer scientist will want to understand how the model of shaking from a magnitude 9 earthquake in Cascadia was built. A future teacher wants to use observations of the world in the elementary classroom as a scientific tool. By explicitly including the methods of geoscience in my teaching, I hope to encourage and foster all of those interests.

Supporting Attachments

Anne's essay for geo methods (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 153kB Apr17 12)