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Prior Knowledge, Landscape Photos

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.
Daniel Brownstein, Hastings High School
Course: Advanced Geology
26 students
Surveying students to assess their prior knowledge serves two purposes: it helps students review information they have (theoretically) already learned, and it lets the instructor assess what their students remember from prior courses.

The Activity

I break the students into groups of 3-4 and give each group two 8x10 laminated color photos of landscapes showing a variety of geologic features. For example, one of the photos may clearly show horizontal bedding in buttes and mesas in Monument Valley, while the other might show a series of volcanic plugs in the same region. Students are asked first to draw the features and then tell the geologic story of their formation using whatever terminology they remember from Earth Science (a course they took in 8th or 9th grade). I ask them to label and identify as many geologic features as they can in the picture as well. Using a large-screen computer projector, I project the images on a screen and each group presents what they have come up with.

I have used this activity for several years and have found it to be a very effective introductory activity. The drawing of the landscape focuses the students in on geologic detail, while the story aspect brings general terms into our discussion. It works well as a springboard into more detailed discussions of introductory geological concepts. It is also a good way for me to gauge how much the students know. I collect their drawings and "stories" afterwards and design future lessons based on what I read.

The activity also sets a tone for the course where I constantly ask students to interpret their surroundings geologically both in class and in the field (I lead 4 or 5 field trips for this class).