Initial Publication Date: June 21, 2019

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What are On-Ramps?

On-Ramps are quick-start guides to help you get up to speed in widely used strategies for actively engaging students in the classroom to improve learning.


The landscape of college and university teaching in the geosciences has changed over the past 20 years. Faculty now spend less time lecturing and more time actively engaging students in the classroom, and active engagement is more common in geosciences classrooms than in biology, chemistry, or physics
  • Teach the Earth and On the Cutting Edge have literally thousands of web pages on how to more actively engage geoscience students. But what if you don't know where to start, or you don't have a lot of time?
  • On-Ramps are designed to be effective catalysts to take you up to highway speed, with advice and resources to help you actively engage students in the classroom.

Available On-Ramps

  • Interactive lectures: Several times during a lecture, pose a question to the class, give students time to work individually and then discuss answers with a neighbor. Poll the class for answers.
  • Brainstorming: Students generate a wide range of ideas for discussion, finding solutions to problems, approaching questions, explaining results, or preparing to explore a new topic.
  • Concept sketches: Students generate sketches or diagrams annotated with concise statements about processes, concepts, and relationships to demonstrate understanding of a system.
  • Jigsaws: Teams of students investigate different pieces of a geoscience puzzle, then reorganize into mixed groups where students teach each other about what they have learned and tackle a group question that puts the pieces together.
  • Compelling discussions: A powerful way to involve students in exploring the complexity of a topic by talking things through with their peers.
  • Quantitative skill-building: Strategies for effectively using math, graphs, and real data to build students' quantitative skills.
  • A just-in-time approach: Just prior to class, students submit responses to questions on key concepts. You review responses before class begins and adjust in- class activities to build on their current understanding and ideas
  • Case studies: Students apply newly learned knowledge and skills to data or scientific problems in a real world context.
  • Re-thinking coverage and linearity: Should courses be driven by the content of comprehensive textbooks? What alternatives are there?

Why is active learning so important?

It dawned on me about two weeks into the first year that it was not teaching that was taking place in the classroom, but learning. . ---Pop star Sting, reflecting upon his early career as a teacher NSF 96-139, Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology

We cannot do our students' learning for them, and cognitive science research over several decades has demonstrated that:

  • What we do in the classroom matters. If we care about student learning, we need to create environments in the classroom that promote student learning.
  • The key is to actively engage students. Student-centered teaching methods, such as those in these On-Ramps, are well documented to be effective in improving student learning.
As you enter a classroom, ask yourself this question: "If there were no students in the classroom, could I do what I am planning to do?" If the answer to the question is yes, don't do it. ---General Ruben Cubero, Dean of the Faculty United States Air Force Academy; Novak et al., 1999, Just-in-Time Teaching

Why On-Ramps in Tectonics?

  • In 2018, the tectonics community presented a vision document to the National Science Foundation on the challenges and opportunities for research in tectonics. In the section on achieving the vision, the document points toward the need to recruit and educate a diverse and rigorously trained work force.
  • The vision document recommends facilitating practical implementation of best practices in geoscience education and suggests development of a tectonics educator's onramp.
  • Our project owes its inspiration to this report and to a request from lead authors Kate Huntington and Keith Klepeis to spearhead the first phase of development.

Writing and disseminating the On-Ramps

  • In April of 2019, an international team of passionate educators from across the spectrum of the broad field of tectonics gathered at Wesleyan University for an NSF-funded writing soirée.
  • Over the course of three days, we wrote the initial eight On-Ramps. Members of the writing team will continue to be involved in developing additional On- Ramps, and we hope that faculty in other areas of the geosciences will take the idea and develop On-Ramps in their own fields as well.
  • We chose a dual format for the On-Ramps – both pdfs and web pages – to broaden the reach.
  • On-Ramps will reside on the website Teach the Earth, managed by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, and will be linked to from a variety of other web sites. If you would like to help disseminate the On-Ramps via your web site or program, please contact us at Barbara Tewksbury, Phillip Resor, or Jennifer Wenner.

Small NSF Logo The On-Ramps Project provides quick-start guides for faculty interested in incorporating successful and easily implemented teaching strategies to improve student learning in the broad field of tectonics. The Project was funded by NSF grant EAR1841227 and grew out of a recommendation in the 2018 community vision document Challenges and Opportunities for Research in Tectonics.
Intro to On-Ramps authors and project leads: Barbara Tewksbury, Phillip Resor, and Jennifer Wenner.
Graphics: Logo - C. Tewksbury- Christle; photos - banner, C. Gerbi.
Copyright:On-Ramps may be distributed freely, with attribution, under a Creative Commons License.

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