Engage with Content

Engaging your students with course content from the very first day of class accomplishes several goals. It lets your students know what the course will be about, draws them into the intellectual realm, reveals your passion for the subject, and challenges them to begin to think in ways that will be continued throughout the course. It also sends a clear message that no class time will be wasted.

One way to engage in course content on the first day is simply to jump into the first topic of the course. Another is to begin practicing skills you want your students to develop throughout the course. Consider what goals you have for students in the course - using observations to make interpretations, evaluating different hypotheses, solving quantitative problems " and consider what kind of activity you can design to involve students in practicing those skills with minimal prior knowledge.

Activities can engage students with course content by

Before-and-after photographs of destroyed houses in the barrier-island community of Orange Beach, AL. The houses were built on top of a dune that was severely eroded during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Photo from the USGS; public domain.

Introducing the first topic of the course

  • Rebecca Ambers takes her students at Sweet Briar College outside and has them speculate about how the landscape they observe was formed:
    "Because much of this course is about geomorphology, I take the class outside and have them look at the rural campus scenery from a good location. I ask them to think about whether the landscape seems geologically young or old, whether volcanoes have shaped the land, and whether glaciers have shaped the land. After we discuss their responses, I emphasize how the course will help them learn how to interpret the landscapes they see."
  • Walter Barnhardt takes his students at the University of North Carolina on a virtual field trip of coastal environments:
    "I take my class on a virtual field trip to the coast, from the glaciated coast of Maine to the barrier islands of North Carolina to the uplifted coast of California. This allows me to introduce many of the coastal environments that we will examine in the course, and emphasizes the wide variety of geologic settings that occur. Plus, it sets the stage for the real-world field trip that I always run in first 1-2 weeks of the semester."
  • Leslie Kanat hands out spectrometers to her students at Johnson State College, who discuss their observations:
    "I give each student a cheap visible spectrometer to use for the class period. They soon realize that sunlight, fluorescent light, and incandescent light have unique spectral signatures. We talk about our observations, which form the basis of the presentation on the following day: redshift."
  • Jonathan Geisler starts his course on Dinosaurs, Extinction & Disasters at Georgia Southern University by showing his students slides of large extinct animals and asking them to decide whether each one was a dinosaur:
    "One of the major misconceptions students have about dinosaurs is that anything large and extinct is a dinosaur. I show them a series of pictures of extinct animals and ask them to decide if it is a dinosaur or not. Some are easy while others are more difficult. After they are "stumped" a few times, then I go on to show the features that characterize all dinosaurs."

Giving students the opportunity to practice geoscience skills

Migmatite boulder. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, distributed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
  • Sarah Tindall passes a rock sample around her classroom at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and has each student make an original observation:
    "I pass around a rock sample (often a migmatite). Each student has to stand, introduce him/herself, and make one observation. We keep a list of observations on the board. When the rock reaches the end of the class, I have them pass it back the other way so that each student gets to make an additional observation. The penalty if a student can't make a new observation is that he/she had to recite as many names of fellow students as possible. When the rock returns to me, I make a few additional observations and recite all of the students' names." (Read more.)
  • John Brady gives small groups of students at Smith College a collection of igneous rocks and asks them to organize the rocks into groups; this forms the basis of a discussion of rock classification schemes:
    "I give each small group of students about 25 igneous rock samples to examine. I ask them to organize the samples into groups and to be prepared to explain the reasoning behind their groupings. We then have a whole class discussion of the various classification schemes devised. Finally, I distribute the IUGS igneous rock classification scheme and we discuss its reasoning and use."
  • Callan Bentley has his Structural Geology students at George Mason University do something similar, with deformed rock samples. Read about it in his blog post on the first day of Structure class.
  • Pam Nelson shows her students at Glendale Community College a slide of the Grand Canyon and has them work in small groups to come up with pairs of observations and hypotheses:
    "My first class subject is the scientific method. I have students make observations of the Grand Canyon from a slide. Each pair of students is to come up with 5 simple observations and 5 hypotheses to go with them. It helps to get the students thinking about the difference between the two and gets them to communicate with at least one other person in the course on the very first day. One of them must then come up and write their favorite observation/hypothesis pair on the board. Then I go over the entire list with the class."

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Search the collection of examples for first day of class activities that engage students with course content. You can narrow your search by course topic or level, as well.