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How to Engage and Support Urban Students

Teaching to Diversity

In their survey of teacher beliefs regarding minority students and students from low-income families, Bryan and Atwater (2002) noted common misconceptions and related classroom responses that could adversely affect learning outcomes in diverse classrooms. Two of the most common and problematic beliefs held by teachers of diverse students, as compiled by Bryan and Atwater (2002), are discussed below.

Misconception 1: "Students from culturally diverse backgrounds are less capable than other students"

Instructors who hold this belief, whether overtly or tacitly, tend to define less ambitious learning goals, provide students with less autonomy, allow less interaction between students, and tend to rely more heavily on passive teaching methods. In direct contrast, researchers have found that minority students respond most favorably to inquiry in which they have some degree of control, and resist lessons that they perceive as being imposed upon them (Moll et al., 1992).

  • Real-world problems with no clear answer, and with implications for the well-being of the community, are ideal for engaging a diverse class of urban students (Bouillion and Gomez, 2001; Basu and Calabrese Barton, 2007; Buxton et al., 2008).

Misconception 2: "Teachers should treat all students the same, regardless of their class, gender, or race"

This attitude, which is referred to as "dysonscious racism," is most commonly held by white teachers (Bryan and Atwater, 2002) who hold 85% of college faculty positions in the U.S. (NCES, 2006), as well as faculty who teach in predominantly white colleges (Marbach-Ad et al., 2008). This belief leads to teaching methods that do not take into account the lack of commonality in educational and cultural background in an urban classroom. For example, students whose secondary schooling was done outside of the United States may not understand references to specific events in U.S. history, or analogies that refer to American popular culture (e.g., television, food products). English language learners may miss subtleties in the text of assignments and lectures. Variations in household income and familial responsibilities among students will result in variations in student schedules and time available for out-of-class school work. Accordingly, in curriculum design college faculty should:

  • Use illustrations and graphical organizers where possible to aid English language learners.
  • Focus on the factors that the students truly have in common, such as the local urban environment, the college campus itself, and current/recent events.
  • Allow for alternative activities and assessments so that students may better integrate educational responsibilities with home/financial responsibilities. Davies (2006) reported that 37% of students in an urban-focused introductory geology course stated that having assignment alternatives was the most helpful aspect of the course.

In addition, treating all students as the same ignores culturally-related variations in the character of learning-related social interactions. Hispanic and African American students are more alienated than white and Asian students by teaching that is teacher-centered (e.g., passive lecture-based instruction) and perceived as non-relevant (Yair, 2000; Uekawa et al., 2007; Parsons, 2008). Uekawa et al (2007) found that Asians are the only major ethnic group that prefers individual work over group work due to the cultural value associated with bringing honor to the family through individual achievement. They also concluded that group work benefited learning for Latino students, more so than other groups. Black students have been found to learn best with activities involve a high level of movement and verbal sharing in a communal setting (Parsons, 2008), which is commonly misinterpreted by white teachers as misbehavior and signs of defiance (Downey and Pribesh, 2004). Accordingly, urban college faculty should:

  • Focus on activities that have practical applications with respect to day-to-day life or career preparation.
  • Incorporate opportunities for students to make evident to the instructor what subjects, classroom structures, and skill sets they most value (e.g., assignments with choice of topic/location, surveys, classroom discussions).
  • Provide choice to students with respect to performing assigned tasks in groups or as individuals.
  • Allow opportunities for mingling and course-related socialization.
  • Provide opportunities for students to teach/tutor each other. Record the analogies, words, and examples that students use in their own conversations in order to incorporate them into future lectures and assignments.

Focus on the Local Urban Environment

A focus on the immediate urban environment provides a common lens through which students can view new geoscience content (i.e., familiar places, familiar terms, familiar events, shared perceptions). The urban environment contextualizes newly introduced science concepts, and can be used to demonstrate a practical purpose for these concepts. Documented outcomes of learning contextualized around the local environment include better performance of standardized assessment, increased student engagement and enthusiasm, and greater pride and ownership of academic products by students (Lieberman and Hoody, 1998; Glenn, 2000).

Use of the urban environment as an integrating context for learning has been used successfully for the redesign of entire college-level introductory courses in earth science (e.g., Davies, 2006). Use of urban analogies for geological concepts, such as examining sewer excavations to demonstrate cross-cutting relationships, has been used effectively in high-school classrooms (e.g., D'Alessio, 2005). Geohazards courses can readily be reconfigured to focus on those hazards which pose the most immediate threat for local communities (e.g., Baer and Whittington, 2006; Dupre, 2008). Urban environmental issues and urban planning provide rich opportunities to develop contexualized projects/assignments for urban students: documented examples include water quality (Pardi et al., 2004), regional development plans (Abolins, 2004), urbanization and landscape change (Massey et al., 2003; Wagner, 2005), urban heat island issues (Yow, 2008), and real estate appraisal (Nuhfer, 2004).

Involve the Community and Family

Curricula that directly involve the community and/or family of urban students will more readily allow students to apply their "funds of knowledge" to their in-school experiences. Community involvement through service learning opportunities further contextualizes learning for urban students. Involvement of family may help parents of first-generation college students better understand post-secondary education, practical applications and career opportunities for a child with a geoscience degree, and ways in which they can further assist their child in their college education.

Every city has community-based environmental organizations, historical societies, and community development organizations. Commonalities in mission and goals may be found between such organizations and earth science departments in post-secondary institutions. Service-learning partnerships with community organizations can yield logistical benefits (access to sites, data sources, contacts) which can facilitate curriculum development and implementation, and even faculty research. More importantly for minority students, community partnerships can provide culturally-matched mentors for students. Hispanic community leaders have stressed that minority students need science role models who "look like their parents" but who work in professional fields (Gasbarra and Johnson, 2008).

Immigrant students and rural students studying in an urban college may feel a stronger connection with their "cultural home" than their current urban setting. Such students may be supported by providing opportunities for students in diverse classrooms to integrate their cultural backgrounds and places of origin into classroom discussions and assignments.

Take Advantage of Urban Resources

Like urban public schools, urban public colleges are challenged to find the resources necessary to maintain high-quality education for their students. Fortunately, urban centers have many other institutions and organizations who share the mission of providing quality science education to the city's citizens: museums, parks, conservation organizations, scientific societies, government agencies. These cultural resources can be integrated into urban geoscience curricula, or simply be added as supplemental informal learning opportunities. Museum visits aid students in connecting knowledge, particularly through inter-group social interactions within the informal learning environment (Bamberger and Tal, 2008). Furthermore, museums give students a degree of autonomy and choice in their learning (Kisiel, 2006), and facilitate connection of knowledge to students' lives (Bamberger and Tal, 2007). These features of museum-based learning, as well as the freedom of movement that museums allow, are ideally suited to the learning styles that are preferred by Hispanic and black students.

Museum-college partnerships have the potential of providing a better learning opportunity than either institution can provide alone. In addition to the informal environment in which the learning occurs, museums provide objects and exhibits of a quality that far surpasses that available in most colleges. However, the integration of formal course assignments in museum explorations serve to beneficially limit the choices that students can make, and thereby enhance deeper learning (Bamberger and Tall, 2007). College faculty can take on a valuable role as "mediators" in the learning process, helping to forge connections with classroom experiences, and providing summary and closure (Bamberger and Tal, 2008). Much richer museum-college partnerships are possible, in which the boundaries between college classes and museum field trips blur. College courses may be held at museums, museum curators may take a role in teaching of courses, and museums exhibits/objects may travel to campuses (MacDonald et al., 2008). Recommendations for achieving the best learning outcomes from museum- or park-based activities include:

  • Make activities group-based
  • Allow students some choice in their exploration of the exhibits
  • Encourage students to define their own questions to investigate
  • Define clear objectives and expectations, ones which could not be met by a classroom experience.

Examining Fort Tomkins Glacial Grooves, Central Park Students at Met Science Lab

Science-learning need not be limited to science-focused institutions. For example, historical museums and societies are sources of archival images that can be used to study patterns of land development and landscape modification (Massey et al., 2003). Stone artifacts in archeological and art museums can be used to study geographic distribution of earth materials and resources, weathering characteristics of rocks, and cultural applications of earth materials. Galleries of historical landscape paintings can provide insights into climate change and landscape modification (Powell, 2005). Neighborhood building can be used as outdoor rock identification and weathering labs. In addition, urban centers are fortunate to have many free online data resources (e.g., high resolution satellite imagery, weather data, and water quality data) around which authentic environmental science assignments can be designed.

For a collection of activities, see Geoscience Teaching Activities for Urban Settings