Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum: The Geology of National Parks Collection

Len Vacher, Department of Geology, University of South Florida, Tampa


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Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

The Geology of National Parks Collection was developed as part of Geology of National Parks: Spreadsheets, Quantitative Literacy, and Natural Resources (NSF DUE-0836566), a three-year, Phase-1 CCLI project that started January 2009.

The purpose of the project was to create a resource of SSAC modules for the introductory geology course, Geology of National Parks, at the University of South Florida. Selected modules are being rotated into the course's series of weekly student activities. The intent is twofold: (1) to bolster the quantitative literacy dimension of the course, and (2) to bring in more environmental geology by aligning the course with the NPS Natural Resources Challenge.

Context

The Geology of National Parks Collection builds on three great ideas:

The first great idea is the system of National Parks itself. As told by The National Parks: America's Best Idea , the six-episode, 2009 series directed by Ken Burns, the idea is "as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone." Creation of the National Park Service (The Organic Act)


The second great idea is that national parks can form a basis to teach introductory geology. Old Faithful, Yosemite valley, Grand Canyon (more info) , Carlsbad Caverns (more info) , Mt. Rainier, Kilauea Volcano, Indiana Dunes, bones of Dinosaur Quarry, trees of Florissant Fossil Beds (more info) , the Lewis Overthrust, the Smoky Mountains (more info) , the North Cascades, the Delaware Water Gap, the shoreline of Cape Cod, -- what is the story behind such geologic icons? What is the story of the rocks, the fossils, the scenery of our parklands? Ann Harris, in the preface to the first edition of her Geology of National Parks (1975), wrote: "Many students having been exposed to beginning geology courses, went on trips and saw geologic features they had studied. They came back from the national parks filled with questions..." Within a decade, Geology of National Parks, the course, was being taught to beginning college students across the country. Tour Park Geology


The third great idea is the Natural Resources Challenge, the National Park Service's Action Plan for Preserving Natural Resources. As stated in the original press release (August 12, 1999), "the Action Plan calls for substantially increasing the role of science in decision-making, revitalizing and expanding natural resource programs, gathering baseline data on resource conditions, strengthening partnerships with the scientific community, and sharing knowledge with educational institutions and the public." Funded since 2000, the program now includes 21 Research Learning Centers, 32 Inventory and Monitoring Networks, and 17 Cooperative Ecosystem Study Units. The program is producing a wealth of quantitative data on environmental conditions in the parks. Much of it is already online. Integrating Science and Management (Soukup, 2007)


The Geology of National Parks Collection

Access to the modules

Faculty and graduate students in the University of South Florida Geology Department collaborated with eight NPS Research Learning Centers to develop the Geology of National Parks Collection. During Summer and Fall, 2009, teams from USF made one-week visits to partner RLCs to make two or more SSAC modules in consultation with RLC personnel. At least one of the modules per RLC involves an issue and/or data connected to the Natural Resource Challenge. The eight partner RLCs (and number of anticipated modules) are:

  1. Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2 modules)
  2. Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center (Glacier National Park, 2 modules)
  3. Great Lakes Research and Education Center (Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 2 modules, and Keweenaw National Historic Park, 1 module)
  4. Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center (Yellowstone National Park, 4 modules)
  5. Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning (Mammoth Cave National Park, 2 modules)
  6. Old-Growth Bottomland Forest Research and Education Center (Congaree National Park, 2 modules)
  7. Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center (Point Reyes National Seashore, 3 modules)
  8. Urban Ecology Research Learning Alliance (National Capital Region Parks, 2 modules)

In addition to the modules that are developed in collaboration with RLCs, the collection includes Geology of National Park modules developed by USF geology faculty and graduate students for various other reasons. For example, the collection includes two modules developed by Judy McIlrath, the instructor of the Geology of National Parks course, as part of course development before the start of this project (two multipark geologic tours, one in the Colorado Plateau and the other in the State of Colorado). Similarly, graduate students Meghan Lindsey and Heather Lehto developed modules (Catoctin Mountain Park and Crater Lake National Park, respectively) for the collection because of their interest in geoscience education.

The collection includes two, introductory, pre-module modules (tutorials) intended for students who are new to spreadsheets and Excel.

Quantitative Literacy. As is the case for SSAC modules in general, the modules are self-paced activities in which students apply core mathematics to solve one or more problems in context -- in this case the geology of national parks. The mathematics is, for most of the modules, the kind that some students will recall from high school -- number operations; ratio and proportion; rates and relative change; rearranging linear equations; straightforward trigonometric ratios (e.g., tangent for slopes); some graphing and graph reading; some exploratory data analysis. Each module identifies the core QL concept/skill that is used in the activity. Modules that involve more advanced mathematics can be identified from the descriptive cover pages.

Geoscience Literacy. Each module also identifies the core geoscience literacy topic. For the most part, the modules do not develop geologic vocabulary. It is assumed that the students are also reading the textbook that is associated with the course. In the broad perspective, the overarching geoscience literacy concept illustrated by the collection of modules is "science for decision-making." Not only is geology interesting -- as illustrated by the geologic wonders of the parks themselves -- but it is useful. Geology informs decisions that we care about as citizens: in this case, the management of our parklands.

Implementation at USF

Geology of National Parks is one of several alternatives offered as service courses at USF for students to satisfy general university science requirements. Many students are drawn to the national parks course as a hopefully painless way of satisfying the science requirement while finding out something about the geologic wonders that they may have visited or intend to visit in the future. Judy McIlrath offers the course both online (200 students per semester; two TAs for grading) and in-person (100 students per semester; two TAs for recitation sessions).

To be certified as a gen-ed course at USF, an introductory-level course must include analytical thinking, interactive teaching, and/or hands-on, problem-solving activities. The application for certification must show that the course serves at least four "dimensions," chosen from a long list. The application for Geology of National Parks, which was one of the first courses certified under the new (2007) requirements, documented inquiry-based learning, critical thinking, environmental perspectives, and quantitative literacy. The course includes eleven activities (out-of-class assignments). One of them is a spreadsheet module, "Vacation! How long and how far? -- a geological circuit of national parks in the Colorado Plateau." In this module, students exercise their quantitative skills while building spreadsheets to find driving times and costs for a driving vacation. The student hypothetically flies to Phoenix, rents a car at the airport, drives a circuit that includes 14 national parks or monuments, and camps out along the way. Each "stop" in the module is hyperlinked to a Web site about the geology of the park showing what the student visitor would see during a brief visit.

It is safe to say that many students did not exactly rejoice at the opportunity of exercising their quantitative skills and building spreadsheets. There were e-mail laments, for example, about "not knowing this was a math class." Although counts were not taken, it appears that many -- possibly most -- students had no prior experience with spreadsheets. To prepare for future implementation of spreadsheet modules into the course, the Geology of National Parks collection now includes a "first module" ("Spreadsheet Warm Up for Geology of National Parks Modules") to serve as part tutorial for beginning spreadsheet users and part introduction to the notion that some basic math is involved in the learning of geology. Each module includes an Excel template, in which the students put their answers. The templates allow the students to focus on the quantitative literacy aspects of the module without worrying about formatting an Excel spreadsheet. For the teachers, the templates streamline the grading process and create a way of easily identifying students' problem areas. The experience underscores another lesson learned from implementation of SSAC modules. There is a huge startup investment for students when they go up the Excel learning curve as they work through their first module. Therefore, if an introductory course is going to include one module, it should include several. That lesson from SSAC was a key point in the proposal for this project.

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