Geologic Issues: Community Impacts and Science Communication

Linda A. Reinen, Pomona College
Karen Kortz, Community College of Rhode Island


Responding to the need for recruitment and retention of a diverse geoscience population, we developed a capstone homework assignment for use in introductory-level geoscience courses. This is a place- and problem-based assignment designed using research on student learning and interest, as well as research that suggests minoritized students are more likely to be attracted to science disciplines if they perceive that science can be used to help their communities. The assignment combines a societally relevant problem in a location of personal interest for each student with a short letter-writing assignment to a local political representative about that issue. It is designed to help students recognize the value and applicability of the geosciences to their lives. This assignment can be done in-person or online.

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This assignment is appropriate for undergraduates in introductory level geoscience courses for majors and/or non-majors. It can be modified for courses at other levels. It was successfully implemented in two very different settings—a highly-selective 4-year college and an open-access 2-year college—and to diverse populations of students in small and moderate-sized classes. It can be done in-person or online.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have mastered concepts of several geologic hazards such as groundwater pollution, drought, earthquakes, debris flows, floods, desertification, and the impacts of climate change on storm duration and frequency.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the culminating project in the course in which students apply their knowledge from the course to geologic issues important to their home communities. It is designed to be a homework assignment, but it could be adapted to be a lab.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Identify a geology-related issue likely to have a negative impact on their community within the next 50 years.
  • Communicate the importance of understanding the science behind this issue to help prepare their community to minimize anticipated effects.
  • Identify their political representative – someone who has the potential to affect change with this knowledge – for their community.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Evaluate and synthesize several lines of evidence about the hazard and its potential impact on the community.
  • Develop a plan to use science to effectively address the hazard.
  • Construct an argument to persuade a local politician to address the geologic hazard in their community.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Improve students' perception of the value and applicability of the geosciences to their lives and communities.
  • Empower students to feel capable to use geoscience knowledge to benefit their communities.
  • Positively affect students' perceptions of themselves as potential geoscientists.

Description and Teaching Materials

This assignment asks students to identify a geoscience-related issue impacting their community now or in the future. Students need to understand the science behind the issue, make the connections to their communities, and propose a solution to mitigate the problem. For the assignment submission, students write a two-page letter to a political representative who could effect change within their community, explaining the issue and their proposed solution. Students are neither required nor expected to send these letters.

Here is the link to the full assignment and grading rubric.

To be most beneficial, students should be given the opportunity to discuss the assignment with one another. See Teaching Notes and Tips, below, for suggestions.

This activity is published in the Journal of Geoscience Education, special issue on "New Developments in Diversity and Inclusiveness in the Geosciences". Additional details about the implementation can be found in the article.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • We find that students benefit from peer interaction associated with the assignment. We encourage such interaction, such as students giving each other feedback during the topic-choosing, research, and letter-writing processes. Students can also share their final letters with each other in groups or as mini-presentations via posters. This can be done in-person or online.
  • Instructors may want to set an early due date or set aside course time where students must identify their topic and community. This will help the instructor give feedback to students who may struggle to identify a topic or who may identify a topic that might not directly pertain to the course (e.g. litter).
  • Many students benefit from having a template of an example letter format.
  • Some students would benefit from greater understanding of how the rubric is used to grade the assignment.
  • Students could be asked to articulate why the chose their particular location and topic as part of an assessment or reflection.


We use a grading rubric to assess this assignment. Elements of the rubric include: Written mechanics, Clarity and flow of the information, Strength of support, Sophistication of the argument, and Adherence to guidelines.

In addition to assessing student work for the course, we also studied how it impacted their perceptions of geoscience. In summary, we found that students who participated in the study reported positive influences this assignment made on their perceptions of geoscience. For example, the assignment helped them: (1) realize that geoscience was pertinent to their community (100% of students), (2) feel more confident in using and communicating science (95% of students), and (3) potentially see themselves as geoscientists because of interest, perception of the value of geoscience, and learning that geoscientists can work in their communities. These results are independent of academic setting, gender, and racial and ethnic diversity, indicating that all groups of students participating in the study benefitted from the assignment.

References and Resources