Page developed for SERC by Eric Pyle of James Madison University.

History and Philosophy of the Geosciences

Eric J. Pyle, Lynn S. Fichter, Steven J. Whitmeyer

James Madison University

Course Type:
Earth Science

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Summary

As an introductory experience in the Bachelor of Arts in Earth Science, students will be inculcated in the philosophy of geosciences as an interdisciplinary medium for extending classical science viewpoints to complex Earth systems. The history, traditions, and conventions of the geosciences, from antecedents in classical philosophies to contemporary models of the geosciences as a way of knowing, will be represented as a part of learning experiences. Students will grasp the geosciences as unique within the sciences, establishing relevance and value of Earth science literacy in professional and personal settings. Class activities will consist of seminar discussions, lecture, and analysis/synthesis activities.

For Dr. Pyle's reflections on the course and its design, see History and Philosophy of the Geosciences: Role in the Program.

Course Context:

This course is a newly designed course, part of the revised Bachelor of Arts in Earth Science at JMU. This program, initiated in the fall of 2006, is an introductory course in conjunction with Introductory Geology. The program is primarily designed for students seeking secondary teacher certification in Earth science, but is also designed to accommodate those students that will seek graduate degrees in areas where a background in the Earth sciences would be valuable, such as Environmental Law or Public Administration. The class meets 4 hours per week, in a combination of lecture, seminar, and activity-based experience. There is one field trip included, primarily to emphasize the importance of field work in the practice of the Earth sciences.

Course Goals:

The students should be able to:
  1. Articulate the nature of the geosciences and the activity of geoscientists;
  2. Interpret the basic concepts of Earth-based and anthropocentric frameworks as a basis for understanding Earth phenomena;
  3. Define meaningful questions, appropriate methods, and representative solutions in the geosciences;
  4. Describe significant paradigms that have emerged in the geosciences in the transition from mythological/religious views of discrete Earth phenomena to a complex Earth Systems view;
  5. Analyze major research thrusts that have existed or are underway, to better represent the geosciences to non-scientific audiences.

Course Content:

Course content includes, but is not limited to philosophical traditions in scientific thinking, how those traditions apply specifically to the Earth sciences, historical representations of those traditions, and most importantly, providing a basis for understanding the nature of science in general and the Earth sciences in particular, something that is required of science teacher preparation programs under the NCATE/NSTA requirements, Standard #2.

Teaching Materials:

Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 133kB Apr19 07)
Section Summary exercises (Microsoft Word 73kB Apr19 07)
Powerpoint on J.J. Schwab's "The Teaching of Science as Enquiry" (PowerPoint 111kB Apr19 07)
Part 2 of a presentation on the development of Plate Tectonic Theory (PowerPoint 12.5MB Apr19 07)

For an example activity from this course, see Be the Block: Working the Geologic Block Diagram as an Inquiry Tool.


Assignments in this course is primarily authentic, rather than performance-based in nature. Therefore, grades on individual assignments will be based not on a binary scale of "right" or "wrong," but rather on the basis of the level of understanding relative to course goals. Detailed scoring rubrics for each assignment will be provided as the course progresses. Each assignment is due on the due date defined, and make-ups will not be provided except in the case of a bona-fide and documented medical or family emergency. Generalized descriptions of these assignments are provided below:

(A) Section Synthesis Exercises (50% of final grade; due one week after the completion of content sections) The content of this course has been carefully considered and organized in such a way as to first lay a philosophical foundation in the traditions of science, followed by the expression (or antithesis) of these elements in the Earth sciences. At the end of each content section, you will be asked to produce a brief synthesis of the section, centered on a particular case or Earth phenomenon. Each synthesis paper should be 2-3 typed, 1.5-spaced pages, not inclusive of any figures or illustrations that may be used. The specific parameters of each exercise will be shared in class at the end of each content section.

(B) Field Trip Summary (10% of final grade; due one week after field trip) One of the fundamental aspects of the Earth sciences that distinguishes it from other sciences is the need for field-based investigations. But such investigations are interpreted through the mental frameworks of the observer and dialogue with others. In order to provide participation in this process, a required field trip will be scheduled for a Saturday in April. During this field trip, each student will be required to observe both the geologic features of each stop as well as the interactions of the instructors with each other and other students. A brief reflective paper (2-3 typed, 1.5 spaced pages) will be expected of each student after completion of the trip.

(C) Summative Analysis (40% of final grade; presentation on the last day of class, final paper due on Wednesday of Finals Week) In lieu of a final examination, each student will work in partnership with another student, analyzing a specific situation in the geosciences. Multiple and varied thought frameworks will be presented in class, as either philosophical descriptors or as historical examples. The task is therefore to analyze the situation presented, utilizing these descriptors and examples to best describe the situation at hand. The analysis will consist of both a verbal presentation as well as a written paper. The oral presentation will take place on the last scheduled class, and should support the verbal component with visual, metaphorical, or analogic representations. The final paper should be informed by reflection on the verbal presentation, and be submitted no later than noon on the Wednesday of finals week. A rubric will be provided in class.

References and Notes:

There is no set textbook for this class. Instead, class discussions, lectures, and seminars will be supported by primary scientific papers and essays, web resources, and other assigned readings and instructional materials. The primary sources of these will be posted for the class to download.