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Earth & Space Systems - Pedagogical Connections: Diversity in the Classroom

In our increasingly multi-cultural and diverse world, teachers work in an environment of intense political scrutiny. Science teachers find themselves caught between proponents of specific ideologies and state standards requiring teaching of scientific principles relating to evolution, the geologic time scale, land use, climate change and other contentious issues. Education programs, while emphasizing creation of classrooms open to various ethnic and cultural groups, generally do not prepare pre-service teachers for the political battles surrounding science content and land use. Students are given the following example to frame their exploration:

Members of one culture may view a mountain as their sacred ancestral home, given to their people by the Great Spirit after a fearsome battle with a giant snake, while another may view the same mountain as a gift to entrepreneurs seeking to extract petroleum and natural gas, while a third sees an excellent location to build housing developments for the landless poor. A geologist may see the mountain as a classic example of a rouche moutenee, a glacially carved ridge reminiscent of the ice age 14,000 years ago composed of carbonaceous shale rich in fossils and the hydrocarbons needed to make fossil fuels.

All of these explanations describe Bare Hill in Middlesex, NY, home of the Seneca Nation as told in oral tradition, sitting atop Carboniferous Era shale formations from which some of the first oil fields were developed and certainly a site of great beauty close to a major metropolitan area with a decaying inner city holding many landless impoverished people.

Earth & Space Systems attempts to address this gap in training by focusing directly on diverse perspectives on the geologic history and land use issues of the outcrops under study. The course begins this dialogue by examining the nature and source of the scientific perspective.

  • How do we know the age of the earth?
  • What assumptions go in to the scientific method and theories such as plate tectonics and evolution?
  • What happens if these assumptions are wrong?

Presentation of this perspective places science in the true context in which it operates, a contrast to what often happens in academic settings unaccustomed to acknowledging, let alone questioning, principles such as uniformitarianism. With science in context, students are able to examine other perspectives and explanations for geologic structures and land uses within the context of their assumptions.

The pre-service teachers explore developing lesson plans reflecting such multiple perspectives by selecting a particular site for interpretation from 3 perspectives. Each student's lesson must address the scientific explanation for the site and the assumptions inherent to this interpretation before performing a similar analysis from two other perspectives.

Experience has shown that students choose Native American, traditional monotheistic religious, and environmentalist perspectives in about equal numbers. While it is too early to predict how this experience will influence these teacher's future practice in the classroom, the degree of resistance to controversial aspects of the Earth & Space Science content has greatly declined since this approach was taken.