Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Best labs for introductory geology courses?

My department will be restructuring some of their introductory geology labs soon, and I was asked my opinion of the labs that I taught last semester. I was pretty brutal about some of them: they were difficult both to teach and to get the students to understand. When you're spending most of your time apologizing for the shortcomings of a flow chart that the students are supposed to be using to identify minerals, for example, neither you nor the students are getting much out of the lesson.

There were a number of other issues with the labs, but one of the big questions about the intro labs in general was what were the most valuable labs for different categories of student. The way our courses are likely to be restructured, we may end up with one general geo course and lab for the fall semester, and then two - one for geology majors and one geared more for environmental majors and non-geo-majors - in the spring.

So if you're going to split up classes that way, how do you create a set of labs that both hooks the potential majors but doesn't overwhelm the people who are just in the class for a science requirement? How do you make sure the majors are getting instruction in essential, basic skills, but still teach the non-majors something they find interesting and useful? To make things more complicated, how do you do this in a lab that, because of the 300+ person class size, meets every other week - meaning you only have six or seven labs to do this in?

My undergraduate intro geology lab followed this progression:
  • Mineral identification
  • Rock identification, rock types and the rock cycle
  • Structural features of sedimentary rocks (including mapping on aerial photographs, geologic map interpretation, and geologic cross sections)
  • Plate tectonics
  • Geologic interpretation of topo maps, aerial photos, and satellite images (emphasis on fluvial features)
  • Ocean and coastal processes
Looking back on it, it's both a little scattered and very heavy on what I tend to associate with geology rather than geography or environmental science - rocks and minerals, structure and tectonics, mapping. I remember finding the rock and mineral and mapping labs very useful, but I knew that I wanted to major in geology, and wanted to learn as much as possible as fast as possible.

The lab that I taught last semester went a little differently:
  • Rock descriptions (really basic stuff, not requiring mineral or rock IDs)
  • Mineral identification
  • Sedimentary rock identification
  • Impact cratering
  • Streamflow processes (with stream table)
  • Stratigraphic columns, topo maps and geologic cross sections
  • Folding and faulting
This set of labs reflects some of the research preferences in our department, planetary geoscience and Western NY geology (including the evolution of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Gorge).

I feel like there are pros and cons to each of the sets, but my viewpoint isn't necessarily what's going to be good for a nonmajor who needs a science requirement. And whether or not that nonmajor goes on in geology, it's important for them to get something useful out of the class.

So, how to compromise? It's a tough process. I'm not the one who gets to make the final decisions, but I think that there are some basic concepts that an intro lab should cover:
  1. Minerals. This is the basis of geology - if you don't know the minerals, you don't know the building blocks of the Earth. Everyone coming out of an intro lab should be able to recognize quartz and calcite, as one of the professors here said.
  2. Rock cycle and types. This is a chance to introduce both the rock types and the processes that create them, as well as a few basic rock names in each type. Students can then take this knowledge on to a petrology class (usually taught for igneous and metamorphic rocks, I've found) and a sedimentology/stratigraphy class (for the sed rocks).
  3. Surface processes. Weathering and erosion, as well as fluvial features could be included here. I found that my students had very little concept of how sediment was formed, transported, and turned into rocks. The lab that we did with the stream table helped fix some of that, and it was their favorite one; they were the most engaged and spent the most time thinking about what they were observing. This also would have been a fun one to do outside, but it was too cold by the time we got to it.
  4. Atmosphere and weather. I can think of a lot of people who watch the weather forecast every night without having the faintest idea how it's put together, or the difference between weather and climate, or (for example) why it snows a lot south of Buffalo but not so much north of the city. (This is not the case today, however.) Having a basic knowledge of the structure of the atmosphere and how certain types of weather and climates come about is important for life - you've got to deal with weather every day, after all.
  5. The solar system/geology on other planets. With all the great research going on these days into formation and evolution of other planets in the solar system, it would be a shame to skip planetary geology in an intro course. (It's also a good opportunity to chuck things at sandboxes, which seems to have gone over fairly well in this week's labs.)
  6. Maps. Absolutely NO ONE should leave a geology or environmental science course without knowing how a map is put together and how to read it. In the age of GPS navigation and Mapquest, it's honestly shocking how many students I encounter that can't deal with a paper map. Including topographic and geologic maps in this section would be good too, especially for majors, but also as a way of exposing students to something other than a talking car computer or a fold-out road map. (This would also be a great chance to integrate Geocaching into a lesson and get the students outside.)
  7. Natural hazards/disasters. This would be a favorite of mine just for the chance to talk about volcanoes, but it's a chance to separate students from what they hear on the news (which is often wrong) and explain what's really happening when, say, a hundred-year flood occurs, or why an earthquake will or won't create a tsunami (and what to do if you're in danger of getting hit by one). It's also exciting stuff, which is always important if you're trying to hook people on a major.
Just a few thoughts on what I'd find useful as a beginning geology student, really. I'm sure that the basics would vary depending on the department and who's qualified to teach certain subjects.

So what would you all, who collectively have much more experience with this sort of thing, want to see in an introductory lab? At some point I might get asked to help decide this for my current department, so your input is greatly appreciated!


Bryan said...

I think most of it looks good. Sorry in advance for being a bit wordy.

I would remove the atmosphere and weather module. It falls in with meteorology more anyway. You are pressed for time, and I understand there is a significant geography component to weather and climate, but you can't cover everything. My current university solved this problem by offering an intro geography course and an intro geology course. They are separate fields anyway, they each deserve an intro course. Though I think keeping surficial processes is fine (I may be in the minority, I consider geomorph to be geol, not geog).

I would also cut the planetary geology section (may be tough if members of your department are attached to it, but it is worthless to teach it without giving them more basic material first [read as "plate tectonics"]). The most hands on you can get with this section would be an impacts based lab (which you have. And, one could argue, could fit in Natural disasters anyway), the rest would be photo analysis. These never seemed to go over well with lab sections I've run.

I would shift the map reading to earlier in the semester. Preferably, I would make this the first lab out of the gate. You can talk to them about how to properly make measurements and observations, and it is a good warm-up for how you expect labs will run (get the students out of a vacation frame of mind). But, at the very least, how to read a map should go before surficial processes (it can get a student thinking about surficial processes before you teach it to them, where sediment would collect for example).

I would most definitely add a module on plate tectonics. Break out some wooden blocks and teach them the unifying concept of geology ^_^. It doesn't need to be in great detail for intro kids (plate boundaries, how we can tell they are moving, etc.). It does such a good job explaining... well... geology. It could act wonderfully as a tie in to natural hazards (I'm torn on whether it should be before or after). Right now I am leaning towards "after", see if any of them connect the dots about EQ and volcano locations.

I would also add a module on "stratigraphy, geologic time, and the rock record" as one lab. I would place this after going through rocks and minerals. Give the students some exposure to Steno's principles of geology. Plus you can break out some fossils (students of all ages love fossils). Talk to them about how radiometric dating works (most people think it only works with 14C, and even then they think it is some sort of magic). Plus it is fun to "blow students minds" about how old the Earth is. An activity called the "geologic clothesline" is the one I find the most effective (4.6 m clothesline, and have the kids place where they think events happened. For instance the extinction of the dinosaurs, usually they will place that event well before the Cambrian explosion).

Other than that, I think what you have is good. Especially with such a condensed lab. Out of curiosity, is there any reason why you can't schedule more lab periods and get TAs for them? My undergrad had 2 lecture sections (each with 200-300 students) and labs running every day of the week from 8:00 am to the last one ending at 8:00 pm (30 labs a week, 20-25 students in a lab). Grad TAs took 3 sections (usually) and undergrad TAs (seniors majoring in geology) were occasionally used to fill any gaps. It required a dedicated lab room, but the university realized that is the only way we wouldn't have a bottle-neck at a core science requirement.

Anonymous said...

I've just redesigned our first year geology course into four modules which could be condensed into your themes.

They are "Earth" (plate tectonics, planetary geology); "Rocks" (rocks, minerals and fossils in hand specimen); "Time & Space" (stratigraphy & structural geology & maps) and "Rocks Up Close" (petrography).

As an aside when getting these modules approved by the university I prefixed the titles with "Geology:" ostensibly as we have a whole host of other parallel courses but really because I wanted to have a module title "Geology: Rocks". I can't believe they fell for it!!

Tuff Cookie said...

Bryan - Don't apologize for wordy - I appreciate the input!

I think our issue is that we currently have both geology and geography courses (two semesters each), with separate labs, but due to budget/faculty cuts we're combining the two for the first semester. I'd be inclined to drop the atmosphere and weather module and the planetary stuff too, now that I think about it, but by combining the classes for one semester we're sort of forced to integrate geography and geology concepts.

I'd personally like to see more plate tectonics in intro classes as well - maybe replacing the weather lab with that might work. I just hope we have block models somewhere!

Good suggestion on the map reading. Our mapping lab was very late in the semester and didn't seem to sink in very well. If we're going to incorporate geologic mapping I might wait until after the rocks & minerals labs, just to give them an idea of what they're looking at, but I definitely agree that it needs to happen earlier.

Hadn't thought about using a geologic time lab for the stratigraphy and fossils - I like that. As far as I can tell, the intro students here don't get exposed to fossils at all, which is just bad.

Our lab teaching situation is actually kind of odd - lab is split into two semesters, and the students get a half credit and go to class every other week. There are enough sections that the TAs teach the same lab two weeks in a row, but we don't have enough TAs to teach more than that. (We also have a VERY small pool of undergrads.) Fortunately we have our own lab room (in another building), but I think it's also a matter of also having enough money to pay extra TAs - which we don't.

Ian - Nice titles. I like the module idea (my old undergrad did something like that and combined things into "Earth systems" courses), but I think we're so firmly entrenched in our current class structure that those might be too big a change for the profs here.

Silver Fox said...

I think there are some excellent suggestions here, and think it's too bad you will have to combine geography and geology for the first semester. If you do, I'd consider having the geography subjects after the geology subjects - except maybe geomorphology, which I consider to be geology. Or maybe geomorphology and surface processes can be scheduled as a lead in to weather, natural disasters, and any planetary geology labs? It seems like an awful lot to cover in one semester! said...

Nice, thoughtful analysis. I think that it is interesting to consider "the most valuable labs for different categories of student."

One thing that we considered where I used to teach was separate sections for elementary education majors. These would focus on doing hands-on labs with elements that can be directly adapted for teaching at the elementary level.

Elementary teachers often say that they feel unprepared to teach science, yet kids at that age are incredibly interested in rocks, minerals, dinosaurs, volcanoes and other topics that might fit in an introductory geology course. (My biased personal opinion is that geology is the most appropriate science for the elementary teacher.)

If the teachers are directly prepared to teach those subjects your department might get lots of new students when the elementary students of today graduate from high school.

Our plan was to have a science methods professor from the education department actually teaching some of these labs. This would be a great opportunity for that person to model hands-on science teaching for the students and explain the teaching strategies as part of the lab.

If you have a lot of elementary education majors at your school there could be a huge demand for this type of lab.