Bedrock (noun): 1) Solid rock underlying loose deposits such as soil or alluvium
2) The fundamental principles on which something is based
It is the third week of the semester, and one of my unruliest classes of high school students is struggling with geologic time. It’s immense and intense and I dared ask them to do some calculations along with the vocabulary. They’ve already worked their way through a version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar activity, where they’ve crunched all of time from the Big Bang to the present day into one year.
Today, I’ve handed out props with rough dates attached, and asked the class to physically arrange themselves in order of appearance in the fossil record- a stuffed black plague microbe stands in for the first life-forms; a plastic Buzz Lightyear represents modern humans. After I separate the monkey (representing first mammals) from the dinosaur (representing dinosaurs, but intent upon the destruction of everything in his path; note to self, next semester, hand the dinosaur to a quiet, calm student), the kids arrange themselves in a straight line, equally spaced from one end of the chalkboard to the other. Here is where it gets tough, when I ask the remaining kids to “fix” the line.
“Amphibians came before reptiles!” shouts one student, and the classmate holding the tree frog’s terrarium obligingly switches places in line. A few more shuffles, and the sequence of fossil emergence is in rough time order. The kids are still in an equally spaced line, however, and I’m still waiting for someone to realize that the formation of the Earth and the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere shouldn’t be able to hold hands.
Welcome to the world of high school earth science- I teach 10th -12th grade students, and it’s a diverse bunch. Strangely, the vast majority of students that are enrolled in my geology class are not excited to be there on the first day. They whine and complain about being forced to learn about rocks. By the time they leave, I like to think that the same majority have both come to some scientific and geologic understandings, and enjoyed themselves along the way.
Along with the typical struggles of public education, high school geology is routinely treated as a dumping grounds by school counseling staff and, to a lesser extent, colleagues, for students who desperately need science credit and are seen as being problematic, lacking in foundation skills, and have been generally unsuccessful in science in the past. This makes the teaching of earth science particularly difficult- how do you manage disengaged students with challenging behaviors and inspire them to connect with geology content? How do you keep the subject matter relevant, rigorous, and robust while working within the reality that many of my students can’t read at grade level and need not just foundational science skills, but foundational life skills?
I don’t know the answers, but I am certainly trying to make geology and oceanography come alive for my kids. My contributions to Earth Science Erratics will focus on my challenges and successes connecting students to earth science, and my own occasional sojourns into the realm of field geology.
Oh, and the geologic timeline? A student finally recognized that by placing themselves in front of the chalkboard in such an evenly-spaced line, they were throwing off the scale of both geologic and biological events. Everyone grudgingly squashed together towards the classroom door marked ‘present day’ and we re-emphasized the immensity of the time that had occurred since the formation of the earth to the first appearance of well, Buzz Lightyear.
I like to set the stage during the first week of geology by opening with really big questions about how the Earth formed and what it took before we could be sitting here in fifth hour, pondering our place in time. Geologic time and Earth’s fossil history form the bedrock of the course, placed firmly beneath our metaphorical feet, allowing students to have a frame of reference for everything else we cover. Now, if only I could keep the dinosaur and the monkey apart from one another…