I suspect that every teacher has heard “why do we have to learn this, anyway”? about their subject material. I struggle with how to answer this question from my students- kids who likely won’t pursue any further science education beyond high school. How do I make geology relevant and engaging enough to help them become scientifically literate adults?
At the high school level, earth science classes tend to be seen by students and staff as easier or less rigorous than the other course offerings in science- a pathway to science credit for students that claim to hate science, or that weren’t successful in their freshmen year course. Thus, geology is populated with students that are disengaged from education, determined that they hate science, and often struggling socially with a wide spectrum of both academic and behavior problems. This is exacerbated by the fact that students who see themselves as high achieving don’t want to be in classes where security is called on a daily basis, or where I spend more of my time going over basic skills rather than getting to content- so few advanced students stick with earth science. The first weeks of a new semester is always a time of chaos- the kids learning my classroom rules, students dropping the course, students being placed in the course because they failed something else. Because there are no prerequisites, kids will show up (and be removed from) my roster for weeks into the semester- I’m frequently told that a student is joining my class for the rest of the semester because we need to “put them somewhere”. Clearly it isn’t just the kids who see geology as a lesser course.
Many of these kids will not have any further science education if they succeed in geology. I don’t have a lot of say in the science class pathway that students in our school take, but I wonder if earth science is the logical choice for struggling learners? Currently, all freshmen take biology, which earns them one of the two science credits that are required by the state to graduate. Most four-year-college-bound kids then take some combination of chemistry and physics during their sophomore and junior years, and then go on to take an elective credit or two during their senior year. This leaves geology and meteorology for the struggling kids- both courses difficult for different reasons, and neither as “simple” or “easy” as they are regarded.
The geology of Wisconsin is fascinating- from the ancient Keweenawan rift to the rich history of glaciations. But much of this history is hidden from my students beneath farms, fields, strip malls, and parking lots. They do not have a sense of being surrounded by or shaped by geology, despite our city’s location on an isthmus between glacial lakes. And, as they’re only too happy to tell me, “Rocks are boring.” While I disagree with them about the rocks, I’m not sure how to move them past their disengagement.
I make an attempt to build skills into the content of geology- creating and interpreting graphs, looking at and understanding maps; reading*, writing, and communicating in science. But how to make the curriculum relevant? I’d like to re-frame my lessons through the lens of problem solving- but I’m not entirely sure what that looks like in the context of geology. An example of this might be using conflict minerals to anchor our minerals unit- show clips from the movie Blood Diamond, read articles about coltan mining, and then have the kids learn about minerals from a human rights angle. Another idea would be to use the controversies over hydraulic fracturing to teach about mining, groundwater, and mineral/water rights. It isn’t that I don’t incorporate local and global issues now, but that the kids still struggle to connect with the material in any meaningful way.
What other problems or issues can I use to frame the important concepts in geology? What should students know leaving a one-semester introductory course on geology? What should they know about science when they complete high school, especially these students of mine who most likely won’t complete any further education in science after high school? I have flexibility with what and how I teach the course- I’d welcome thoughts on what people wish students learned, or how I could better connect the content to my students.
*I’ll save my attempts at teaching reading, writing, and communicating in science for another post.