Making it relevant

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.

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Erin Parker

About Erin Parker

Erin Parker is still sometimes surprised to find herself in front of a classroom, where she teaches earth sciences to 150 boisterous students each semester in an urban public high school in Wisconsin. She also can’t imagine herself doing anything else, even on the tough days. Erin’s posts explore earth science through the lens of a public educator and advocate for a scientifically-literate world.
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Comments (11)

  1. Sarah says:

    Great article, Erin! I’m really enjoying your blog. Sorry to answer your questions with another question, but what do you remember from high school science? What did you like, and what did other students like? I don’t think I took geology or earth science at the high school level, and I remember very little from a lot of my high school classes. Like you said, it’s the conceptual skills that we really learn, as well as how to work with all different types of people. I loved your idea about human rights, and I would think/hope that students would be interested in climate change-related issues. Also there a way to get your students involved in decision-making on topics for the curriculum, or how the class is going to learn that day, to build engagement? Can you borrow any techniques from any classes that are considered more “popular” by students? Or can the students be involved in some meaningful way in leaving a legacy or taking care of something at the school as part of the class?

    • Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

      Hi Sarah-

      Thanks for the comments! It’s a great teaching technique to answer a question with another question, and fun for me to be the “student” here. I love the idea of incorporating more student ideas into the course- I try to build in time for projects and presentations on topics of student choice (also good skill building opportunities for everyone!). I also really like the idea of creating a way for them to leave a legacy- I’ll have to think about this one. Maybe I could start by having them create a photographic display (maybe a website?) on the geology of our building. I don’t know all of the materials used, but it would be fun to research with the kids. Thanks for the ideas!

      • Sarah says:

        You’re welcome! My ideas come somewhat from leading therapy groups as a social worker. I developed one group a few years ago where clients made boxes of different personal stories and memorabilia, and we locked them up as a time capsule that we opened 6 months later – super fun. Also, I’m sure your students are drawn in by your enthusiasm and your awesome trips and events. Would love to see you at some point and talk more – it’s been way too long!

  2. Justin says:

    As a student, I remember vividly when my instructor explained the human rights issues surrounding the mining of coltan, tin, tungsten, and tantalum. It was an approach that put the class on the spot: your phone (and we all had phones!) might very well have funded the most violent human conflict since WW2? We spent the entire period discussing it, and many people who didn’t usually speak unless prompted contributed. It was a valuable experience for all involved, I’m sure. Efforts to humanize the earth science might not always be successful, but when they are…

    • Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

      Hi Justin-
      Thanks for the comment. I love the idea of having them pull their phones out as an intro- I’m going to work on developing the human rights/mineral conflict lesson plan into a more cohesive unit. Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. Adam says:

    Personally, I think it would have been useful to learn more about geologic hazards. If there was one thing I’d want folks who were going to stop with a hs degree to understand, it would be things like the risks of mudflows after forest fires, slope stability issues near the coast or due to vegetation loss, earthquake hazards and major seismic zones, what to expect from a Mt. St. Helens type eruption. That, and plate tectonics, the concept of geologic time. The hazards should be an easier sell, and they can easily lead into more conceptual things like stratigraphy through ash layers, plate tectonics via subduction zone earthquakes.

    If I look into earth science as a whole, I’d personally want to talk about our hydrocarbon and water resources, where they came from, how they’re produced, and their future availability, but I don’t know if that would actually be interesting for the students.

    • Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

      I like the hazards idea- last year we spent a huge amount of class time talking about the earthquakes and tsunami that Japan experienced, and it led into a lot of good class discussion. I also like the idea of linking some of the bigger (more challenging) conceptual course content to hazards.

  4. robert says:

    In Canada, teachers inform us that geology, geophysics and geological engineer students have a 0% unemployment rate upon graduation. That’s usually the best way to grab a kids attention.

    • Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

      Perfect! It will grab their attention, though everyone I know that works in the field of geology/geosciences/geological engineering has a masters or PhD. I’ll look into presenting info on what other roles there are for kids with less interest in pursuing post-secondary education.

  5. Geogrl says:

    I would suggest relating geology to their current / future lives. For example, if you need to dig a foundation for a house / barn, why do you have all those rocks (erratics) in the way? Why can you farm (generally) in Wisconsin and not in the Rockies? What possible risks are there for building your dream-home on a flood-plain? What would you use for utensils or tools if you did not have such metals as iron / steel / aluminum? What would you build a car out of, if you had no metal? If you want that really nice “granite” countertop for your kitchen, where would you find it and how would you extract it and polish it? Why are the Rocky Mountains so scenic and how did they form?

    • Erin Parker Erin Parker says:

      I love your suggestions- these kinds of questions are exactly what I use to try to gain student interest/attention (especially when introducing a new idea or unit).

      I’m trying to frame everything we do around how it relates to the students- getting them to think and ask/answer questions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is a really critical component of teaching, and one that I definitely struggle with in geology sometimes.

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