Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The baby and the bathwater: in which I get carried away with course design

So I've got a new intro textbook. I wasn't inclined to change books - staying with the same one means that students have access to used copies, and saving the students money has seemed more worthwhile than the minor differences I've seen in new textbooks. But my old textbook was going to a new edition anyway, and the author of this textbook called me over at GSA and gave me a really good sales pitch. (I admire his pedagogy and have been stealing his ideas for several years, and the book uses pictures from my area for many of the illustrations. It seemed like a good fit for the class.)

The good thing about the book is that it uses a different approach, one that appeals to me, and one that the authors argue will encourage students to actively use the book. (As more than a paperweight, I mean.) I've talked to enough students about what they use and don't use in classes - apparently books are for people over 40, and I'm "old school" if I prefer to read than to watch videos on YouTube - that I have a reasonable hope that the authors are right.

The bad thing about the book is that I want students to use it as more than an expensive paperweight, and that means working with the style and logical flow of the book. The style won't be that much of a problem - as I said, I've been stealing the author's teaching techniques anyway. But the logical flow. Ah. There's where it gets tricky.

With 19 chapters in a book and 14 weeks in a semester, I'm not going to cover everything. And the course is Earth Systems Science, rather than Physical Geology, which means (in my case) that I'm spending more time talking about surface processes, oceans, weather, and climate than I might otherwise do. Add to that the fact that I've got a sequence of labs that partially build on one another (and that involve a sequence of related projects - Powerpoint file alert). And... well, it gets tricky.

I'm thinking of doing some radical things. Like minimizing my favorite parts of geology (structure, metamorphism, and continental tectonics). Or worse, relegating discussion of geologic time to reading and a homework assignment to be done while I'm off at a conference. (Why worse? Well, this could be the only exposure they have to geology, and Deep Time is one of those fundamental concepts in geology, and way too many Americans think it's reasonable to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old. And 6000 years is so young, geologically speaking, that any volcano or fault or floodplain that was active in the past 10,000 years could well be a problem today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or in the next 1000 years, because that's essentially tomorrow to a geologist.)

On the other hand, it's not like my current discussions of geologic time are very effective. (Clear, yes. Convincing, to someone who doesn't want to believe? Nope.) And we've got a Historical Geology class. And fossils are... well, we've all got our strengths, and fossils aren't one of mine. And the homework assignment looks like a good way to assess whether students really can learn from the book alone, without help from my lecture.

So... am I failing Geology and Society if I skip ahead to surface processes, and leave students to struggle with geologic time? Or am I just doing what I've got to do?

(And if I don't talk about continental tectonics, do I risk losing the excitement that comes when a professor is really excited about something? Or am I safe, because I'm hyper enough in the classroom that nobody will know that I think most shales are much prettier after they're heated to 500 degrees C?)


BrianR said...

As much as I love surface processes ... w/out a plate tectonics framework (within which to place structure/metamorphism/volcanism) there would be really boring surface processes. Mountains would be eroded away, basins would fill in ... there'd be no topography influencing the weather/climate, the ocean circulation patterns would never change, and so on and so forth. Environmental change, in both human time frames and geologic time frames, I think is better understood and appreciated within a plate tectonics context. Perhaps in that way you could technically spend more time teaching surface processes and environmental change, but it would always be tied back to our closest thing to a unifying theory. I don't know, just thinking out loud.

And, as you point out, plate tectonic processes could also be a context to introduce and discuss geologic time.

Kim said...

I'm planning to spend a week on the basics of tectonics. (In fact, it's that week at the beginning that's the beginning of the problem.) What I'm leaving out is more detailed stuff - a chapter on mountains, basins, & continents. Things like back-arc rifting vs compression, terrane accretion, tectonic history. And a chapter on ocean floor tectonics (though I'm going to include parts of it, dealing with the topography of the ocean floor and continental margins - I'm just not going to talk about things like the formation of the Bering Sea).

Connecting the surface stuff to tectonics is hard. I haven't used a book that does it well yet. (And I'm not sure all geoscientists even appreciate the connections.)

If I cover too much, it becomes a combination of disconnected facts. If I were teaching a Physical Geology course, I would actually want to arrange it with some basic surface observations first, and then move to rocks, and then make the tectonics the part that ties things together. (And I would vastly oversimplify weather and climate.)

Also, I'm leaving out volcanoes. (Or at least, the detailed discussion of types of volcanoes and eruptive style and so forth. Igneous rocks I'm doing, but physical volcanology is getting bumped.)

BrianR said...

Kim says: "Connecting the surface stuff to tectonics is hard. I haven't used a book that does it well yet. (And I'm not sure all geoscientists even appreciate the connections.)"

I agree ... it is difficult (which is exciting from a research standpoint!). Philip Allen has a 1997 text called "Earth Surface Processes" that is really good. It is likely too detailed/advanced for non-majors, but it's a good one to have on your shelf. It might give you a couple good approaches or ideas for lectures/activities. The first chapter, I think, does a decent job of making these connections. You can peruse the table of contents on amazon.

Ron Schott said...

Carnac the Magnificent says: Reynolds et al.'s Exploring Geology. (What is that new textbook?)

I'll be very interested to hear how the students like it.

Kareina said...

If today's students would rather watch a YouTube video than read a text book, are there any videos on YouTube which present geologic processes? If the "reading" they were required to do for class involved both chapter 3 pages 112-125 and an URL, would they be more or less likely to prepare for class in advance of the lecture?

Kim said...

There are some video files with the new textbook. (One reason I'm going to take longer with the basics of plate tectonics is that I'm going to follow the instructor's guide suggestions and show the included movies of each type of plate boundary, and then go through an extended "what did you see" discussion, and draw sketches with the students.)

And yes, Ron, you've got the book. I've used Steve Reynold's "concept sketches" before - they've been great in my upper level plate tectonics class, as a way to see what students got out of the reading, and as a way to get students to put tectonic ideas together. I've never worked up the nerve to try them in an intro class, though.