Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Surveys, succeeding in Earth Science classes, and playing outside

I'm still thinking about the ACT survey about what students should know before coming into a college Earth Science class. The survey listed all sorts of important Earth Science topics, things that I cover in my class, and I wasn't sure what to say about them. Yes, if students had mastered them before coming to college, they would probably do well in my class... because those are the same general topics that my class covers. I hope my classes are interesting enough that students won't get bored even if they've already encountered the material, but I usually assume that my students don't know anything about geology. (In Colorado, high schools can choose whether to offer Earth Science or not, and the majority of my students haven't taken it.)

So I've been thinking... what experiences would help students succeed in my class? It would be nice if students came to college with just a little bit of comfort in chemistry and physics and math, if they could balance a chemical reaction and understand a little about equilibrium, if they knew the Ideal Gas Law, if they had a gut-level understanding of density and velocity, if they were comfortable converting units and setting up simple word problems (like rate x time = distance), if they knew what a logarithm was. I would love to teach an intro class where I could build on that knowledge. But, in general, I can't, so I teach my classes so that students can learn some geology anyway (I hope).

But there is one thing I would like kids to have done before they come to my class:

Spent time outside.

I'm not talking about spending weeks hiking with a map and compass, or filling their packs with rocks. (Though if they're into that, I've got a major for them. Senior research project, too.) I'm talking about simply going outside and playing. Throwing sticks in a river. Building a sand castle, and trying to figure out how to keep it from collapsing. Running away from ocean waves. Lying on the ground and watching the clouds go by. Flying a kite in the wind. Running away from their shadows. Catching snowflakes on their tongues and mittens, and seeing if any two snowflakes really are the same. Pretending to be the bear that went over the mountain (or maybe the little hill), to see what it could see. Trying to dig a hole through the center of the earth – extra points if it's on a beach, and the hole fills with water. Going out in a rainstorm, and watching the water run off the pavement or down the road. Sledding down a hill.

These are things I can work with. If even some of the students have done each of these things, if some of them nod when I ask about them, or bring up their observations and experiences when we're out in lab talking about how a river behaves, then I've got something to build on. And if they had fun outside as a kid, they're more likely to enjoy being outside during lab, and be able to learn instead of being uncomfortable because it's too cold (or hot, or windy, or buggy). And if the outside sparked their curiosity, they're more likely to ask questions and struggle with the material, even if the language is unfamiliar, the math is hard, or the spatial thinking is weird.

I've got the address to send the survey to ACT, and I'm going to say something about this. I have no idea how a standardized test could encourage parents and schools to promote outdoor play – maybe it can't. But if we tell the test-writers that this is important, maybe the message will eventually get through.

(If it's not obvious, I've just started reading Last Child in the Woods, and it's making me worried about the future of teaching geology.)


Geology Happens said...

My geology by river classes are designed to take middle and high school teachers and do a little geology. What we really do is: float in the river, play in the sand,have water fights and experience wind storms. When they leave the class, I hope that they might remember the layers we have passed through and some of their their characteristics. But, what I want them to remember is how the river moved material. How the wind blown sand hit their tent ALL night long. What it felt like to be a particle on its way to the ocean (or in our case Lake Powell).

KIm, I agree that river and stream studies are such a great way to get big and little kids into geology!

Anonymous said...

Have you heard suggestions for the vast stretches of the country where this would be a significant challenge, such as schools serving lower and lower-middle class populations in the cities?

A lot of what you describe is a lot spottier in places like where I grew up. People came up with their own fun, but really, it had a surprising variation from person to person in terms of how much it included the activities you refer to. I'm still a city boy to this day because there just wasn't much in the way of outdoors stuff where I grew up, whereas my last roommate is going slightly nuts in grad school in a big city, being from a farm a little outside Portland. Very different backgrounds, very different options for creating your own fun.

Kim said...

I thought about that for cities, but I think there are things that kids can see there, too. There are shadows everywhere (and kids could notice where the sunny side of the street is, and how long it takes for the sunshine to reach a playground in the summer vs the winter). There are rivers and streams - anything from mostly dry concrete-lined ditches to the Mississippi River. Maybe it's impossible to throw sticks in them - the Mississippi at New Orleans is way too big, and the ditches in LA are too dry most of the time - but a school in New Orleans could take a field trip (by public transportation) to the levee and walk along it, looking at the river and looking much farther down at the city. And every time it rains, you can go out and watch the water run down the streets, and see the patterns left by sand and dust and debris the next day. And wherever it snows, kids can catch snowflakes.

And the old cities have great parks - Central Park in New York has cool rocks (with "do not climb" signs), Chicago has the Lake Michigan lakeshore, San Francisco has Golden Gate Park (plus the Pacific Ocean). The parks may be in a different neighborhood (and may seem like they're in a world that belongs to someone else), but the old cities also tend to have good public transportation. (That's more of a problem in a sprawling mess like Phoenix or Denver, though there are backyards through much of Denver's sprawl.)

For specifics: Wayne Powell of Brooklyn College teaches a class aimed at NYC teachers called Earth Science and the NYC Urban Environment. He gave a presentation on it last summer (linked halfway down this page.

NAGT ran a workshop on teaching in urban environments. There's a webpage associated with it here. They have a listserv (linked on the workshop page) - if you've got specific questions, I bet someone there would have good ideas.

Cindy said...

I saw Richard Louv speak at the National Cathedral here in DC, and the picture he painted made me feel even more bleak than the book did. My daughter's preschool is currently building a "natural playground"--which is basically a contrived natural play space that includes a landscaped mound "hill", a fountain-operated creek bed (no more than 1 inch deep for safety reasons) and a boulder to climb on instead of plastic playground equipment. And the cost? $150K!! It's crazy, but we live in an urban area, and I'm certainly not letting her wade around in the sludge of a creek that runs near our house. There's a whole "natural playgrounds" movement. So sad. This kind of fun was free when we were kids, and big price tags makes them inaccessible to most.