Friday, October 19, 2007

Teaching: where did that water come from?

I've just started the water section of my intro class. Like usual, I asked students to raise their hands if their water came from a well, and raise their hands if it came from a reservoir, and so forth. Fewer than half the students responded in any way at all, even when I asked how many of them just get water from a tap.

It's not that uncommon. ("Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap" is one of the questions on the old bioregional quiz... and it's asked, I think, because so few people actually know.) But this year, I responded a little differently. I told the class to go home and find out, and I would put an extra credit question on the weekly quiz.

And they did it.

It would have been pretty easy to cheat on the question, you know. I know where my local water comes from, but the students all come from different places. And a few students simply answered "a reservoir." But the vast majority of them told me more - much more. They told me where they were from. They told me the names of reservoirs and the rivers that they dam. They told me how far the community well was from their house. They told me that their wells hadn't gone dry, although the neighbor's wells have. One even told me about the Ogalalla aquifer.

I'm delighted. And I think they're ready, now, to talk about groundwater next week.

(And this, of course, is the real reason that I use extra credit: because sometimes students will take the opportunity and run with it.)


Thermochronic said...

That's a fantastic exercise. I once TA'd a class where one assignment was to look at a topp map of where you were from (or some other place important to you), and write up a description of geologic/landscape features nearby. Some of the results were lame, but one student just went nuts, it was a very impressive report. I like assignments that can flesh out students like that.

Kim said...

I used to make intro physical geology students write a paper about the geology of their hometown, and I've made natural disasters classes write about hazards that affect their hometown. (So many students say "nothing happens where I live!" I had one student tell me that hurricanes could never hit the Jersey shore, and other students swear that the river in their town had never flooded.)

There's something about an extra credit exercise works, though, that feels like... like discovering there was one more chocolate bar in the trick-or-treat bag, or something.