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news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Earth Science Week

As the leaves change and the weather turns cooler I am more aware of the need for kids to understand big ideas in earth science. That science is sometimes missing in secondary curricula but it could be the glue that connects all the other science disciplines. October 9th through the 15th is National Earth Science Week and there are some amazing resources to help you celebrate.

I am always looking for connections to big ideas. I tend to steer clear of activities and web sites that have a focus on a concept that has a small grain size. They simply do not have the power to instruct like big ideas. I looked at the Earth Science Week website and saw that they had nine big ideas named to organize their work. I love that!

http://www.earthsciweek.org/whatisesw/index.html

Their big idea number one is that scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet. That sounds pretty simple at first glance but there is a lot of work to get a full idea of what that entails. Let’s look at earthquakes.
When I began my education earthquakes were not very well understood. In the middle of my educational life the idea of plate tectonics was accepted. The earth is formed from intersecting plates. Some collide and one is pushed up while the other is pushed down and some grind past each other. The movement is constant and when the movement is impeded stress builds and when released there is an earthquake.

This information was examined and tested using mostly indirect evidence. This type of evidence is usually taught using some variation on the mystery box experiment. You place a common object in a small box. The box is sealed and the student has to use their senses to determine what is in the box. They will shake it, tilt it and the really sharp students will place objects in similar boxes and compare results. Indirect evidence is acceptable evidence. You simply need more of it and the testing process must be clean.

http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/mnstep/activities/20162.html

The key to teaching this big idea is that you have to repeat tests and observations to come up with enough stable evidence to support your ideas. Plate tectonics was subjected to all sorts of observations and questioned frequently. Finally, the idea stuck. There was enough evidence in support of the idea and no one had presented any evidence to refute the theory. Still, many students do not learn much about this in high school.  It could be linked to evolutionary changes, earth topography, forces and motion in physics. It is a topic calling out for integration with other science.

Big idea number four is that the earth is continually changing. This is not news to us but we still have difficulty understanding this concept. That is why people still build homes on flood plains, are caught off guard when a mud slide takes out their home or cannot figure out why their driveway cracked. The forces of wind, water and tectonics are constantly making minor and major changes to the earth’s surface. Some changes are dramatic and we see them happen. Some take place over long periods of time and we do not. The key is that change is constant.

We can in our classes measure, map, observe and test these changes. Those observations lead toward a greater understanding of the earth and the forces that shape it. These concepts live in Biology, physics, chemistry and especially earth science. I attended a meeting a few weeks back of folks impacted by the flooding in Iowa this past summer. I had to think how an understanding of earth science may have led to better decisions on all fronts.

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