Navigating Learning, Teaching, and Leading
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A window into a mind through a spreadsheet
Last year, back when I taught structural geology in a classroom with lots of stuff in it, including students, I tried something new. My goal was to give students a better sense for what the elastic modulus and Poisson's ratio actually mean, and to give them the opportunity to become comfortable with making simple calculations and assessing their results to see if they "make sense."
NOTE: For those of you who need a little reminder—or never knew—what these two things are, the elastic modulus tells you how stiff a material is: how hard do you need to push on it to make it compress? Poisson's ratio tells you how much a material expands in the direction perpendicular to the direction you are pushing. The details aren't important. The fact that both values are easy to calculate from properties you can measure is.
One needs special equipment to obtain these values for rocks, and it is difficult to actually see the deformation. So, for several years, I brought out a wide variety of substances—sponges, super balls, foam, cork, clay—and we talked about their properties broadly and comparatively, not quantitatively. This was not particularly effective. But 2019 was the first year I taught structure after moving into a new building. We had lots of packing material leftover from new equipment we had ordered, and I thought, "Hey! Foam might be a pretty good analogue for rocks." There are many different types of foam: sofa cushion foam, Pelican case foam, pool noodle foam, packing foam, Nerf ball foam. And each foam has quite different properties that relate to their uses. So I asked students to take the measurements they needed in order to calculate the elastic modulus and Poisson's ratio for each of the foams, and we compiled the data. I did not do this myself first, but I had a hunch it would be interesting, and—fortunately—I was not wrong. More
Taking “integrated lecture-lab” online
In a normal year, when there is no pandemic, my structural geology class meets three days a week for two hours each session. It's an integrated lecture-lab, in which a typical class might consist of a 10-15 minute introductory activity, followed by a 10-15 minute lecture from me, followed by a longer activity that they may or may not completely finish in class, interspersed with a lot of wandering around the classroom talking to students, as individuals and as groups.
When the decision was made to go online, my first thought was not about the format. It was, "Oh, my. How am I going to get them all the stuff they need?" The handouts to draw on, the pictures, the rocks, the foam, the stuff that facilitated the learning.
That got me stuck for a while, and then I got over it-lots of great, free software can replace the hands-on materials; I can make short videos that demonstrate the concepts with foam and rocks; I can send them graph paper and maps in the mail. Problem solved. More
Some things stay the same
So many things are different right now: recording myself talking to my computer rather than talking to students, drawing on an iPad rather than a whiteboard, testing out what feels like a million apps to do the things that are so easy in a real classroom. So many things are different that it is easy to forget that some things are exactly the same: concepts that students struggle with in a physical classroom are still challenging for them in a virtual classroom.
This year, as every year, I asked students to do a short reading about geological structures, and then answer some questions:
- Name two planar features that you can think of that are geologically important, and describe how their orientation would reflect a deformational process.
- Name two linear features that you can think of that are geologically important, and describe how their orientation would reflect a deformational process.
Different this time: no opportunity to go over the list and misconceptions in person, so I made a screencast instead. Feel free to watch if you want to see the compiled responses and how I tried to sort through them. More
Goodbye beloved, bad pedagogy
Every year that I have taught structural geology, I've given up something. Last year, I gave up the super complex thrust belt cross section in a region the students were unfamiliar with and replaced it with revisiting a cross-section in a location they'd all been to and seen before, explicitly helping them transfer their knowledge from a previous class and demonstrate their new understanding. In a previous year, I gave up atomic deformation altogether for lack of time in a 10-week quarter (my apologies to any of you for whom this is your thing).
But I have clung to analog (paper) stereonets. Every year, I gave students a piece of paper with a photocopied equal-area stereonet, a piece of cardboard backing, a thumbtack, an eraser, and tape, and showed them how to make a sturdy stereonet. Then I handed out the tracing paper and we practiced plotting, twirling the tracing paper around the thumbtack, trying to follow the great circles, going through the complex rituals of plotting planes, poles to planes, and lines. Eventually, I introduced Rick Allmendinger's Stereonet program and we went through it all again digitally, prompting students to ask, "So... um... why did we have to do this on paper?" More
I spent a lot of time last week trying to imagine what my students were thinking and feeling. My searching was prompted in part by a comment from a colleague who is a high school science teacher-during a meeting in which we were discussing plans for the Earth Educators' Rendezvous, she said, "I'm worried about our seniors. They aren't going to have a graduation ceremony, or a prom; they aren't hanging out with their friends or going through the rituals they've been anticipating." I thought, "Oh, wow. She's so right!" Then she said, "And they will be your freshmen next year." Yep.
My structural geology students are mostly seniors. They have been anticipating this class (some with eagerness, some with fear), and the one it prepares them for—advanced field camp—for a couple of years. They've all taken an earlier field methods class with me, and when they show up in structure, I get to see just how much they've learned since then. I had been feeling pretty sorry for myself and my students that we wouldn't get to interact in person, but now I was realizing that the bigger, longer-lasting impact might be the loss of ritual: the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that comes with working through a challenging cross-section together, with twisting the tracing paper around the pin on the stereonet, with relearning how to use a Brunton, and then, ultimately, with going to field camp. More
Right now, my most common underlying thought is, "OK. Deep breath. Keep going. We will figure everything out." My totally unscientific survey of my friends and colleagues suggests that I'm not the only one saying this to myself several times throughout the day.
I need to take that approach because our current situation is unprecedented, and we are all faced with challenges we have not had to deal with before. Teaching online (well, lots of people have been doing that for a while), hosting and participating in constant virtual meetings, a loss of control over our research and travel schedules, the introduction of significant uncertainty in our lives for the indefinite future. But we all feel what we do is valuable, and important, and we aren't going to give up. More