Exploiting Weathering and Erosion for Authentic Argument and Problem-Based Learning Activities

CHRISTOPHER ROEMMELE (croemmele@wcupa.edu),West Chester University and STEVEN SMITH (mrsmith@purdue.edu), Purdue University

The creation of more authentic assessments has the potential to expand and change students' opinions of science and their ideas about the expected routine in a science classroom. Such work can provide more in-depth understanding and create a differentiated and democratic classroom by having students integrate, organize and synthesize information (Darling-Hammond et al, 2000). We have developed a unit of three activities, one engagement piece and two authentic assessments that include photo interpretation and provide students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of geologic concepts, specifically weathering and erosion, in a more unique way (Barton, 2001). These authentic assessments are an important part of fulfilling components of the Next Generation Science Standards at the secondary level (Sondergeld, 2016), but they may also be of great value at the post-secondary level, especially in introductory geology or earth science.

The first of our activities is an engagement piece that introduces students to the concept of weathering and erosion in a way that, unbeknownst to them, they are already discretely aware. We start by showing students a series of product advertisements from the internet and print magazines. Although the product being advertised has nothing to do with geology, much less weathering or erosion, those concepts are very much a part of the visual imagery. We then provide our students with a large selection and wide assortment of popular print media to find an advertisement where the weathered and eroded landscape is front and center to the image. Students are asked to try and identify weathered and eroded features and processes in the image. They also consider why the imagery of the landscape was used for that particular product and evaluate the effectiveness of the use of the image in the advertisement.

The second activity is a problem-based learning activity that can provide students with a unique opportunity to develop important skills, such as problem-solving, decision making, and synthesizing information (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). To put the activity in context, students are told that the local school board is intending to build a walking and exercise path on the grounds of the school. We then ask students to find examples on their school campus of the various mechanical weathering, chemical weathering and erosion processes about which they have learned, to take pictures of the features, and to describe the location and ongoing geologic processes. Students are asked to note locations on a campus map to avoid by identifying them as being affected by mechanical weathering (root and ice wedging (Figure 1)), chemical weathering (dissolved and oxidizing rocks, possibly due to lichen or moss (Figure 2)), and/or erosion processes (soil creep, soil flow, gullying due to running water (Figures 3 and 4)). Students take photographs of each hazardous location and then plot a potential route for the path on the map, avoiding these risky areas. The final project includes a photo journal which can be printed or presented online with labeled and descriptive photographs of each of the processes observed. Students also explain and defend their proposed route. Given ample class time, students (working individually or in groups) can present their findings as if at a meeting of the school board.

The third activity is called "Have I Got the Property for You!" and involves student groups attempting to market either a house or a location for a house. People may not consider how geoscience impacts their choices in everyday life. For example, when purchasing a house or property, one might also need to consider purchasing flood or earthquake insurance. Students in this activity work in groups to search for photos that allow them to market a house or location based on geology. They can use images from the Earth Science World Image Bank, The Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE), or Google Earth. Each group develops a marketing plan and presents their property to the class. Students must include a photograph of the property, map of the region, and descriptive geology highlights. Each group's presentation includes an explanation of their property's basic geology (including weathering and erosion components), and a reasonable argument to encourage the purchase of the property. After each group presents, the rest of the class then asks questions using evidence-based claims to try and deconstruct the group's sales pitch. Participation points are attached to the questioning.

The integration of argumentation, authentic assessment, and problem-based learning into a unit on weathering and erosion can be done with little cost and with the use of a classroom set of laptops or a computer lab. Using our engagement piece as a hook to begin the unit can also provide a motivational factor for students, especially when they see how widespread the use of images of weathered and eroded landscapes is in the promotion of products. Student response to these activities has been generally positive, especially related to looking through print advertisements, and taking the field trip around campus to find evidence of weathering and erosion. Students feel an investment in the project. The student handouts with instructions and scoring rubric examples can be found at https://goo.gl/BajX9W. Personalization of the activity can mean that students will remember more about the rather abstract and often discrete functions of weathering and erosion into the future, and perhaps see the geology around them from a different perspective with the knowledge of how and why the landscape formed that way.


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Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235–266.

Sondergeld, T. A., Peters‐Burton, E. E., & Johnson, C. C. (2016). Integrating the Three Dimensions of Next Generation Science Standards: Issues and Solutions for Authentic Assessment of Student Learning. School Science and Mathematics, 116(2), 67-70.

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