Teaching strategies

The Mission (Geo)Impossible Scavenger Hunt

It was a Saturday morning like any other and my husband and I were enjoying a cup of coffee while he channel surfed to find a program related to disassembling and reassembling automobiles. He paused on a channel showing the movie Smokey and the Bandit, a classic film from 1977 about an epic beer run between Atlanta and Texarkana. “I wonder if I drove that road,” he said.

So we looked at Google Earth and found that there were two possible highways that Smokey and the Bandit could have used to move their beer. And then I saw it: the intervening space had a variety of superposed plunging folds. The seed for Mission (Geo)Impossible was planted the moment I began to wonder how I might lead students on a path to make that discovery for themselves. I don’t recall whether it was I or my husband who came up with the actual notion of torturing challenging students with a scavenger hunt for information, but it certainly appealed to my nefarious side.

What is it, exactly?

Download the handout here.

Mission (Geo)Impossible is a series of 19 quests that teams of students complete for extra credit. Why 19? I like prime numbers. 17 seemed to few, and 23 was too many. The first time around the optimal number of quests was one of many unconstrained variables. Why extra credit? Because when I make up the quests I honestly have no idea whether students will be able to do them. They are meant to be challenging problems, and are of a type that I’ve never seen as part of an assessment or activity. Students go into this knowing it will be difficult (I make sure they know), and do so by their own choice so I can feel a little less guilty about how hard they work.

Why on Earth would students want to do this?

The enticement for them to try Mission (Geo)Impossible is a substantial bonus on their final grade. If their team completes all 19 quests, 2.5% is added to their grade. That means a 60% becomes a 62.5%. If their team finishes first, they get another 2.5% for a total of 5%.

That might seem like a lot, and I wrestled with whether this was appropriate or not, but in the end I decided it was legitimate for three reasons. First, it is a term-long project and they work very hard on it. Second, to complete it they must learn a lot of geology and do synthesis tasks at a level that I would never ask of students in an introductory physical geology class under other circumstances. Finally, I’ve applied similar curves to final grades, and with serious misgivings. To my mind, this extra credit work is a heck of a lot more legitimate than bumping grades so the class average falls in the magical 60% to 65% range.

I also try to entice them by imbuing the whole undertaking with a spirit of playful competition. Students are competing with me- I tell them I designed the quests to mess with them (true), and challenge them to beat me. They are also competing with their classmates. There is a bit of secret agent role-playing, too. It is Mission (Geo)Impossible, after all. They “activate” their teams by emailing a team name and roster to Mission (Geo)Impossible Command Central, and there is a Quest Master who confirms their activation.

How does it work?

The mechanics of the scavenger hunt are designed to keep the level of work manageable for me, to keep my interactions with teams as fair as possible, and also to leave students to their own devices. Those devices turn out to be very good, and likely better than students realize themselves, which is a big reason why I like this activity.

To begin with, I post a pdf containing 19 quests on the course website. The procedure they follow is to email their quest solutions to Mission (Geo)Impossible Command Central, and the Quest Master responds with one of three words: “correct,” “incorrect,” or “proceed.” “Proceed” means some part of their answer is correct, or they are going in the right direction, but I don’t provide any information about what they’re doing right. That keeps me from having to worry about whether I’ve given one team more of a clue than another.

They can submit as many solutions as they like, and they have taken advantage of this in interesting ways. One team submitted “anagram” as their first attempt on a quest. They were trying to figure out what sort of puzzle they were solving. If they had gotten a “proceed” they’d know it was an anagram. The puzzle turned out to be a substitution cipher rather than an anagram, but it was a clever approach nonetheless.

So what do these puzzles look like?

The quests specify a target (a general thing to aim at), and deliverables (what students must submit). Then they give the clue.

Here’s an example of one quest that they solved relatively easily:

Lisbon

Solution: Earthquake, Lisbon, Portugal

The key to this quest is realizing that the minerals can be assigned a number using the Mohs hardness scale. In the order the minerals appear, those numbers are 1, 7, 5, and 5… or 1755, a year. Students could google “events in 1755,” they might actually know what happened, or they might have read the syllabus and found the sidebar I included about the earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, that happened on 1 November, 1755.

Here is another one. It proved a bit more challenging for some students.

dancing men

Solution: Paricutin. It’s a cinder cone while the others are stratovolcanoes.

If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you’ll recognize this as the cipher from The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Solving the cipher gives the following rows of letters:

PINATUBORA

INIERFUJIY

AMAPARICUT

IN

If you break up the rows differently, you can get this:

PINATUBO

RAINIER

FUJIYAMA

PARICUTIN

These are the names of volcanoes. It’s possible students will recall what I’ve said about those volcanoes in class, and immediately realize that the first three are stratovolcanoes, while the last is a cinder cone. On the other hand, the solution might involve looking up each volcano, listing the important characteristics, noticing that Parícutin is a cinder cone while the others are not, and verifying that stratovolcano versus cinder cone is an important distinction. The latter scenario requires a lot of work and ends in a very clear idea about the difference between a stratovolcano and a cinder cone.

Anything that can be googled will be googled

When designing these quests there were a few things I wanted to accomplish. One was that students from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of interests would be a valuable part of the solution. In fact, I wanted them to realize something very specific: that their background and perspective, whether they considered themselves “science people” or not, was indeed valuable for figuring out a puzzle about science.

To make Mission (Geo)Impossible a meaningful exercise, it was important that students could not simply look up the answer somewhere. As far as possible, I tried to make the clues things that could not be put into a search engine, or something that could be searched, but would only give another clue to the problem. At first blush, this might sound next to impossible, but here’s an example of something unsearchable:

branches

Detail of a painting at St. Peter’s College

This is a blurry photograph of a corner of a painting. It’s a painting that students walk by daily. The photo is of tree branches, but they aren’t necessarily recognizable as such. There is simply nothing about this that gives you a searchable string. Students would have to recognize the painting, and proceed from there. In this case the deliverable was the age of bedrock beneath the College. Students had to realize that the painting was giving them a location, and then look at a geologic map.

Here are a few other things I kept in mind:

No extraneous information

I didn’t include things that weren’t relevant to the quest. At least not on purpose. The quests were hard enough, and there wasn’t anything to be accomplished by sending students on a false path. They did that on their own often enough.

No process of elimination

I wouldn’t give them a quest in the style of multiple choice because they could simply keep guessing until they got the right answer. Where quests had a finite number of options, there was either work involved to get those options (like the dancing men quest), or work involved in explaining a choice (ditto the dancing men).

Don’t restrict the quests to things explicitly addressed in class.

There is value in extrapolating knowledge and building on it. For example, in the case of Smokey and the Bandit, the plunging folds are easy enough to pick out with some searching, if you know what you’re looking for. However, the plunging folds I show in class are of the “textbook” variety. The ones between Atlanta and Texarkana are much more complex, but still discoverable if students think carefully about how plunging folds are expressed at Earth’s surface. In the end, they found the folds.

Use a wide variety of clues and puzzle types

As best I could, I used clues that involved a wide range of topics (literature, art, science, popular culture of the 1970s). I used puzzles that would appeal to different ways of thinking. Some involved interpreting images to get a word or phrase. For example, a pile of soil next to an apple core would be interpreted as “earth” and “core.” Some were ciphers, and some involved recognizing objects. Some were narratives, like the one below. Students used the stories to get the differences in timing between P-wave and S-wave arrivals, then used triangulation to find the location of an earthquake. But they had to find a map of Middle Earth first, and do some km to miles conversions.

earthquake

It was an earthquake in Fangorn Forest.

 

So how did this go over with the victims students?

My class was never more than 23 students, and the uptake was 2-3 active teams each time. I would need surveillance throughout the College to see exactly how they responded to the quests (and I’m not sure I’d like what I’d hear). But from conversations with students it seemed there was the right amount of frustration to make solving the quests feel like an accomplishment. In all but one case, teams that started Mission (Geo)Impossible also finished it, or else ran out of time trying.

 

They submitted solutions at 5:30 in the morning, 11:00 in the evening, and sometimes during the lecture. They brought their quests to the lecture in case I dropped a hint. They came to visit me and said things like, “This is driving me crazy,” and “Why, Karla? Why?” I successfully (I think) suppressed a diabolical grin on most occasions. In fact, they put so much work into this that I felt bad about it from time to time. But it was an optional activity, I rationalized.

Wiggle room

When I started this I had no idea whatsoever whether students would be successful, but I did intend to supply a safety net if it was needed, and make sure their work was rewarded. This is my policy with everything I try in my courses.

In the first iteration things bogged down part way through the term, so to get students going again, I gave them an option: they could request one additional clue to a quest of their choice, or they could request clues for three quests, but I would pick which ones, and I wouldn’t tell them which I chose. (Heh heh.)

Naturally, the teams negotiated an arrangement whereby they sorted out which combination of options would work out to their collective advantage, and then they shared the information. At that point I was very glad I insisted on teams rather than letting individuals play, because as individuals they could conceivably ask for enough clues to specific quests to beat the system.

 

In the second iteration, I tried a new style of puzzles that turned out to be more difficult than I intended. By the end of the term, and after a massive effort, the teams were only about half way through. In that case I awarded the team with the most quests the 5% and 2.5% to the other team.

 

The third iteration

I will do this again, but with fewer puzzles (13- still a prime number), and with fewer difficult quests than last time. I will also give students some examples of quests from previous iterations. I’m hoping that will convince more students to get involved.

I won’t relax the rule about participating in teams. I tried that the second time around, and the individual participants either did not get started, or got hopelessly off on the wrong track. I do need to find a solution for students who want to participate, but aren’t comfortable approaching other students in the class who they don’t know.

But I will find a way to get as many students involved as possible, because the potential for this activity to give students confidence in their ability to approach difficult tasks- even seemingly impossible ones- is just too important.

Oh yes, and by the way…

I dare you.

dare

Deliverable: x + y + z

Categories: Challenges, Learning technologies, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Clear As Fine-Grained Sediment Mixed With Water: A Discussion Forum

This week I’m presenting a poster at the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous. The poster is about a discussion forum activity that I do with my introductory physical geology students at St. Peter’s College. I’ve turned my poster into a blog post just in case anyone is thinking about trying a similar activity and would like to refer back to it. Alternatively, folks may simply want to confirm that some nut at an academic meeting designed a poster consisting largely of cartoons. Either way, here it is.Intro

Why

How

You can download a copy of the handout for this activity, including the rubric, here.

Examples.png

Strategies

This is a great resource from the University of Wisconsin-Stout for explaining online etiquette to students.

summary

Categories: Assessment, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sadly, This Was Necessary: Meet Dr. Panchuk

In a course announcement today:

Hi everyone,

I would like to bring a change of procedure to your attention. In the past students have addressed me by my first name, but from now on I will follow standard procedure, which is for you to address me by my academic title, Dr. Panchuk.

I have never had to make this requirement in the past, however I’ve noticed that an increasing number of students are displaying disrespectful and argumentative behaviour. The vast majority do not behave this way, but I’m hoping it will serve as a reminder in those few cases of what is appropriate conduct in an academic context.

You should not take this to mean that you aren’t permitted to raise questions about your work. These are always welcome, and I’m happy to assist you. What it does mean is that you must use an appropriate tone. This is no different from what should happen in any of your other courses.

On a related matter, be aware that the appropriate level of discourse is what would occur in a business setting. What this means is that the shortcuts you might use when sending casual text messages to a friend are not appropriate. Writing “hey cn u hlp me w/ this qustn” won’t do, and for those of you unfamiliar, is not a good approach in general if you’re trying to make a good impression. Some people who receive such a message will take it as a sign of disrespect on your part.

I imagine some of you will be horrified to receive this notice, because this isn’t how you behave or communicate, and I’m sorry to have to send it out. Nevertheless, here we are. If it’s any consolation, appropriate behaviour and communication are noticed, and do set you apart. You can read the comments section of any news story to see what I mean.

I will be sending a second announcement outlining the appropriate way to submit your assignments.

Regards,

Dr. Panchuk

Categories: Challenges, Classroom management, Distance education and e-learning, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

A Guide to Arguing Against Man-Made Climate Change

If you must, then at least do it properly…

The debate about climate change ranges from people arguing that it isn’t happening at all, to those who argue that it is happening, but is entirely natural. The debate can become quite nasty, and part of the reason for this is not that people disagree, but that they disagree without following the rules of scientific discourse. I’m guessing in many cases this is accidental- a kind of cultural unawareness. It’s like making an otherwise innocuous hand gesture while on vacation in a foreign country, only to learn later that it was the rudest possible thing you could have done.

I’ve been annoyed by poor-quality discourse on this topic for some time, and written a few draft blog posts about it, but I’ll defer to the INTJ Teacher for a summary of the key issue (and the main reason I no longer read comment sections after news stories about climate change).

critical thinking2

So now that you know the problem in general terms, let’s talk specifics.

Dismissing the data

First of all, if you’re going to make claims that the data about climate change are problematic in some way, then you should know that there is no one data set. There are thousands of data sets worked on by thousands of people.

Some people seem to think that the whole matter rests on the “hockey stick” diagram of Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes published in 1999. (You can download the paper as a pdf here.)

Hockey_stick_annotated

Annotated hockey-stick diagram

Briefly, this was an exercise in solving two kinds of problems: (1) taking temperature information from a variety of sources (e.g., tree rings) and turning it into something that could reasonably be plotted on the same diagram, and (2) figuring out how to take temperature measurements from all over the world and combine them into something representative of climate as a whole. The main reason it became controversial was that it showed a clear increase in temperature since 1850, and that result was not optimal for a certain subset of individuals with a disproportionate amount of political clout. There is a nice description of the debate about the diagram here, including arguments and counter-arguments, along with the relevant citations.

Those arguments are moot at this point, because the PAGES 2k consortium has compiled an enormous amount of data and done the whole project over again, getting essentially the same result (the green line in the figure above).  I can’t help but think that this was an in-your-face moment for Mann et al. (“In your face, Senator Inhofe!  In your face, Rep. Barton!  How d’ya like them proxies?!”)

Despite these results, if you still want to argue that the data are bad, you will need to do the following:

  • Specify which data set you are referring to. Usually this takes the form of a citation to the journal article where the data were first published.
  • Specify what is wrong with it. Was the equipment malfunctioning? Was the wrong thing being measured? Was there something in particular wrong with the analysis?
  • Assuming you are correct about that particular data set, explain why problems with that one data set can be used to dismiss conclusions from all of the other data sets. This will mean familiarizing yourself with the other data and the relevant arguments (although if you are arguing against them you would presumably have done this already).

Things that are not acceptable:

  • Attacks against the researchers. It is irrelevant whether the researchers are jerks, or whether you think they’ve been paid off. What matters are the data. If you can’t supply the necessary information, you have only conjecture.
  • Backing up your argument with someone else’s expert opinion (usually in the form of a url) if that opinion does not cover the points in the first list. It is discourteous to expect the person you are arguing with to hunt down the data backing someone else’s opinion in order to piece together your argument.
  • Arguing from the assumption that man-made climate change isn’t happening. If that’s your starting point, your arguments will tend to involve dismissing data not because there are concrete reasons to do so, but because based on your assumption, they can’t be true. This may be personally satisfying, and ring true to you, but it lacks intellectual integrity. If your argument is any good, that assumption won’t be necessary.

Climate models and uncertainty

It is a common misconception that uncertainty in the context of climate models means “we just don’t know.” Uncertainty is an actual number or envelope of values that everyone is expected to report. It describes the range of possibilities around a particular most likely outcome, and it can be very large or very small.

If you plan to dismiss model results on the basis of uncertainty, you will need to demonstrate that the uncertainty is too large to make the model useful. In cases where the envelope of uncertainty is greater than short-term variations, it may still be the case that long-term changes are much larger than the uncertainty.

Another misconception is that climate models are designed to show climate change in the same way that a baking soda and vinegar volcano is designed to demonstrate what a volcano is. Climate models take what we know of the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, and add in information like how the winds blow and how the sun heats the Earth. Then we dump in a bunch of CO2 (mathematically speaking) and see what happens. In other words, models specify mechanisms not outcomes. They are actually the reverse of the baking soda and vinegar volcano.

The mathematical equations in a model must often be solved by approximation techniques (which are not at all ad hoc, despite how that sounds), and simplified in some ways so computers can actually complete the calculations in a reasonable timeframe. However, I would argue that they are the most transparent way possible to discuss how the climate might change. They involve putting all our cards on the table and showing our best possible understanding of what’s going on, because it’s got to be in writing (i.e., computer code).

The models aren’t top secret. If you really want to know what’s in them, someone will be able to point you to the code. If the someone is very accommodating (and they often are if you’re not being belligerent or simply trying to waste their time) they might explain some of it to you. But whether or not they do that effectively is irrelevant, because if you’re going to make claims about the models, it’s your obligation to make sure you know what you’re talking about.

If climate changes naturally, then none of the present change is man-made

This is a false dichotomy. No-one is arguing that nature isn’t involved in the usual ways. What they are saying is that the usual ways don’t do all of what we’re seeing now.

A simple way to think about it is as a shape-matching exercise. We would expect that if some trigger in nature is causing the climate to change, then a graph of the temperature change should resemble that of the triggering mechanism. The IPCC has done a nice job of making this comparison easy. In the image below I’ve marked up one of their figures from the Fifth Assessment Report in the way I usually do when I’m researching something. Panel a shows the temperature record (in black), and the panels below it show the changes in temperature attributable to different causes. In the upper right I’ve taken panels b through e and squashed them until they are on the same scale as panel a.

 

IPCC comparison

Annotated shape-matching exercise

A common argument against man-made climate change is to say the sunspot cycles are to blame. You can see the temperature variations that result from these cycles in panel b, and again at the top right. While there are small scale fluctuations in a, it is quite evident that the shape of the effects of sunspot cycles cannot account for the shape of the temperature record, either in terms of having an upward trend, or in terms of the timescale of the temperature change in a. Even if you added in volcanoes (panel c), and the El Niño/ La Niña cycles (panel d), you couldn’t make the trend that appears in a.

The only graph with a similar shape is the one that shows the temperature variations we would expect from adding CO2 and aerosols at the rate humans have been doing it (panel e). The red line in panel a is what you get if you add together b through e. It doesn’t have as much variation as the black line, meaning there are still other things at play, but it does capture the over-all trends.

You needn’t rely on someone else’s complex mathematical analysis to do this. This is something you can do with your own eyeballs and commonsense-o-meter. You may still be inclined to argue that all of these graphs are made up out of thin air, but if you have a look at the many different studies involved (you can do this by reading the chapter in the IPCC report and looking at the citations), you should realize that it’s a pretty lame argument to dismiss all of them out of hand.

But if you are undeterred by said lameness, at that point anyone interested in a serious conversation is going to decide that it isn’t worth their time debating with you, because you’ve already decided that any evidence contrary to your point of view must be wrong. Nothing they can tell you or show you will make a difference, ergo the conversation is pointless. You will appear to be impervious to reason which, incidentally, will be assumed to be the case for your opinions on other matters as well, whether that impression is deserved or not. (“It’s not worth arguing with Jim… if he has an idea in his head, he won’t change his mind no matter what you tell him. He would stand under a blue sky and tell you it’s pink.”)

Scientists are paid off to say climate change is man-made

This argument is quite irrelevant given that the data are what matter, but I think part of this argument might be related to another misconception, so I’m going to address it anyway. It is true that there are millions of dollars spent on climate research grants, but this isn’t pocket money for scientists. To get a grant researchers must justify the amount of money they are asking for in terms of things like lab expenses, necessary travel, and the like. Often their salaries don’t even come into the picture because they are paid by employers, not grants. It is more likely they will be paying grad students and post docs than themselves. When they do apply for funding that will cover their own salaries, that salary must be justifiable in the context of what others in similar positions get paid. In many cases this is a matter of public record, so you can go look up the numbers for yourself.

Most research being done on climate change is funded by government grants. A very few scientists have funding from private donors (though there isn’t nearly as much money as for petroleum-related research), but there is a big check on what influence those donors can have. Research must still go through review to be published. Even if biased research did make it through review, scientists on grants are highly incentivized to pick it apart because that can be an argument for additional grants to further their own research. Getting a grant is a matter of professional survival, so competition for research grants is intense.

In conclusion

There is only one way to make arguments against man-made climate change, and that is to address data and conclusions honestly and appropriately. It may feel good to add your two cents, but if your comments amount to ad hominem attacks or generalizations so broad as to be silly, you shouldn’t expect a good response. You’ve just made the equivalent of a very rude hand gesture to people who value thoughtful and well-informed discourse.

This all seems obvious to me, and I’ve struggled to understand people who argue in a way that I can only describe as dishonest.  But maybe psychology is a factor.  The climate-change deniers need only suggest that scientists are making things up. People don’t want to feel that they’ve been fooled, and most don’t have the background to easily check such claims, so it feels much safer to settle into uninformed skepticism.

Categories: Learning strategies, Science and such, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Plagiarism-proof assignments: The Up-Goer Five Challenge

up_goer_fiveOk, so there’s probably no such thing as a plagiarism-proof assignment, but I think I’ve got a reasonable approximation thereof.

It originated with my frustration with the perpetual struggle to have students in my distance education classes answer questions in their own words. My students are using their textbooks to answer questions, and many seem to feel that a textbook is the exception to the rule when it comes to plagiarism. Some simply don’t understand that they’re doing anything wrong. From experience, I can tell you that many people who are not my students also see it that way, and complaining about it is a great way to be branded as unreasonable. The problem, as I’ve documented before, is that students who copy from their textbook also tend to fail the class. After last term, I’ve decided that it’s in my best interest to consume alcohol before grading assignments. I’m not allowed to ignore plagiarism, but what I don’t see

Absent blissful ignorance, the only way to deal with plagiarism (without causing myself a variety of problems) is to change the assignments so that plagiarism isn’t possible. Now, if you’ve attempted to do this, you know it isn’t easy. A search online will give you tips like having students put themselves in the position of a person experiencing a historical event, and explaining their perspective on the matter. That’s something students (most likely) can’t copy from the internet. But suggestions like that are not especially helpful when the topic is how volcanoes work. (Although now that I think about it, “Imagine you are an olivine crystal in a magma chamber…”)

The solution came from my online source of comfort, xkcd. Randall Munroe, the creator of the webcomic, set himself the challenge of labeling a diagram of NASA’s Saturn 5 rocket (Up Goer Five) with only the 1000 most commonly used words in the English language. Soon after, members of the geoscience community took up the challenge of explaining their fields of research in the 1000 most commonly used words. Here are two examples from a blog post by hydrogeologist Anne Jefferson. Anne writes:

” So I decided to see if I could explain urban hydrology and why I study it using only the words in the list. Here’s what I came up with:

I study how water moves in cities and other places. Water is under the ground and on top of it, and when we build things we change where it can go and how fast it gets there. This can lead to problems like wet and broken roads and houses. Our roads, houses, and animals, can also add bad things to the water. My job is to figure out what we have done to the water and how to help make it better. I also help people learn how to care about water and land. This might seem like a sad job, because often the water is very bad and we are not going to make things perfect, but I like knowing that I’m helping make things better.

Science, teach, observe, measure, buildings, and any synonym for waste/feces were among the words I had to write my way around. If I hadn’t had access to “water”, I might have given up in despair.

But my challenge was nothing compared to that faced by Chris, as he explained paleomagnetism without the word magnet:

I study what rocks tell us about how the ground moves and changes over many, many (more than a hundred times a hundred times a hundred) years. I can do this because little bits hidden inside a rock can remember where they were when they formed, and can give us their memories if we ask them in the right way. From these memories we can tell how far and how fast the rocks have moved, and if they have been turned around, in the time since they were made. It is important to know the stories of the past that rocks tell, because it is only by understanding that story that we really understand the place where we live, how to find the things that we need to live there, and how it might change in the years to come. We also need to know these things so we can find the places where the ground can move or shake very fast, which can be very bad for us and our homes.”

Is that brilliant, or what?! To make it even better, Theo Sanderson developed a text editor to check whether only those words have been used. This is what happened when I typed part of the introduction to the chapter on volcanoes:

Up-Goer Five text editor

Yes, fortunately it has the word “rock.”

I decided to test-drive this with my class. I gave them the option of answering their assignment questions in this way. It’s difficult, so they got bonus points for doing it. A handful attempted it, and that was probably the most fun I’ve ever had grading assignments. If you’d like to give this kind of assignment a shot, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Students (and colleagues) may be skeptical. Explain that the exercise requires a solid knowledge of the subject matter (in contrast to paraphrasing the textbook) and is a very effective way for students to diagnose whether they know what they think they know. In my books, that gives it a high score in the learning per unit time category.
  • The text editor has some work-arounds, like putting single quotes around a word, or adding “Mr or “Mrs” in front of a word (e.g., Mr Magma). Head those off at the pass, or you’ll get “But you didn’t say we couldn’t!”
  • You may wish to allow certain words for the assignment or for specific questions, depending on your goals. For example, if I were less diabolical, I might consider allowing the use of “lava.” The other reason for not allowing “lava” is that I want to be sure they know what it means. In contrast, I probably wouldn’t make them struggle with “North America.”
  • Make it clear that simple language does not mean simple answers. I found that students tended to give imprecise answers that didn’t address important details. I don’t think they were trying to cut corners- they just didn’t think it was necessary. If I were to do this again I would give them a rubric with examples of what is and isn’t adequate.
  • Recommend that they write out the key points of their answers in normal language first, and in a separate document, and then attempt to translate it.
  • Suggest that they use analogies or comparisons if they are stuck. For example, Randall Munroe refers to hydrogen as “the kind of air that once burned a big sky bag.”
  • Make the assignment shorter than you might otherwise, and focus on key objectives. Doing an assignment this way is a lot of work, and time consuming.
  • And finally, (as with all assignments) try it yourself first.

In that spirit:

I like to make stories with numbers to learn what happens when things go into the air that make air hot. Very old rocks from deep under water say things that help make number stories. The number stories are not perfect but they still tell us important ideas about how our home works. Some day the number stories about how old air got hot might come true again, but maybe if people know the old number stories, they will stop hurting the air. If they don’t stop hurting the air, it will be sad for us because our home will change in bad ways.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning strategies, Learning technologies, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to make sense of historical geology

Imagine that someone changed the clock on you, breaking the day into irregular blocks, and giving the blocks names and symbols in no systematic way. Now imagine that you are given a list of events to memorize- activities of people you don’t know at places with which you are unfamiliar:

Fantasy clock with radiolarians

No, they’re not aliens. They’re radiolarians. And aren’t you glad you don’t use this to tell time?

During the Early Fizz, Pierre Bezukhov and Cthulu squared off on Callisto. By Middle to Late Fizz, Pierre Bezukhov had the advantage, so Cthulu migrated to Kore. At the Fizz-Zoot boundary, Dmitry Dokhturov and a shoggoth appeared on Europa, but both went extinct by the end of the Zoot, likely due to a lack of habitat. Beginning in the Flap, Callisto, Europa, and Taygete began a collision that culminated in their merger by mid-Flap. Land bridges that formed allowed the migration of Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetskaya from her original habitat on Taygete, leaving a niche open, and allowing Nyarlathotep to diversify.

Now stuff that in your head so I can ask you about it on an exam, in no particular order.

If you are familiar with the moons of Jupiter, the characters of War and Peace, or the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, then you might have a chance at remembering some of the names, but their relationships would probably be new to you. This is the scenario faced by students taking introductory historical geology.

The clock they have to work with is the Geological Time Scale– a way geologists have of carving up Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history into chunks that reflect key events or phases. The chunks are not the same size, and there are chunks within chunks. The exact dates when each chunk (or sub-chunk) starts and ends are moving every few years as geologists get better information about the timing of key events that define the boundaries. There is no system- you just have to memorize it, and you’d better do it in a hurry, because everything you will learn about the Earth’s history will be described in terms of the Geological Time Scale.

Aside from learning this new clock, students must also learn the names of extinct and extant organisms, the names and histories of various continents and oceans, extant or otherwise, and the geological processes that have influenced those organisms, continents, and oceans. Did I mention that students usually have to learn a range of dates, because we can’t be sure of the actual date, and/or because the event happened over millions or hundreds of millions of years? Oh, and one more thing- the dates of different events will overlap to varying degrees, and the story lines will be almost impossible to disentangle from each other. But don’t worry- the exam is multiple choice.

The obvious way to organize all of this information is a timeline, and most textbooks have a version of the Geological Time Scale with some dates and key events marked on it. The problem is that to construct a timeline with all of the information that students need, you would have to devote a book to that alone, so most of these are just Geological Time Scales with some pretty pictures attached. The Geologic Time Spiral (below), showing Earth history spiraling away from the beginning of time, is a classic, and fascinating to look at, but of limited use to my students.  The durations of the events pictured are gross approximations, there is no description of those events, and there is no sense of the spatial changes that occurred. The timeline also glosses over the multiple story lines in Earth history, and the complex interconnections between story lines.

A spiral diagram illustrating the evolution of life on Earth through geological time

Geological Time Spiral: The names of units within the Geological Time Scale are written along the edges.

How to fix it

Make it adapt to scaling

What’s needed is a timeline in electronic format, but not just any timeline- it should be a scalable timeline. Users must be able to zoom out to see big-picture, long-term history, or zoom in to see the finer details. It would be the temporal analog to Google Maps, where the details which appear, including the divisions of the Geological Time Scale itself, depend on the scale. This would solve the problem of the necessarily limited amount of information in current timelines, but it would also do something more important. Users would be able to easily go back and forth between scales to understand how events are situated in a broader context. This is what you do every time you are planning a route to a new address- look at the larger map of the city to see the main thoroughfares, then zoom in to the streets within a particular neighbourhood, then zoom out again to remind yourself where the neighbourhood is relative to the freeway. Then you might zoom in again to the exact address, and depending on the tool you are using, you might look at a picture of the building that you are headed to.

Show cause and effect relationships

In Google Maps, you can see how streets are connected to each other. In Earth history, individual story lines are interconnected in the same way, and the complexity of city streets is probably not a bad analogy for the complexity of these interconnections. The scalable timeline would also show branches that link one story line to other stories, so a user could follow a single timeline, or choose to follow a branch and see how another series of events was impacted by the first story line. Because of how complex the interactions are, these branches would also have to appear or disappear depending on the scale, and depending on which timeline is being viewed.

Add multimedia

Like Google Maps, where resources like photographs, or information like phone numbers are linked to particular points in space, the timeline would have resources linked to a particular point in time, to a broader range of events, or to branches that connect related events. There could be pictures of the organisms that existed, or videos to explain a concept or expand on the details of an event. This would replace the limited images in the timelines that exist at present.

Add a responsive map

The scalable timeline should have an easy way to view the geographic location of a particular event, if it happens to occur in a specific place. This would require an omnipresent world map that lights up in the right spots to correspond to a particular event, but which also changes to reflect the shifting positions of the continents. The map would show where an event happened, but also where climate zones are, where glaciers are present, and where other key contemporaneous events occurred.

Get hypothetical

Hypothetical timelines could be introduced to consider alternative histories. For example, what would have happened if Earth had never been hit by an extraterrestrial object 65 million years ago? Would we even exist if mammals hadn’t been able to take over niches left open by the extinction of the dinosaurs? Or would the dinosaurs have gone extinct anyway for some other reason? Hypothetical timelines could be places to host discussions.

No more Brontosauruses

Brontosaurus illustration from 1896

Brontosaurus, redlined. Skeleton illustration appeared in “The Dinosaurs of North America” by O. C. Marsh (1896)

A timeline of this nature would be much easier to update as new data become available, or as the thinking about Earth history changes. In the popular Golden Guide to Fossils, which some of my students use, there still exists an entry for  Brontosaurus. Brontosauruses were invented by mistake in 1879 because Othniel Charles Marsh was in a rush to publish and didn’t realize that his new dinosaur find was just an adult version of a juvenile dinosaur he had already documented, called Apatosaurus.  The  iconic dinosaur that came to be known as Brontosaurus was actually Apatosaurus with the wrong head attached. The Brontosaurus story could be corrected with a few keystrokes and turned into a teachable moment about the challenges of interpreting paleontological data.

Why would it work?

It would work because narratives are better than lists. The standard timeline offers a way to summarize some of the events in Earth’s history, and to express temporal relationships as spatial ones, but it doesn’t go far enough to make the events into a meaningful whole. A list of seemingly isolated events is just that- a list. It takes context and meaning to make it a story, and stories are things we can remember and understand. There’s a reason you need to write down your grocery list to remember it, but you don’t need notes to be able to relate a relatively trivial story about what your dog did the other day. Whether you get all of the groceries you need or not will likely have a bigger impact on your life than if you can remember your dog story, but if you remember the dog story, it’s because it means something to you. A scalable timeline is a dog story rather than a grocery list because it will make it easy to examine the relationships between events in Earth history, and to synthesize essential details into a meaningful whole.

 

Categories: Learning technologies, Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The plaid adventures

Puppy dressed in plaid“Will this be on the exam?”

Answering “no” to that question is a great way to send whatever I’ve just said right to the bottom of a student’s Things I Have to Care About list.  Imagine the consequences of answering “Yes, but the exam is optional.”

Yet this is the approach John Boyer (a.k.a. the Plaid Avenger) takes with his World Regions geography class at Virginia Tech.  He and his technical assistant Katie Pritchard have pioneered innovative uses for classroom technology, enabling him to offer his students one-of-a-kind experiences.  Earlier this week the ILT community learned more about how John does it.

In his course, students choose how they will accumulate points toward their final grades.  They can take exams and quizzes, but they can also tweet in the persona of a world leader, follow and comment on news feeds, and view and report on international films.  I wondered, operating on the principle that the threat of a measurement means that there will indeed be something to measure, how he can offer so many choices and still point his students in the direction of the necessary content.   If “content” means a specific set of facts and figures, then it seems he doesn’t.

It appears to be possible (in theory, and in 2012) for a student to earn more points than are required for an A by doing activities that do not involve predetermined content.  An example would be following and commenting on a news feed: a student could be learning about any event, occurring anywhere in the world.

I imagine there is specific information that John Boyer would like his students to learn, like where Africa is.  Judging by the amount of work involved (in 2012) to get points by means other than exams and quizzes, students probably do opt for activities where content is controlled, and could face questions about things like the location of Africa. But what if a student fails to learn Africa’s location during the course because he or she is not required to produce that information?  Maybe this isn’t a problem.  If John Boyer’s students develop a life-long interest in global current affairs, odds are they will eventually want to know where Africa is, and more besides.

Is this for everyone?  It depends on the goal.  In the context of geology, it would be a great way to produce a generation of students who, for the rest of their lives, inadvertently scanned gravel driveways for interesting rocks, and the walls of stone buildings for fossils.  I would be more cautious with geology majors, who need specific knowledge to succeed in their advanced classes, and whose grades are used to decide if they are sufficiently equipped for more advanced material.  If an A means more about work ethic than knowledge, we could be setting students up to fail.

 

Categories: Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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