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Actual Earth, virtual Earth; two approaches to learning earth systems science

Actual Earth, virtual Earth; two approaches to learning earth systems science

Abstracts with Programs - Geological Society of America 29(6): 181

We have created two new Earth systems science classes at Everett Community College, one field-based and one Internet-based. Both are founded on the idea that the best way to learn about Earth systems is to observe and analyze the natural world as directly as possible. Both classes successfully gave students the opportunity and guidance to experience, explore, and analyze the world at levels not attainable in a traditional lecture, lab, and textbook curriculum.The first course centered around a week on Hawaii, studying the geologic history of active and dormant volcanoes, the flora and fauna of a remote oceanic island, stages of ecological development on lava flows ranging in age from less than a year to thousands of years, and the decimation of endemic species by introduced species and habitat destruction. The purpose of the class was to have students learn how geology is intimately tied to other Earth systems by immersing them in a geologically dynamic environment that also functions as a world-class natural biological laboratory. The Hawaii class provided students with unique and exotic science learning experiences that highlighted Earth systems interactions, experiences the students are likely to remember for the rest of their lives. For the second class reported here, we revamped the introduction to Earth systems science class at Everett to an Internet-based distance learning class, with weekly meetings for hands-on lab exercises. Each week, students read a tutorial on the class home page, then linked to Web sites for information that they used to perform homework assignments. Each student also completed a field-based term project, for which they had to observe, document, and explain Earth system linkages in a local geological-ecological setting. The thoroughly successful results of the Internet-based class may be partly due to the weekly meetings and hands-on lab exercises, which also allowed for face-to-face discussion of difficult topics and resolution of procedural difficulties. In order for students using the Internet to achieve the learning goals that an instructor has in mind, the instructor has to provide themes, definitions, assignments, and guidance. The Internet proved to be a resource, and my design of the class Web page and Internet assignments allowed me to provide a filter and a lens with which to direct student learning. The curriculum required students to think critically, read instructions, and stay organized. It was common for a student to report feeling frustrated that he or she couldn't just look up the answers, but had to deduce them from evidence obtained through diligent effort. I take that as a sign of success.

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