All of My Faults Are Stress Related

I’m rethinking one of my courses, an upper level general education course called “The Control of Nature.” I’ve been blogging my way through the course redesign process, starting with past problems with the course and with my various practical constraints (class schedule, physical space, student background). I’m using an online tutorial to guide me through the process, and now I’m finally moving towards thinking about the course itself.

Before I actually start redesigning lectures and in-class exercises and assignments, I need to figure out what I want students to be able to do when they get out of the class. But I’ve got a confession. When I think about goals, they are always in the context of the class that I already teach – in fact, for one of them, I keep trying to articulate my goals for a particular assignment that worked well. And when I think about the content that would allow me to acheive those goals, I tend to stick with the familiar – the content that I’ve taught in the past. So I’m not designing an entirely new course. But the questions about goals and content still help me figure out what’s wrong with the parts of the class that didn’t work. (And I like to keep using what works in classes anyway – as I told people at the Teaching Intro Geosciences workshop last summer, I prefer evolution to design.)

So. Goals. (Goals and content, under the fold.)

The tutorial gives some good advice:

  • Think about who the students are, and what they need. In my case, my students aren’t going to be geologists, but they’re going to live on this planet. (For the foreseeable future, at least.) And the class has to fulfill a particular graduation requirement.
  • Set goals with higher order thinking skills (“Students will be able to predict/analyze/design/interpret/critique…”) rather than goals with lower order thinking skills (“Students will be able to list/explain/identify…”) That doesn’t mean that people don’t need the lower order skills, too, but the need for them is wrapped up in a higher order skill.
  • Set goals that are concrete, that have measurable outcomes. “Appreciating” and “valuing” are great, but how do you know if students really are valuing something (as opposed to telling you what they know you want to hear)?

Before I can set any goals of my own, I need to keep in mind the outcomes expected from this part of the gen ed program:

After a student has completed a course or an experience that counts for the EGC requirement, they will have:

  • Demonstrated an awareness of the global dimensions of social, ecological, political, economic, or cultural systems.
  • Critically analyzed the global phenomena, problems, issues, or topics that are the specific focus of the course using diverse cultural perspectives and multiple disciplinary frameworks.
  • Identified possible responses to the global phenomena, problems, issues or topics that are the specific focus of the course. These responses may be enacted by individuals, social networks, movements, organizations, governments or other entities.

(Note that some of these outcomes are phrased using words that the course design tutorial discourages. I’ll have to work around that.)

Ok. What does this mean for me?

  1. The course needs to have a global dimension. Geology is inherently global (though perhaps not in the sense that my colleagues in the humanities mean), but I read that as meaning that I should look for examples outside North America.
  2. Somehow I need to incorporate other disciplines and cultures into the discussions, despite being a white American scientist myself.
  3. The students need to think about responses to the problems covered in class – they aren’t required to take action, but they need to think about it.

So… after several iterations (in which I tried to figure out whether I was repeating myself), here’s what I’ve got:

  1. Students will be able to analyze responses to historical, recent, and future disasters in many parts of the world.
  2. Students will be able to evaluate possible strategies for preventing or responding to natural disasters.
  3. Students will be able to evaluate and critique the response to a potential or recent natural hazard (beyond the examples discussed in class). (This is the one I’m cheating on – this is essentially the final assignment that I’ve used in the past.)

But not all of the goals of a college course have to do with the material in it. In fact, the most useful things students learn may be skills – how to write, how to give oral presentations, how to solve problems, how to work in groups. The tutorial makes a good point: students don’t acquire skills from a single end-of-semester project. They need practice, and constant feedback. In my case, that means I’m not going to try to improve students’ writing or speaking skills during this class. I simply don’t have time during five weeks to comment on multiple papers or presentations. And besides, these are juniors and seniors, most of whom will have been through two composition classes, and many of whom will have given presentations in many different classes. They’ve had practice, and they’ve gotten feedback from professors in their disciplines. I don’t want to make English majors write like science majors. I’m better off thinking about the skills the students might need in order to acheive those other goals.

So, my ancillary skills goals:

I would like students to learn to:

  1. critically assess information (especially from Internet sources). (In a five-week class at a college with a small library, where are students going to find information about natural hazards on the other side of the world? I may be a cranky cane-shaking curmudgeon at times – after all, it’s not too hard to find 20 online sources that claim that the Earth is flat – but I’m reasonably practical, too.)
  2. use maps and/or Google Earth to identify potential hazards. (In the past, I’ve wanted students to learn to read topo maps. But Google Earth is just so cool, and is a great way to visualize landscapes and distances. Plus it’s free. And I’ve used it to evaluate hazards when buying a house, so I figure that students could as well. Geeky? Maybe. But it’s good to be a little geeky.)

The final step, before designing the course itself, is to choose the content. It’s possible to acheive my goals with a lot of different content, so I’m going to cheat and use the topics that I’ve done before, with some possible additions:

  1. Flood and hurricane hazards on deltas. (The first section of The Control of Nature deals with the Mississippi delta, and the attempt to keep the Mississippi River from being captured by the Atchafalaya. The last time I taught this, we spent a lot of time talking about Hurricane Katrina. It was the best part of the class, and I think I would like to keep using Katrina as a focus. Plus we could also talk about last year’s Cyclone Nargis, as an example of a similar process in a different part of the world.)
  2. Volcanoes. (“Cooling the Lava” is the most entertaining part of the book, and In the Path of a Killer Volcano is the best disaster movie ever. I’d like to keep working with them, and use the eruption of Chaiten this year as an example of dealing with a different type of volcano in a different part of the world. Plus, I can send students to read Eruptions to see critiques of media coverage.)
  3. Fire-related debris flows. (There was a large forest fire near Durango in 2002, and it was followed by debris flows, kind of like in Los Angeles. But the vegetation, weather, and development patterns here are different. I’ve got a good field trip site to one of the debris flows – I could end the class by taking the students to see what some local property owners have done to attempt to control nature themselves. After going global, I would like to end by bringing it all home. It’s easy to think that those other places are just plain dangerous, but home is safe from all that. I would like to get students to evaluate the places where they live, as well as the other side of the world.)

So I’ve got goals and content. Now I just need to figure out what to do. How am I going to get students to learn to evaluate internet sources, especially when they are non-experts? Can I integrate Google Earth into discussions of the background geology – can I use it to help figure out what a drainage basin is, or to recognize flood plains, or to tell apart different types of volcanoes, or to figure out what landscape characteristics contribute to a debris flow hazard? (I bet I could get the class switched into a computer lab if I really wanted to.) And how can I get them analyzing responses and critiquing different options, especially when any given source (including McPhee’s book) tends to have some favored solution in mind?

I’ve just started looking at the next step – planning the course. Any suggestions about possible activities, or readings, or ways to get students to hunt for readings themselves are welcome!

Comments

  1. #1 David
    March 13, 2009

    I doubt your institution would accept the concept, but I suggest you design the class with your students from day one, based on the general perimeters as expected from this part of the gen ed program. Provide menus from which teams may select discovery/design projects, and solicit alternative input. And so on.

  2. #2 Silver Fox
    March 14, 2009

    I like the debate ideas presented in earlier comments (Callan mentioned it), though getting students to actually debate might require a kind of either-or approach – save New Orleans (or Chaiten) or not – rebuild or maintain Juneau in the path of avalanches or tear down the town and make people move. It’s hard for me to think of examples that might relate to your students, though. I imagine some students would be for rebuilding and finding ways to reroute avalances or Icelandic flows, and that some would be against that – but if it was their own home town in question, their story might change.

    One thought occurred to me: would John McPhee come to your class, and could that possibly invigorate discussions?

    I think you have an amazing way of thinking through these things, writing them out, and coming up with solutions. And you’ve got a great new forum here!

  3. #3 Natalie
    March 14, 2009

    One exercise I have my students in an Understanding Science class (talk about a broad topic for a science course) is to read articles promoting two sides of an issue, summarize the articles, and then discuss what kind of bias the author might be bringing to the article.

    I also make them decide which side of the issue they stand on and talk to some of their friends to see what side of the issue their friends stand on. It brings some good discussion to the class.

  4. #4 Kim
    March 14, 2009

    One of the commenters on Eruptions just mentioned a Journal of Geoscience Education article that I want to look at – there’s an exercise that might be perfect.

    Simulating Social and Political Influences on Hazard Analysis through a Classroom Role Playing Exercise

  5. #5 Michael
    March 15, 2009

    I’ve been following this forum with interest – it raises all kinds of fundamental and interesting issues.

    To chip in with something that I get particularly exercised about, under the “evaluating strategies” and “critically assessing information” headings, it would, I believe, be fundamental to lay out the definitions, analysis, and meaning of RISK and UNCERTAINTY. We read so much rubbish when it comes to this thorny topic (the surprise when the “hundred year flood” occurred yesterday, that there is a “one in 7892 chance of a meteorite striking North America before January 2055″ and so on) that a proper grasp of the concept and how to evaluate it would be a valuable weapon in your students’ arsenal.