Project Sisyphus
Project Sisyphus

Question I : What do you do in the first week to capture the attention of your students? Is there a particular scenario or example or resource or exercise that you have "perfected" to accomplish this objective?

The Panel Responses

  1. Terry Wright, Sonoma State University

      G 110; Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Mountains

      The trick in this class is to get the students interested, and hold their interest. Although I would think that the subject matter, Geologic Violence, would fit in perfectly with the stuff the media bombards us with every day, it is obvious that many students are only there because they have to be, and would much rather be at the pub or playing frisbee on the lawn. In incorporate a dynamic lecture style with lots of surprises and demos to keep them hopping. The first period, I line them up and snake the line back, doubling back on the entire class, so that I get to meet everyone and smile at them, and they get to meet me personally and everyone else in the class. The personal contact seems to help interest and I continue that with the first internet project.

      I start out with a discussion of earthquake effects on people, and ask the students to email me an earthquake story as part of their introduction to email and the internet. They email to a listserv I have set up for the class, so that others will be able to get to know their experiences. I take the best stories and post them on the class web site, and attempt to revise this each semester, so by now I have some really good ones that anyone can read. This is part of their grade (5%), so I get their attention right away, and get them used to using the internet as a tool for information. I respond with a personal note, which takes a lot of time, but makes me feel more connected to them and hopefully them to me.

      On the second week, after we have started talking about earthquakes in force, they have to look up and report on the data on a recent earthquake in the area, of which there are many with as many as 5 a day at the Geysers which is only 20 miles north of campus. I also use the USGS maps of recent earthquakes and make overheads of these maps so that if an event happens, I can have them checking up on the data, and can present the data in class the next available period.The trick in this class is to get the students interested, and hold their interest. Although I would think that the subject matter, Geologic Violence, would fit in perfectly with the stuff the media bombards us with every day, it is obvious that many students are only there because they have to be, and would much rather be at the pub or playing frisbee on the lawn. In incorporate a dynamic lecture style with lots of surprises and demos to keep them hopping. The first period, I line them up and snake the line back, doubling back on the entire class, so that I get to meet everyone and smile at them, and they get to meet me personally and everyone else in the class. The personal contact seems to help interest and I continue that with the first internet project.

  2. John C. Butler, Moderator, University of Houston

      Geology 1330, Physical Geology

      Several years ago I started with a slide show in which the students were asked to imagine that they were on a space ship approaching planet Earth. The show begins in "outer space" and each successive slide is closer to Earth. What can you deduce about the planet from various distances from its surface? We look at the land/water distribution, coast lines, disturbances in the atmosphere, etc. Closer in we look at variations in elevation of the land surface and evidence of "structure" in elevated regions. Near the surface we look at effects of wind, water and ice, volcanism and earthquakes. Still closer we look at mineral and atomic structure.

      There is (was?) a short film at the Smithsonian which did something similar with the focus on structure at different scales. Good pictures (including shots with students on field trips) help.

      This gives me a way to talk about the course and where we are headed and, why we are doing this exploration of a planet.

      Several years ago I started giving "pop quizes" with a twist. The first is usually on the first day of class. I ask the students to pair off with someone other than the student they are sitting beside. I teach in a room with tables and chairs so it is fairly easy to get around. They have about 5 minutes to talk about possible answers and both must agree to the answer that they submit. Usually I wait until about the end of class to think of the question for the day. Often the question relates to something they asked me during the class. I try and do this about 6-8 times throughout the semester. Initial response is ...."what, get up and move around? work together on an answer? how micky mouse can you get? But, overall, at the end of the semester they look forward to the pop quizes. Does this help attendance? Probably.

  • Warren Huff, University of Cincinnati

      In some ways, the first week of classes is the easiest, particularly when it comes to first year students. Excitement and anticipation are at their peak. Students are thrilled to be on their own, yet also nervous and anxious about their ability to do college work. Most of them are a bit stunned by the class size (usually around 400 in the fall term) and by the prospect of this "person" up there in front of them some distance away being their teacher. The problem for me is not so much how to get their attention, because I have it 100% from the first moment I begin using a superb sound system in a room with excellent acoustics, network connection, and large-screen video projection.

      The real problem is how to transform that attention into engagement. So in week 1 I focus on on two things: how geology relates to things they already know something about or are interested in, and how to communicate with me. To get them thinking about geology I talk a little about the course resources (text, publisher's CD-ROM, and the course web site) and testing methods, and walk them through a demo of logging on and accessing the course web page. I find that incoming UC students are, for the most part, computer literate. But a minority, perhaps 5-10%, need help with basic computer skills, so I ask for volunteers from the class to help those who need it. Later on in the course I identify a group of student "tutors" who, by virtue of their A-standing are asked to help out with those who are struggling, in return for skipping an exam. I also give a "pre-test" the first day of class and post the answers in the form of hyperlinked questions. I explain that this is not part of their grade, but only a way for me (and for them) to see what background information (or misinformation) they bring to the course. The first few lectures are directed toward the relevance of geology to larger societal issues and global concerns.

      I ask everyone in class to activate their email accounts and send me a message (all incoming UC students are automatically provided with email accounts). About half do during the first week. I also make an effort to talk individually with students before and after class, and to encourage them to see me outside of class as often as they wish. My goal is to have them walk out of the first class thinking, "hey, this course might not be so bad after all."


  • David McConnell , University of Akron

      I will be teaching an Environmental Geology course this semester. In the past I have presented traditional lectures and assigned some on-line exercises as part of the course work. This semester I am attempting to involve the students during lecture with in-class activities combined with short lecture segments. These activities will involve the students working together in informal groups (4 per group).

      During the first week the course content will be as follows:

      Day 1 - Introduction to the course.

        A pre-test (for departmental assessment purposes)
        Discussion of the course website, student responsibilities (e.g. reading before class meetings), grading policy etc.
        Groups will be asked to define the term "environment" as we discuss the question, What is environmental geology? If time permits we will also examine how we as individuals interact with the environment. If I had a 75 minute lecture instead of a 50-minute class I would show a short clip (5-10 minutes) from the movie Koyaanisqatsi (great visuals of earth scenes) before posing the question about the environment.

      Day 2 - The scientific method.

      Students will take a reading quiz when they walk in the door. The quiz will ask three simple multiple-choice questions about their first reading assignment. The idea behind the quiz is that there are some terrific books (and websites) that offer a great introduction to the course material. I think it is a waste of the student's time and my own to just regurgitate the same material in lecture that the book covers. Rather, I want to use the lecture to apply the reading material and to make students think more deeply about what they read. (Its only taken me 12 years to figure this out).

        First lecture segment - discussion of the key points of the scientific method followed by group exercise where students are asked to identify an example of the use of the scientific method from their daily lives (e.g. in choice of route to school). (Total time ~15 minutes)
        Second lecture segment - Example of Alvarez hypothesis of dinosaur extinction with emphasis on difference between observation and hypothesis. Group exercise where students are presented with observations - water pollution downstream from several potential pollution sources. Students are asked to suggest experiments that could be conducted to determine the source of contamination. Student groups are expected to identify where they should sample, how often should samples be collected, and think about what they should be looking for. (Total time ~15-25 minutes)
        Third lecture segment - What is the role of science in the environment? (Geologic hazards, manage resources, monitor human activity [e.g. pollution])

      Day 3 - Our Environmental Heritage

        Students will take a reading quiz when they walk in the door.

        Today's class is something I like to do at the beginning of the semester to give students an appreciation of how environmental thought has evolved in the U.S. over the last four centuries. Students will read material and from my Good Earth Website. I encourage participants to check out the Good Earth.

        In class there will be a single group exercise where the students will identify key environmental actions/events/legislation for four 50 year intervals from 1800-2000. Lecture begins with brief introduction by me as to how environmental interaction changed in North America prior to 1800. Student groups will be asked to identify key environmental changes from 1800-1850. To get them in the mood they will be given handouts that include exerpts from an address made by George Perkins Marsh to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vt, in 1847. The exerpts (3-4 pages) describe Marsh's views on how "modern" farmers are better caretakers of the land than Native tribes (easily refuted, I hope) and how deforestation (often for agriculture) harmed the environment. The reading will be divided in half with two people from each group reading one half. The groups will then summarize the key points and a general discussion will follow on how society impacted the land. (Marsh's address is available on the Library of Congress website

        I Continue with group discussions of key environmental trends for 1850-1900 (first federal land conservation, early conservation organizations, national wildlife protection), 1900-1950 (TR-conservation president, Hetch Hetchy controversy, John Muir, Dust Bowl), 1950-2000 (conservation becomes environmentalism, pollution, Silent Spring, Earth Day, global environmental issues).

        While I consider the in-class activities important, I also want students to think about these issues outside of class. I was also looking for a way to encourage student writing and to diminish the significance of mulitple-choice exams. Consequently, each week students will be given assignments from on-line exercises that I have developed over the last couple of years. Suitable exercises for the first week might include:

        1. About the Weather

        2. Find a Recent Earthquake

        3. Find the EPA's home page

        4. Search Newspagers for News of Recent Environmental Issues

        5. Global Warming and the Scientific Method

        6. Personal History Timelines for Key Environmentalists

        Students will be required to complete at least 10 exercises over the course of the semester. Obviously these exercises require use of the Web. The Geology department at U. of Akron established a 20-machine computer lab (open 9-9 daily) to ensure that all students have access to the internet. All machines are linked to the Web and all are connected to printers. There are several other computer labs around campus and all Akron students are automatically given an internet ID when they register for classes and we make a big effort during the first few weeks to provide help for those who may need it to get onto the internet. I have had a significant web component in my introductory geology courses for the last two years and I have yet to have anyone complain (beyond the times - thankfully few - when the server is down).

        Gosh, that seems like a lot of stuff. I am eager to get some feedback on this as I'm going to be learning as much about the pedagogy as the students in the opening weeks of the semester.

  • Roger Suthern ,Oxford Brookes

      Our students encounter the mythical island of Leornian for the first time, when each receives a copy of the colour geological map of the island during the first 3-hour lab session. We use the map in two ways in this first class.

      Firstly we use it as a topographic map, to revise concepts such as scales, contours and co-ordinates. Some students are surprisingly 'rusty' on this - many don't seem to have day-to-day contact with maps, but most seem reasonably confident by the end of the class.

      Secondly, we try to introduce the main geological components of Leornian in a nutshell, starting with a brief introduction to the geological map, and a few samples to give a taste of the practical classes for the rest of the course. The samples illustrate the geological cycle as applied to the rocks of Leornian. We start with the central granite and look at its minerals. Next we examine a sand sample produced by weathering of the granite. We follow this sediment down a river to the coast, studying changes in composition of the sand through plotting simple histograms. The sand becomes a sandstone, and involved in folding and faulting, seen in field photographs. Finally, students are briefly introduced to regional metamorphism and partial melting, using a large spectacular display specimen of migmatite. Our students have different backgrounds. Roughly half are geology majors. Of these, maybe half will have taken geology as a major subject ('A'level) in their last two years of high school. We need to keep them interested, without 'losing' those who have never done geology before.

      A copy of the complete text for this lab will shortly be posted.

      We've used this approach since rewriting the course four or five years ago, and it seems to work reasonably well. Maps are intrinsically interesting (or is that just my subjective view?). It is important to limit the number of samples so as not to overwhelm students with little experience of geology.

      Roger Suthren

  • James Myers, University of Wyoming

      In the past, I have concentrated on explaining the mechanics of the course during the first week of classes. The grading scheme and scope of the course is explained. I go through the structure of the class¼ Web site, show students what is available to them on-line and explain what class assignments must be completed and submitted on-line. I tell students they will need to establish an email account (either through the university or via some other provider) for communication with me and that they will need to register with the class Web database. Because of logistical constraints, we do not have a lab session the first week of class so I use that time to help anyone who is not computer-savvy and would like help getting started. I set up several help sessions during the week and staff them by myself or with TAs. We help students create their UW email account, familiarize them with Web browsers, show them how to conduct searches on-line, explain plug-ins and indicate the ones we use on the class Web site. If they have a home computer, we try to provide them with some help and resources for getting it on-line, installing Web browsers and downloading necessary plug-ins.

      With regards to course content, I have not done anything special the first week of classes in the past. Typically I begin with the formation of the solar system and simply progress into the rest of the class. I think I am going to change this however. After teaching the course for several years, I have decided I need to try to show the students why geology is important to their everyday existence. Consequently, I plan to use the first week of classes to illustrate how geology impacts everyday life in a modern industrialized society. Although I have not decided on the exact examples I will use yet here are several I am considering;

      1. geology and water: case studies of the Corps engineering projects on the Mississippi and how they interact with stream processes; the influence of uplift on stream processes and the irrigation systems of the Moche, a pre-Inca society; problems of groundwater and irrigation systems; water pollution and the importance in understanding groundwater hydrology and surface water dynamics
      2. geologic hazards: a discussion of geologic hazards and society, point out that most of the world¼s population live on the Pacific rim where they are exposed to many catastrophic geologic hazards; discuss how an understanding of geology can be used to mitigate the effects of these events, e.g. in earthquake prone regions not building on fill or loose sedimentary deposits
      3. geology and engineering: use examples of dam failures to illustrate how a geologic knowledge of the region would have prevented such disasters
      4. geology and earth resources: discuss modern societies need for a wide range of earth materials, explain how geology is used to find and extract these deposits and; point out the importance of geology in determining how to extract these resources with minimal environmental impact
      5. geology and land-use planning: point out how the world¼s population is growing and placing a greater premium on land surface, use historical data to show that the number of people living in "geologic dangerous" areas has steadily increased and is likely to keep increasing for the foreseeable future; use regional and national case studies to show how geology can be an important component in land-use planning, show how such planning can benefit a society both economically and socially.

      Using this introduction, I hope to show students the societal importance of geology. I want them to realize that the subjects covered in the course could provide them with the means to make informed decisions as a citizen. Examples of such decisions include: voting on land-use issues in their community, evaluating (objectively) the environmental impacts of proposals to utilize the earth resources in their county, state or the nation, deciding whether or not to buy a house on a flood-plain or voting on water development issues. If possible, I would like to convince a large number of the class that understanding the topics we will discuss in class have more importance that simply getting a good grade in the class. Ultimately, they could affect their quality of life.

  • Pam Gore, Georgia Perimeter College

    In my first lecture in Physical Geology, I like to excite the students with some slides or images of geologic hazards, some of which relate to things they can remember from the news. As I show slides of the damage caused by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, coastal hazards, landslides, and subsidence, what I am actually doing is giving the students a good preview of material that will be covered in the course.

    Sometimes, I can also discuss major earthquakes in the news, particularly if they come at or near the beginning of the semester (like the devastating earthquake in Turkey this semester).

    A great teaching resource which I have discovered is the Citizens Guide to Geologic Hazards (1993), an easy-to-read glossy paperback publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG). There is a slide set of 50 photos from the text that can be purchased from AIPG. These slides are ideal to use with a geologic hazards talk (whether to introductory students or to outside community groups). I use many of these slides in my classroom lectures, particularly on the first day. There are amazing pictures from Hurricane Hugo (1989) showing coastal buildings before and after the hurricane hit the South Carolina coast. These are particularly interesting to our students in the southeastern US. Photos of ash-covered buildings in the Philippines following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo and mudflows following the eruption of Mount St. Helens are among some of the other memorable and dramatic images. The book is $19.95 and the slide set is $65.00. They are available from the American Institute of Professional Geologists, 8703 Yates Drive, Suite 200, Westminster, CO 80031-3681 or call (303) 412-6205.

    Now that I am teaching fully online, asynchronous, Physical and Historical Geology courses over the web, I have been unable to use these images, BUT I have just obtained permission to incorporate them into my web pages. I will now be developing an introductory online lecture about geologic hazards, and will be able to once again WOW my students with spectacular slides of rockfalls, coastal erosion, mudflows, flooding, etc. It certainly makes geology seem a lot more real and close to home for the students.

    June 1, 1999