In August, earth science teachers and geologists -- those intrepid enough to complete the 12-mile, round-trip hike with a 2,500-foot elevation gain -- visited the Burgess Shale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the GeoSciEd IV conference held in nearby Calgary, Alberta. In order to maximize the opportunity for educational cross-pollination, the field trip was co-led by a geologist and teacher.
"Geologists and teachers are worlds apart," said Godfrey Nowlan, chair of GeoSciEd IV. "Our role is to bring them closer together ... I think that it’s very important for the two professions to respect each other; the cultures are so different."
GeoSciEd IV, scheduled every three years, is the official meeting of the IGEO, the International Geoscience Education Organization. GeoSciEd IV provided an international forum for earth scientists, teachers and researchers of earth science education to meet each other, and to share new ideas and concepts in science and education.
This summer’s meeting boasted 160 speakers from 27 countries who gave keynote addresses, present oral and poster sessions, and led field trips for the 260 delegates. The educators are as diverse as the global community from which they originate -- grades K-12, post-secondary and tertiary institutions, museums, science centers, grass roots groups and geological societies and organizations, to name just a few.
Calgary proved an ideal venue -- it's located at the transition between the Plains and the Rocky Mountains, is home to Canada’s largest concentration of earth scientists and is the heart of the nation’s oil and gas industry.
EnCana Corp. and ConocoPhillips Canada stepped up to the plate to sponsor GeoSciEd IV. EnCana, recognizing the need for science teachers to attend the conference -- especially those working in rural areas with limited budgets -- offered financial support to teachers from its rural base of oil and gas operations in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
"From our perspective, on the home front, hopefully we’ll have teachers that understand the complexities and the balance that we face everyday," said Dick Wilson, EnCana’s senior advisor, office of the president.
Nowlan, a Calgary-based geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, attributed the success of GeoSciEd IV to his core group of 20 to 25 volunteers who worked tirelessly during the past few years to make it all happen. Nowlan was proud of the fact that the local organizing committee raised sufficient funds to sponsor 100 percent of the elementary and high school teachers who applied for full and/or partial subsidies.
Also, his organizing committee was able to fund 30 percent of the registrants who applied from developing countries.
'An Art Form'
Nowlan and his volunteers themselves learned a lot about teaching earth sciences.
"I think that it’s been a real eye opener for the scientists," explained Nowlan when describing how teachers, children and the general public view the Earth. "Teachers look for ways in which this view or feature can be used in the classroom. The simplification of science becomes an art form."
Nowlan’s committee took advantage of the four United Nations UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Calgary’s backyard. Getting geologists and educators together in the field to see geology in action was key.
Each field trip was co-led by a geologist and an educator. Those trips visited:
- Dinosaur graveyards in Dinosaur Provincial Park.
- The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.
- The Badlands.
- On Top of the World: A Geological Transect of the Canadian Rockies.
- The Frank Slide.
- The Athabasca Glacier.
- Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
- The Burgess Shale.
Participants also benefited from Alberta’s vast repository of publicly available cores and drilling samples at the core research facility in Calgary run by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB). Volunteers from the AEUB and the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists (CSPG) designed an "underground" tour for teachers to study the producing reservoirs of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin.
Two half-day core seminars were tailored for K-12 and for post-secondary educators. Teaching aides for the seminars included cores, drilling samples, well logs, cross-sections, maps and depositional models. Participants also received "take away" materials and some fun -- yet effective -- ideas to use in the classrooms.
Diversity and creativity were two terms that could describe the activities and approaches that surfaced during the conference.
• Eric Riggs, a geophysicist and assistant professor of geoscience education in the Department of Geological Sciences at San Diego State University presented a paper titled "Native American Earth Science Education and Indigenous Knowledge: Partnerships in the San Diego Region of Southern California."
Through the Indigenous Earth Sciences Project (IESP), Riggs performs community outreach to the La Jolla, Pala, Pauma, Rincon, San Pasqual, Campo and Jamul tribes of Southern California.
The challenge, Riggs said, is how to combine Native American and Euro-American ways of understanding the earth and her processes.
Riggs described the "cultural border crossing" that Native American students deal with every day in school, and said his mandate is to develop curricula that are relevant to the issues facing Native Americans.
He also provides scientific knowledge designed to assist Native Americans becoming scientifically self-sufficient in managing their sovereign territories and natural resources.
Riggs’s best results have come from working with Native Americans in a field setting through the investigation of a real life problem, like watershed management on tribal lands. He described the concept of "place based" educational learning for Native Americans -- that’s when individuals have a psychological and geographical connection to the land.
"Indigenous knowledge seems to be accessed more readily in the field," Riggs said. "You’re tapping into -- and ultimately validating -- their indigenous history."
"Ethnogeology," according to Riggs, is a term used to describe how groups of people use the land today and in the past.
"There’s lots of good, empirical scientific data encoded in mythology that has been preserved," Riggs said. "How do you unravel it?"
• If Miriam Fischer had her way, every elementary student in Germany would be digging up his parents’ back yard, building ponds.
Fischer is a researcher with the Leibniz Institute for Science Education at the University of Kiel, Germany. She presented a paper titled "How to Develop a System Understanding of the ‘System Earth’ in Elementary School -- An Approach to Build Up a Better Awareness of the Earth."
A geologist by profession, Fischer is designing new and innovative teaching methods.
"Our aim," she said, "is to develop good information for the teachers on a low level so they can introduce science to the students.
"Teachers still have a little bit of fear of science," she added. "They don’t think that they can do it."
Fischer described introducing "cognitive conflicts" when teaching elementary school students. For example, the concept of soil permeability is demonstrated through the pond experiment -- the children dig a pond (or create one in a sandbox in the classroom) in both a sand and clay substrate. When they fill the pond with water, the pond lined with the impermeable clay retains the water; conversely, the permeable sand substrate absorbs the water.
She also described the cognitive conflict of differing densities in rocks: To demonstrate this concept, teachers use pumice, a highly porous rock, and granite, a dense rock. When the rocks are put in water, one "swims," the other sinks.
• Two natural disasters in the Philippines -- a serious earthquake followed by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 -- galvanized Miguel Cerna Cano’s interest in geology into a career.
Cano, at his third GeoScieEd conference, presented a paper titled, "Earth Sciences in the Dark: Problems in Providing Earth Science Education for the Visually-Impaired learners (Focus on the Philippines)."
Cano, who shared his research in Australia and the Philippines, cited the World Declaration of Education for All, made 10 years ago, which states that every person -- sighted or not sighted -- should benefit from educational opportunities to meet basic learning needs.
"We isolate blind people," Cano said. "However, we really cannot make decisions for the visually impaired."
Cano, the science department head at St. Stephen’s High School in Manila, studies how the blind learn science -- in the classroom setting and in science centers. He recently canvassed the two universities in the Philippines who grant degrees in geology with the question:
"How do you feel about having a blind student in your class?’’
According to Cano, the professors were shocked, saying they were at a loss of how to provide earth science education to the visually impaired.
"It’s only when your raise these questions, that they start to think," he said.
Cano has worked with the visually impaired in Australia where science centers are not well equipped to handle disabled people, he said, let alone the visually impaired.
Cano described how visually-impaired students experienced the simulation of an earthquake -- a metal plate on the floor that starts to shake. He also described how visually-impaired students reacted to holograms.
"The students moved with the hologram," he said. "They felt the change of the movement.
"The visually impaired are very much focused," he added. "Therefore, one sense could be very developed."
Here’s to natural disasters.