Research grant to help students learn what goes on beneath Earth's surface

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Getting to the core of the problem of teaching young students about the dynamic Earth is the impetus of a four-year, $2.8 million grant awarded to Penn State Associate Professor Scott McDonald.

The Geological Models for Explorations of Dynamic Earth (GEODE) project was funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and extends earth science work that McDonald has been doing the past seven years as part of the Earth and Space Science Partnership. In collaboration with Earth and Mineral Sciences Professor Tanya Furman, McDonald and the ESSP plate tectonics' research team has been researching how young students understand plate tectonics and key ideas in science.

"Typically, the way we've looked at kids' thinking, we say 'what's the simplest ideas they need to understand in second grade in order to understand this big, complex idea when they're in high school?'" said McDonald, who is also the director of the College of Education's Krause Innovation Studio. "This perspective is based on the notion that kids build up complex ideas later in their schooling out of a whole bunch of smaller, but disconnected ideas they learn when they are younger. Unfortunately, without helping them develop the big picture early, the assembly of the parts never really happens.”

Part of the research work of the ESSP was to interview hundreds of students to find out how kids' ideas actually develop. This research led to the development of a plate tectonics learning progression, which is an approach that can help guide teachers as they teach students across a series of different grades.

"A learning progression is trying to characterize how kids learn these things, what misconceptions, partial conceptions, hybrid ideas they have that are partly scientific and partly based on their own experience, and how can teachers build on these ideas to help improve students’ understanding," McDonald said.

Computer visualization of data has been a staple for scientists for decades, but using it to support students has become much easier because of advanced technology, McDonald said. Additionally, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) urges the teaching of scientific and computational modeling as a practice for K-12 students. McDonald’s new project, a collaboration with the Concord Consortium, uses a web-based tool that allows students to view a brightly colored map that shows earthquakes' locations and depths from 1959 up to the current moment.

"We’re trying to help kids understand these visualizations," McDonald said. "It allows students to zoom in and create cross sections, which can be rotated to see beneath the planet surface and can see earthquakes start at the surface and go down, down, down, down. These tools are designed to help kids begin to understand how a dynamic Earth works. This is real data; it comes from USGS.

"The idea of the GEODE project is we’re going to develop tools and a curriculum that will be available online for anybody to use that is targeting middle school students and that helps them engage with real scientific data to understand these complex ideas but with lots of support from us.”

A segment of that is investigating how students understand scientific models, McDonald said. "Some of the other tools we’re developing are built around models that scientists have created about how the Earth works. We’re looking at how kids can understand that sort of sophisticated level of scientific modeling practice," he said.

McDonald also plans to continue collaborations established in the ESSP with city school districts in Philadelphia, Reading and York, and more rural districts such as State College, Bald Eagle Area and Bellefonte.

The tools are designed for middle school students and are being piloted in Park Forest Middle School in the State College Area School District.

McDonald said he's identifying a small group of teachers in State College and Philadelphia who will work with him on the initial beta testing of some of the tools involved in the project. A professional development program for teachers will follow. "They will implement it in their classrooms to help us improve the design and then it will be open to all the teachers in the network," McDonald said.

"The ultimate aim is to have a set of three things: technology tools for visualization and simulation; a set of curricula around them specifically designed for middle school students; and a set of professional development materials for teachers to help them understand how they can best use them with their students."

One of McDonald's concerns is about teaching teachers how to help students work with the rich and complex computer representations of science ideas. "We want to be able to provide some educative materials for the teachers so that they are prepared," he said. "Part of the purpose of the professional development workshop will be to develop materials that we can eventually post online for teachers anywhere in the world to use and help them use our tools to engage their students."

The enormity of earth science is another challenge for McDonald. "Both the physical and time scales are tremendously large and humans don't think very well in terms of millennia, or about things moving that are thousands of miles long," he said. "Those large scales are at the core of what makes geosciences difficult for kids.

"And earth science also doesn't get as much attention as the big three — physics, chemistry and biology — even though many of the sort of grand challenges of the future are really in earth and space science, things like energy and climate. Earth and space science has a prestige problem and it is often seen as the science class for non-scientists; it's complicated, it's hard to learn and there's not a tremendous emphasis on it in schools."

In a time when STEM integration is a big topic of interest, "earth and space science actually is one of the areas that has a better chance than most of integrating these things because it's already an integrated field," McDonald said.

"Earth science fields include people who are biologists, who are chemists, who are physicists in terms of their interests and backgrounds, but they're studying it in context with earth systems. Earth and space in many respects is the ideal STEM kind of context, but that's not the way it's treated; it's sort of marginalized."

Educators in earth and space science are aware that tools and curriculum are weak in their area, McDonald said: "This was an attempt to say we can develop some really interesting tools and curriculum around earth and space science that will help get at these bigger, more complicated ideas because the materials that are available now are not very good.

"My guess is that out of this project, after we've done all this work and are done developing this first group of tools, we'll get some new ideas and find something else we're really interested in for the next project."

Figuring out the best method to help students understand the big, complex ideas of geoscience must be supported with a visualization tool, according to McDonald.

"You have to have a way to show them how the Earth is dynamic, because they can't look out of their window and see plates moving," he said. "They might see an earthquake or volcano if they live in the right part of the world or if they want to watch a video of it, but that doesn't really get at the whole complexity of it.

"For me, that's the biggest takeaway … these tools and curriculum are really important for geoscience because they are the ways that geoscientists understand the ideas, so it needs to be the way that kids do, too."

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Last Updated September 19, 2017