Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Novel Approach to Teaching and Understanding Transformations of Matter in Dynamic Earth Systems

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

A Novel Approach to Teaching and Understanding Transformations of Matter in Dynamic Earth Systems

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The need to engage K-12 and post-secondary students in considering the Earth as a dynamic system requires explicit discussion of system characteristics. Fundamentally, dynamic systems involve the movement and change of matter, often through processes that are difficult to see and comprehend. We introduce a novel instructional method, termed Cause-MaP, designed to enhance non-science major undergraduates' understanding of complex Earth systems. Students are provided with a mechanism for explicitly following matter as it moves through the environment, and are encouraged to describe this movement both verbally, in response to a structured set of questions, and pictorially, in box-and-arrow diagrams. This approach raises awareness of the underlying causes for the dynamic nature of systems, and encourages reasoning, thoroughness, and transferability of skills. Preliminary data suggest that this method is effective with post-secondary students and we encourage adaptation of Cause-MaP to other courses at both the post-secondary and K-12 levels. A follow-up, more rigorous investigation of the impact of this approach on student learning will clarify the effectiveness of this instructional method.

INTRODUCTION

Earth is a complex and dynamic system comprised of numerous, interacting subsystems, commonly considered as the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere (Orion, 2002). In recent years, the importance of the interrelatedness of these spheres has led to the emergence of Earth System Science (ESS) both as a research venue and an approach to integrated instruction (Herbert, 2006; Mayer, 1991, 1995; Orion, 2002; Rankey and Ruzek, 2006). A critical aspect of ESS literacy is the ability to apply "systems thinking", which can be defined as "a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots" (Senge, 1990, p. 69). Each sphere is interwoven with all others through processes and exchanges of matter. At the same time, each sphere derives its characteristics from the matter within the sphere and the processes that transform that matter. For example, CO2 in the atmosphere can come from CO2 erupted from volcanoes (rock cycle), diffuse and dissolve into raindrops or directly into the oceans (water cycle) and react to form new rocks (rock cycle) or organic molecules via photosynthesis (bio cycle). Students often do not realize that a single method of reasoning can be applied to studying processes in all Earth spheres. This unfortunate, non-systematic view may be reinforced when the spheres (or cycles) are presented separately in textbooks or classrooms. Whereas scientists are flexible in their thinking and easily recognize processes that transform matter within or between spheres, students may become lost when instruction does not explicitly delineate matter, process characteristics, and relationships amongst spheres.

In this paper, we outline an instructional method that we term Cause-MaP, for Cause, Matter, and Process. We developed the Cause-MaP method to expose students to systems thinking, encourage reasoning about transformations that occur in Earth systems, and to recognize the importance of the causes driving transformative processes that generate Earth change through time. The Cause-MaP method promotes student visualization of matter, processes, and underlying causes within Earth systems via a framework that breaks down complicated processes into component parts, effectively sorting vital from non-vital ideas for teachers and students, and providing a context in which students can practice scientific reasoning skills. Utilizing a single method to reason across different systems has significant benefits, including: 1) complete, thoughtful consideration of processes, as opposed to rote use of technical terms; 2) transferability of skills across what the student may perceive as disparate Earth systems; 3) heightened awareness of why systems remain dynamic over time; and 4) potential for application of scientific reasoning to both scientific issues and to life outside the science classroom. …

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