Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Incorporating Student-Led Field Trips and Learner-Centered Teaching in a Capstone Geology Course

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Incorporating Student-Led Field Trips and Learner-Centered Teaching in a Capstone Geology Course

Article excerpt


Capstone experiences are typically the culmination of an undergraduate program and allow students to integrate their content knowledge with communication and technical skills, many of which are desirable in the job market and graduate school. Learner-centered teaching fits well with a capstone course because it requires students to be more engaged in the material and take an active role in their education. The capstone course in the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown Geology program has recently been revised to include more learner-centered teaching and a Spring Break field trip. Each student in the course chose and led a field trip that illustrated a specific geologic feature or process. The majority of assignments for the course revolved around preparing, leading, and reporting on the field trip topic. The students generally enjoyed the course, found it beneficial, and learned geologic content because of their own inquiry. By shifting the course to emphasize learner-centered teaching, the students were more prepared for assignments, applied and enhanced their geologic content knowledge, gained exposure to new geologic settings, improved their communication skills, and bonded with their classmates. © 2012 National Assodation of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/11-255.1]

Key words: capstone course, field trip, learner-centered teaching


Undergraduate geology education can be strengthened through increased emphasis on field experiences and learner-centered teaching (or student-centered learning) (Marvell, 2008). Field experiences are a critical component of a solid foundation in the Earth sciences (Kent et al., 1997; Whitmeyer et al., 2009) and are often a required component of undergraduate geology curricula. Learner-centered teaching transforms students from passive receivers of information to active learners, and has gained the support of various organizations such as the National Science Foundation (1996), the National Research Council (Bransford et al., 2000) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2002). This paper presents one possible way to combine meaningful learner-centered teaching with field experiences in a capstone geology course.

Traditionally, undergraduate-level field trips are led by faculty members to introduce new geologic terranes, convey knowledge, and illustrate fundamental concepts. Students might have the opportunity to collect limited amounts of data (e.g., strike and dip) on such field trips, but students might largely be passive learners, despite the field setting. To take a more active role in their field education, students can take on the responsibility of leading portions of a field trip and become active learners, for at least the students' portion of the field trip. The inclusion of field experiences, especially student driven, builds confidence in students and increases their conceptual understanding of the topic at hand (Hemler and Repine, 2006; Gonzales and Semken, 2009).

Course Background and Rationale

The capstone course in the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (Pitt-Johnstown) geology curriculum is GEOL 1108: Report Writing and Computer Applications in Geology (hereafter referred to as "Report Writing"). This course has been designated as "Primary Writing" and "Speaking Enhanced"; students in the Geology program at PittJohnstown must complete one Primary Writing course (in addition to English Composition 1 and 2) and three Speaking- Enhanced courses (or one Speaking-Enhanced and one Primary Speaking course). Among the requirements for Primary Writing courses, students must receive substantive feedback on the content, organization, clarity, and grammatical correctness of their writing, as well as complete written activities and assignments throughout the semester. Speaking-Enhanced courses must include at least two speaking experiences, one of which must be an individual oral presentation, which is graded with written feedback on presentation style and content (see "Oral Presentation Rubric" in the online supplemental material. …

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