Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Overcoming the Limitations of an Urban Setting through Field-Based Earth Systems Inquiry

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Overcoming the Limitations of an Urban Setting through Field-Based Earth Systems Inquiry

Article excerpt


Disconnection between students and nature in an urban setting thwarts student engagement and impedes geoscience teaching and learning. Conducting field trips is one way to engage students, but the urban environment does not provide an ideal setting with respect to the availability of appropriate field sites and safety. A field-based inquiry project focusing on Earth systems and system interactions overcomes the obstacles imposed by the urban environment by permitting teachers to focus on student observations and student initiated research questions rather than solely being limited to the use of text and laboratory activities. Using a problem based learning model, students make observations in the field to compile a matrix addressing "What do I know?", "What do I need to know?", and "How or where do I get this information?" This latter question guides student activities for subsequent visits to the field. This approach is not limited to specific field sites and enables teachers to utilize local community facilities such as neighborhood parks. Qualitative data support the conclusion that a field-based Earth systems inquiry approach is a valid pedagogical strategy in an urban setting, one that engages students and instills more positive student attitudes.


To a geoscientist and educator, it is an obvious statement that geology is everywhere; it surrounds us and influences our daily lives. However, this is not always obvious in a major urban setting such as San Antonio, Texas, where mountain vistas and dynamic scenery are absent, thus contributing to a disengaged student population that is detached from nature and the geosciences. Considering that ethnic minorities commonly populate residential urban areas, minority under representation in the geosciences may be linked to life experience dominated by urban settings.

The City of San Antonio, located in Bexar County, Texas, is the nation's eighth largest city with a population of 1,147,213 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999a). Bexar County, the sixth largest in the nation in terms of its Hispanic population (57% Hispanic), has experienced a 32.8% increase in Hispanics between 1990 and 1999 (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999b). The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), the only public institution of higher education in San Antonio offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the geosciences, is an Hispanic Serving Institution. Through an aggressive recruitment strategy, UTSA has grown its student body from just over 18,000 students in 1998 to almost 23,000 students in 2003, and during this period the Hispanic student enrollment increased from 42% to 46% and continues to climb. Despite this growth, too few students are selecting the geosciences as an academic major, especially among the Hispanic student population. There are many reasons for this disparity, and the faculty is implementing several strategies to attract students into the geosciences. Here I report on one programmatic effort to address this problem, a National Science Foundation funded project entitled "A Field Science Approach to Earth Systems Science: Back to Basics" (EAR-0085487), a collaborative program between the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at UTSA and the South San Antonio Independent School District (SSAISD) which largely serves a low-income urban Hispanic population. Three middle schools (sixth through eighth grade) in SSAISD are involved.

Students in these middle schools have few opportunities to study Earth systems science outside of the classroom, and few students have traveled very far from their own urban neighborhoods. This program is designed to provide students an opportunity to conduct fielcf-based research through multiple visits to a field research locality. This field-based Earth systems approach is an attempt to overcome some of the barriers of the urban setting.


Science attempts to describe and explain nature and natural phenomena. …

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