Graphing the Past: A Stratigraphy Project for Interpreting Data and Integrating Science and Math

By Clary, Renee; Wandersee, James | The Science Teacher, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Graphing the Past: A Stratigraphy Project for Interpreting Data and Integrating Science and Math


Clary, Renee, Wandersee, James, The Science Teacher


Students come into our classrooms with different levels of proficiency in science and mathematics (sometimes called "the language of science"). With mathematics so seamlessly integrated into science practices, we need to seamlessly incorporate it into our science classrooms as well. But the traditional model of segregating science and math into different classes hinders integration. Likewise, not all our students are comfortable encountering math in the science classroom. (We sometimes inspire a collective gasp simply by mentioning that the Richter Magnitude Scale is logarithmic.)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Even before the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013), Common Core State Standards (NGAC and CCSSO 2010), and the call for integrated STEM education, we developed several science activities--variously integrated with mathematics, social studies, and art--to show students that scientists do not work in isolation. Some of our previous intensive mathematics-science activities involved published data sets (Clary and Wandersee 2011), while others allowed students to generate their own data sets--and graph them (Clary and Wandersee 2014).

However, we recently recognized that students needed additional practice in generating and interpreting graphs. Even though the required mathematics was simple, our students were more accustomed to selecting a multiple-choice response for a graph than determining an actual value for y, given x. That observation led to our Stratigraphy and Data Interpretation Project, the subject of this article. It incorporates individualized data sets that each student has to interpret, graphically represent, and visualize in the geologic outcrop from which the data originated. Since we don't provide step-by-step graphing instructions, each student must determine the best graphic vehicle for representing his or her data--an authentic activity similar to the real-world situations that scientists encounter. In the second part of the activity, students blindly review and analyze whether a peer successfully interpreted his or her individual data set.

A stratigraphic primer

Nicolas Steno (1638-1686) is credited with recognizing and describing some of the basic tenants of geology, including how rock layers form and are subsequently modified (Steno 1958). He was a founder of modern stratigraphy, the study of rock layers and their geologic history. Although other individuals recognized that a rock pile existed before another layer was added, Steno helped describe the formation of rock layers in a geological context. Several of the principles used in relative-age dating--or putting rocks and events in a relative order of formation--are commonly referred to as Steno's laws:

* The principle of superposition states that the oldest rock layer is at the bottom, while the youngest layer is on top (Figure 1);

* The principle of original horizontality defines that sediments are originally deposited horizontally; therefore if a rock layer is at an angle, it was subjected to subsequent deformation and/or tectonic forces after the sediments were compacted and cemented together;

* The principle of crosscutting relationships notes that a rock intruding into another rock layer--or a fault that cuts across a rock layer--must be younger than the rock layer it cuts across; and

* The principle of lateral continuity describes how sediments are laid down over a surface, extending laterally in all directions, until the sediments eventually "pinch out" when the sediment supply is exhausted.

Steno also investigated fossils found in the rocks and was perhaps the first scientist to recognize that these unusual shells and shapes were the remains of ancient life forms (Cutler 2003). One hundred fifty years later, William "Strata" Smith (1769-1839) recognized that fossils occur in rock layers in a regular order. His principle of fossil succession was useful in geological mapping and deciphering the ages and orders of the rock layers exposed across the United Kingdom. …

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