Planet Earth is a sophomore-level geology class, and is one of the required courses for students to major in Geological Sciences at CU Boulder. The class is the students first introduction to data analysis using Excel, and also includes some data collection in the lab and in the field. It is a highly quantitative class with an emphasis on computational skills, dimensional analysis, and uncertainty and error in earth systems.
I’ve taught the lab for this class once already, and am teaching it again this semester. The first time around I primarily focused on creating handouts with tips and tricks for using Excel on them that the students could use as reference material. I also wrote a new lab that engaged the students in several scenario-style questions – i.e imagine you are a land manager at a National Park and a forest fire starts from an unattended campsite, given some set of information you must determine how much carbon dioxide was released during the burn. This semester I will be adding warm up activities to the labs and developing several new labs to replace some of the less effective existing labs. The new labs are being designed to build stronger foundations in Excel and data analysis methods. Although the department at CU primarily uses Excel in its undergraduate classes, these labs could be easily adapted to build skills in Python, R, MATLAB, Mathematica, Kaleidoscope, or any other scientific programming/analysis tool.
Geomorphology is an upper-division elective course at CU. This class focuses on building a quantitative understanding of how landforms form and surface processes operate. The labs typically focus on analyzing existing data sets using Excel.
When I taught the lab for this class there were a couple things I focused on improving. First, I wrote out and digitized answer keys for all the labs and homework assignments because many were missing. Second, because the lab is so computer and analysis focused I noticed students getting restless about halfway through the first couple lab periods. I decided to build in at least one short (<15 min) active-learning component to each of the remaining labs. I wrote in depth about some of the changes I made in my Spring 2018 Highlights post. Some of my favorite activities were sandbox dunes, pudding glaciers, science communication exercises, and trivia.
Sometimes an instructor just needs someone to cover their class for the day. In that case, I just work off of whatever notes and materials they have prepared.
Sometimes I get to have a little more fun with it and am asked to give guest lectures on ecohydrology and beavers. My go-to lesson plan for any class with less than 70 students enrolled is a 15-minute mini-lecture on the basics of how beaver damming can change a landscape, followed by a 45-minute role-playing activity where small groups have to defend an assigned beaver management strategy.
Toward the end of the period the groups have to present their case and debate with one another. Some of the take-home messages from this lesson plan are that:
1) You can defend two very different positions from the same base dataset depending on how you interpret and present the data
2) Science is messy and there are not always clear “right” solutions to problems
3) Being a professional scientist can be a dynamic career where your expertise is used outside the “ivory tower” and to the benefit of local communities.