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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Geology research project serves students, teachers throughout the region

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From left: Carrie Wright, Ashley Altheide, and Kristen Schneisser
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During the summer 2010 SwiSTEM Early Undergraduate Research Program, Kristen Schmeisser and Ashley Altheide worked on two projects and presented their research at the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Guided by their faculty mentor, Carrie Wright, instructor in geology, the two began to assemble rock kits and accompanying curricula for K-12 classrooms. The kits will be delivered to schools by the University's rolling laboratories, the STEM trucks. Since Indiana does not require earth science courses at the high school level, Wright and company hope the kits will make students aware of geology as a potential course of study.

They began collecting rock samples for the kits while they were in Idaho. "We are trying to put together really good samples - big enough to bang around on a table, handle and turn over, drop on accident, or do hydrochloric acid tests on to identify the rock or mineral," Schmeisser said. "Many currently in use are rather small samples and not really representative of what you see in nature. Our goal is to provide students with something realistic from the field."

This spring, they visited classes throughout the region to test the rock kits and lesson plans with students and teachers. "We want to make sure the rock sets are teacher-ready and work out any problems before they are placed on the STEM trucks," Wright said.

Wright was inundated with requests to visit schools in Vanderburgh, Warrick, Posey, and Henderson counties. "We visited classrooms every day in the final weeks of the spring semester and into the summer," she said.

Schmeisser, who changed her major to geology, has been particularly involved in developing the lesson plans that will accompany the kits. "Kristen and I have both developed several lesson plans, station activities, and lab activities," Wright said. "Many of them are long and would require a week's worth of science periods, but we were able to pilot small pieces of them.

"It's been good for Kristen because she had to test the lesson plans out in the real world and that allowed her to modify them to be more realistic. That was a valuable teaching experience for her."

Jessica Heighten, who is taking an independent study from Wright this summer, and student volunteers from the earth sciences and the Geology Department also assisted in the classrooms.

Other work this summer includes preparing a teacher-friendly guide cataloging every rock sample and putting the lesson plans into a single document. They also continue to work on assembling the rock sets. Schmeisser and Heighten will collect metamorphic rocks out west this summer. They are among 13 students enrolled in GEO 390: Geology Field Excursion. Wright will accompany the class taught by Dr. Bill Elliot, chair and associate professor of geology, and Dr. Joseph DiPietro, professor of geology, to Crater Lake, Oregon, and the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Northern California.

When they return, Wright will conduct a summer workshop for teachers focusing on the rock kits and lesson plans. "I want to get their feedback. We want to make sure the kits are valuable and easy to use."

They already sent surveys to the teachers whose classrooms they've visited. "The consensus is positive and we've gotten a lot of good suggestions."

Wright said she hopes to have the rock kits and lesson plans ready for the STEM trucks in fall.

The trucks also will be equipped with topographic maps and lessons requested by area teachers. "We wrote an Endeavor grant for large, full-size topographical maps, and are developing lesson plans to go along with them," Wright said.

In the other research project, she and her students are examining whether the study of geology can improve spatial abilities. "We found that in at least one of the spatial reasoning tests we administered, there was a statistically significant gain for students at the end of a geology class."

They are preparing a paper on their findings to submit to The Journal of Geoscience Education and plan to present at the Geological Society of America's fall meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Ohio Valley STEM Conference to be held at USI in November.

Watch a slideshow of photos taken during the summer 2010 SwiSTEM Early Undergraduate Research Program below.




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