GEOS 101 Teaches Students To Create Geological Narratives

September 22, 2015
Geosciences students conduct fieldwork on campus

"Geologic processes both rapid (earthquakes and landslides) and slow (mountain building and sea level rise) are intimately linked with sustaining the diversity of life on the planet," so begins the syllabus for GEOS 101 Earth Processes and the Environment. Students in the course have just embarked on a semester-long project using two on-campus bodies of water as living laboratories as a way to introduce them to the skills needed to observe and document processes shaping our environment.

"A major goal that we have for our GEOS 101 students is to become authors of compelling geological narratives. What better way to do this than experience a research project that has multiple lines of evidence, characters if you will, that are then synthesized into a single systems level analysis around a question that has implications for how we manage our campus landscapes," said Dan Brabander, professor of geosciences. Brabander is teaching the course along with lab instructors Kathy Gilbert and Maria Waller.

Students in GEOS 101 are exploring sedimentation rates in Paramecium Pond and the Silver Thread, a small brook that winds through the Alexandra Botanic Garden and empties into the pond. "The question we are focusing on is examining the variables that are linked with sedimentation rates in Paramecium Pond and Lake Waban," said Brabander. "The class will make predictions about the when [the pond] will need dredging again."

The interdisciplinary project has research threads ranging from archival work (about the design of making of Paramecium Pond) to water chemistry and water balance questions. Through the semester, students will keep a field notebook, and collect and analyze data.

"The course is unique in that students engage in a semester-long research project, allowing them to be scientists even at the introductory level," said Waller. "[By the end of the semester,] they will have had the experience of collecting and interpreting data, working collaboratively with other student scientists, determining their conclusions, and presenting their work."

Each student in the class is a part of a small working group, focusing on a specific aspect of the project. The working groups will collaborate to discuss their findings, determine where one group's data and findings overlap or influence another's, and develop plans for future work based on these discoveries. "We have outlined the basic structure of the project, but the students will determine how it progresses based on what they find," Waller said.

The Geosciences department promotes research experiences as a pedagogy that works at all levels of the curriculum. Cathy Ye '19 said one of the most interesting concepts she’s encountered in the class thus far is systems thinking. "I've still yet to grasp the entirety of it, but systems thinking is in essence trying to see things from a bird’s eye view and encompassing many aspects of it, instead of just focusing on a problem and using a very linear, one solution way of approaching. Systems thinking also teaches you to see things from different perspectives, so one can consider a problem from all aspects," Ye said.

Ye said she chose to take GEOS 101 because she was always interested in geology and the Earth but never had the opportunity to take classes on these topics in high school. "Coming to Wellesley, I wanted to branch out and learn about topics that I've never touched on before," said Ye, who intends to major in Environmental Studies. "Environmental Studies is such an interdisciplinary course, I think being able to use the systems approach will be very beneficial in my future studies and endeavors," she said.

Another student in the class, Kimberly Min '19 did study geosciences in high school but chose to enroll in GEOS 101 because, she said, the class approach is different from her past experience. "It's very interactive—it's less direct feeding of information, which was what I experienced before, [and more] trying to ask the right questions and piece together information to construct geological narratives."

Min continued, "The lab experience and fieldwork component drew me in even more. I'm a person who learns best through challenge-based tasks like this, so I really like how the course is structured and taught - there's also a lot of flexibility for people like me who are actually interested to extend my knowledge and chart our own course of learning."

Min said she and other students don't yet know what their fieldwork will reveal. "At the current stage, we are just feeling things out and collecting different types of data, such as water quality data, or doing other observations, like trying to describe the composition of sediment from the pond," Min said. "We've been learning many techniques actually, and it's great because even if you do not have a strong science background like myself, it's still so accessible. That's the beauty of the Liberal Arts!"

Photo (pictured): Emma Van Scoy 'DS, Cathy Ye '19 with lab instructor Kathy Gilbert.