Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Teaching Earth Science - Its Challenges and Rewards

Knowledge in earth science is very vital in nation building. Almost everything we do each day is connected in some way to Earth: to its land, oceans, atmosphere, plants, and animals. The food we eat, the water we drink, our homes and offices, the clothes we wear, the energy we use, and the air we breathe are all grown in, taken from, surround, or move through the planet. According to American Geological Institute (AGI) Foundation, by 2025, eight billion people will live on Earth. This number of people will undoubtedly continue extracting resources to maintain a high quality of life. As we benefit from all the resources we get from the Earth, then we, as individuals and citizens, need to know more about our planet - its processes, its resources, and its environment. And only through Earth Science education can students understand and appreciate our complex planet. In this present time, the old and the young must join hands and help one another in the serious task of nation-building, the young to learn from the wisdom and experience of the elders, the elders to recognize the impatience of the youth. In contrast, not all young students are willing to cooperate in order to acquire the needed knowledge, attitudes and skills essential for a secure future. It is then a burgeoning task for the teacher to facilitate learning so that quality education will be acquired by the students. This paper will discuss the different challenges faced by the teacher in imparting knowledge about Earth Science in public secondary school, likewise it will also discuss the positive aspects in learning the subject.
My first experience in teaching earth science was on September 2005 in one of the public secondary schools in Davao Oriental, specifically in District 1. I can still remember the first day when I entered the class of more than fifty (50) students crowded in a classroom. Some of them were busy chatting with their classmates, some were busy doing different tasks in their seats, etc. The first question that popped into my mind during that moment was: how can I get the attention of the students? As I introduced myself to them as their new science teacher, I saw different emotions reflecting on their faces. There were emotions of excitement, worries, anxieties, happiness, etc. I am not really sure if they were prepared to take new lessons in earth science. What I did was to let them get a piece of paper and let them write in there: their names, favorite subject, subject they hate most and why they love/hate a certain subject, and their expectation/s of the subject. I did this just to know whether they have interest in the subject or to know what subjects they liked best and the reasons why they love the subject. From that, I learned that out of more than fifty (50) students, only four (4) said that they like science subject. When I asked them why they do not like science as a subject, the common answer was: "Science is a difficult subject". From that experience alone, I got an insight that students will have difficulty in learning a subject if they do not like the subject. Indeed, teaching Earth Science to undergraduates or high school students could be difficult "if the students are not motivated or if they are not interested in the subject".
There are several ways of motivating the students to be interested in Earth Science. In my own experience, I used songs as part of my lessons - songs which are easy to learn and frequently heard by the students. I used the tune of a particular song and changed the lyrics so that it will fit with the topic I am discussing. There are also songs introduced to us during seminars that are very helpful because students would find it easier to memorize certain science concepts by just singing the songs over and over again. Example of these songs are: "We're the Scientist" - in the tune of "Ako'y Isang Pinoy"; "Sistemang Harana" - in the tune of "Harana" as popularized by Parokya ni Edgar, this emphasizes the importance of scientific method in solving problem; "Super Science" - in the tune of "Superman", stressed on the contributions of science in enhancing our lives; and a jolly song - "Youngsters Love Science". After introducing these songs, I found them useful in memorizing scientific terms, concepts, and processes. With this, I feel happy when I heard some of my students singing those songs and sharing them with their friends.
There are different ways of motivating students to learn Earth Science. Teachers should bear in their mind that flexible approaches and connections to other subjects is the key to success in a classroom for motivating student interest. It was proven true with my personal teaching experiences. One should not stick to one option if it doesn't work. Here are the motivating techniques which have been proven to work well with most students:
1. Relate local or national or international news items to some aspect of Earth Science. One may choose from a variety of items from the news. Some of the older news items and their impact on social/political life may also be of interest to students. Any news items relating to the following are generally welcomed by most students for class discussion: Earthquakes; Volcanoes; Tsunamis; Floods; Meteor Showers; and news items related to disasters - present or from past.
2. Pick a topic of common interest to most of the students, such as social or political problem that they are familiar with: nuclear power plants, illegal logging, global warming, consequences of urbanization; and mining. In my case, I used illegal logging, illegal fishing and mining as my point of focus because these issues are really happening in our locality.
3. Historical or biblical or religious locations and the geology associated with it: the Chasm at Delphi and the Apollo Temple in Greece and the vapors that emanates from the location; the geology of biblical areas such as the ones in Middle East; the Taj Mahal in India; the Pyramids in Egypt; the Great Wall of China; Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon in USA; Stories of Precious stones and gems; and any other similar ones.
4. Anecdotes from the scientific discoveries/contributions of great men/women of the past and present: Aristotle; Eratosthenes (measurement of the circumference of the earth); Ptolemy; Copernicus; Tycho Brahe; Johannes Kepler; Archimedes; Newton; Einstein; James Hutton; Charles Lyell; N. L. Bowen; Alfred Wegener; Harry Hess; and many more names that are worth mentioning in Earth Sciences.
5. Space exploration always fascinates students: anecdotes of Lunar exploration; Mars missions and life on Mars; Jupiter and its clouds and moons; discovery of new stars and other galaxies outside our own; and other similar explorations.
6. There are several facts that intrigue and fascinate most Earth Science students: a. Deepest mine in the world b. Deepest bore hole in the world c. Comparison of the above numbers with the radius of the Earth This can show them how little we know about the earth through direct observation. d. Compare these distances with the distance to the Moon These numbers can raise questions like "how come we did not go too far down inside the earth" and "how come we went almost quarter of a million miles to the moon". e. Latitude and longitude and their use in navigation and the time zones f. Deep sea drilling and the mid-fifties project to drill past Moho into the mantle g. The election of President John F. Kennedy and his pledge to land a man on the moon h. The theory of continental drift and the evidence for it i. The fascinating new theory of Plate Tectonics and its development
I used some of the items stated above and they worked for me in classrooms. Good general knowledge coupled with interest and knowledge of a variety of items in Earth Sciences "can help the teacher in getting the students enthused in the subject". As teacher, we should always bear in mind that Earth Science poses questions that are exciting as well as practical to children and adults alike.
Comprehension of the English Language
Provided that the students are well motivated in learning the subject, another problem comes in - how they will understand the instruction with the use of English language? It is an inevitable fact that most of my freshmen (first year) students do not understand spoken or written English. Those that can fairly understand belong to the first section but there are also students in the first section that cannot speak or write in English language correctly. This is really a problem because teaching Earth Science should be in English and all the references are written or published in English. It is also a known fact that English is the "Universal language of Science". Therefore, in imparting knowledge to students, teachers should use English as a medium of instruction. I must also admit that I am not perfect in terms of elaborating concepts with the use of English so what I did was use the vernacular in some part of my discussion. To maximize understanding of a certain concept, I translated some scientific terms into the students' vernacular so that they can fully understand what am I talking or explaining about.
In our school it was really noted that non-readers or readers with poor comprehension pull down the performance of the school during achievement test (Division, Regional or National). To partly solve the problem, if not totally eradicate, an Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) was conducted. This will gauge the reading level of the First Year students so that the school, especially the teachers can identify who among the students are non-readers or has poor reading comprehension. After the inventory it was found out that there are students with reading ability that is of Grade I level and there are really non-readers. So another burden is given to English teachers because aside from teaching their usual subject loads, they will do remedial classes for those students identified as non-readers or with poor reading comprehension. It is not only a burden for the English teachers but for other teachers as well who taught subjects with English as a medium of instruction. It should also be noted that poor or substantive English background slows down the process of scientific development because it is hard to understand scientific concepts while at the same time learning English language - this is learning two things simultaneously.
Discipline Inside the Classroom
In a classroom of more than fifty students or in some classroom sixty students, it is really important that discipline should always reign for maximum learning. In my first year of teaching, classroom discipline is really an issue for me. I easily got irritated by students who were noisy, always going outside the classroom without valid reasons, and students yelling or fighting with each other. But through reading books and attending seminars about classroom discipline, this problem was slowly been elucidated.
A well managed classroom will give the students rich opportunities for mental growth and development. Good classroom discipline produces favorable working conditions conducive to good learning and makes school work enjoyable and interesting. One aspect of the teacher's role under the concept of discipline is to help students practice self-control and to develop standards of individual values and activities that will be carried on regardless of whether the teacher or parent or someone else in authority is around or not.
The concept of discipline when I was still in my elementary years is really different as compared with modern concept of discipline which is based on democratic principles. A good discipline is one that develops self-direction and self-discipline rather than discipline based on compulsion and obedience. In addition, he laid emphasis on becoming familiar with the cause of violation of discipline in order that such causes may be minimized, if not prevented, and offenses may be more satisfactorily diagnosed and treated.
As facilitator of students' learning in Earth Science I should always bear in mind that classroom discipline is really one of the vital tools so that learning could be attained. It is an inevitable fact that the teacher can be an effective facilitator of learning only when there is discipline and proper classroom management in teaching-learning.
Making Use of Technology
The use of textbooks alone in imparting science concepts and processes is not enough. Any ordinary classroom on Earth is not the best place to observe interactions ranging in scale from solar system to the components of a cell. With just pure lectures, often learners are forced to create their own mental images to understand situations they cannot view directly. In many instances the result has been a misconception that takes on a reality of its own inside the students mind. Standard textbooks have been ineffective in changing these deeply rooted misconceptions. Students remain confused about topics involving basic spatial relationships such as the reason for the seasons. To solve this problem, there is persistent call for a teacher to be creative in his teaching and maximize the technology present.
To keep pace with the advancement of Science and Technology, teachers need to have creative and inquiring minds. Such thoughts and ideas "conceived by the inquiring minds" inspire and challenge the teacher to be creative. In connection with the call of being creative and to equate myself with the evolving technology, I constantly visit the World Wide Web so that I can make my lessons updated. This was not easy for me because the place where I've been teaching has no internet connection and only during weekends that I can browse the Internet for topics that need further elaboration through videos or flash animations. In addition, I used PowerPoint in order to make my lessons interactive to the students and I've found out that their interest in my lessons was elevated with the use of computers. Moreover, I was happy because our Principal really encouraged the use of PowerPoint in classroom instruction. In fact he proposed and spearheaded the implementation of Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) in the Division of Davao Oriental.
Students' Achievement
The first person that would feel happy in the achievement of students in terms of learning Earth Science is the teacher. I personally beam with pride when my students perform well during exams or on the top rank during contest related to Earth Science. It was remarkable for me when my two contestants for the 2008 Division Science Quiz held in San Isidro National High School ranked second and third respectively. I felt that this is my reward for exerting effort in reviewing students about science concepts not only through books but also from the information retrieved from the internet and by helping and teaching them how to use the computer in exploring the Encarta Encyclopedia. I also felt fulfilled when I see my students embraced positive attitudes in learning the subject. With this, I established in students' heart the love for Earth Science that could be very helpful in learning other sciences like Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. A course in earth sciences can provide to students an introduction to subject matter in all other sciences that illustrates their relevance and connections. With a strong foundation in Earth Science, students will no longer find difficulty in learning other sciences.
My Contribution in Nation-Building and for the Future
As a teacher in Earth Science, I can say that I have a great role in building a nation -- a nation that maximizes its resources but does not sacrifice the future. Our lives and civilization depend upon how we understand and manage our planet. Earth processes affect us all. Weather patterns influence the availability of water resources and the potential for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, and floods can kill large numbers of people and cause millions or even billions of pesos in property damage. If our students are well informed about those processes affecting our lives then they would be cautious in every actions they will do like cutting trees, burning too much fossil fuels, the use of aerosol sprays, etc. Every lesson in Earth science will somehow connect students to the past, as well as challenging them to think about the future.
Teaching Earth science in sdcondary school is not an easy task. A lot of challenges must be surmounted so that teaching-learning could be a pleasant experience for both the teachers and students. My first three years experiences in teaching the subject have really shaped my knowledge and attitudes towards the subject. Since my elementary years as a student, I still bring the passion and love in understanding the complex world of science. And now that I'm in the field, then it is my turn to permeate my enthusiasm in learning science subjects to my students especially during their first science subject in secondary education which is the earth science.
The earth sciences provide the best all-around introduction to science. The earth sciences integrate concepts from all other major disciplines of science, including biology, chemistry and physics. Thus, teaching of earth sciences throughout the elementary and secondary schools will promote scientific literacy in general.