First-hand report: Lisa White
Institution: San Francisco State University
Instructor: Lisa White
Course description: Geology 115 / Earth and Life Through Time, for undergraduate geology majors
Students enrolled in the course become part of the science community at San Francisco State University and collect fossil data as part of ongoing research that aims to understand the ancient estuarine setting of the Kettleman Hills. We keep fossils collected over the 20+ years of field work available to students in the course for reference. Students add to the collection, and in some cases revise the species identification, and are better able to relate to what it is like to be part of a mini-scientific community and participate in ongoing research.
Plan for incorporating Understanding Science
In the beginning of the semester, I will introduce the site to the students to help frame the goals of the field-based assignment, which requires students, working in teams, to collect fossil evidence and evaluate a working hypothesis for Plio-Pleistocene paleoenvironments in the Central Valley. My objective in combining the field assignment and the Understanding Science website is to add real-world experience in the process of science and to increase the ability of students to formulate hypotheses, test ideas, and develop enthusiasm about what it means to be a scientist. Understanding Science will familiarize students with what science is and how it works and thus will guide the focus of our investigation before we begin the field project and data collection.
I will likely start them in one of the circles of the Science Flowchart (Exploration and Discovery) as a class exercise. I will encourage them to fill in the sub-circles with their own questions and observations after I have given them the Central Valley fossil exercise as the foundation for understanding science. After we return from the field and start analyzing data, I will ask the students each week to examine the other circles in the flowchart and plot their course of discovery.
The students will chart a guided pathway through the field-based investigation after the initial parameters are set by me as the instructor (the chief scientist). I inform them of field collection localities, the sampling techniques, the reading assignments from seminal research done in the Plio-Pleistocene Kettleman Hills in the 1940s-1970s, and I provide them with several testable hypotheses (was the salinity fresh, estuarine, or normal marine? was the circulation strong, weak?).
Their role is to formulate a plan for testing the salinity hypothesis from the fossil invertebrates, examine the outcomes, and compare their findings with others in the community (the classroom community and the research community). Although I set the pathway, students apply the Science Flowchart as sort of a framework, helping them evaluate where the study may go next. Does it stay the course? Change direction? Does the process of science go in a straight line as they gather more information?
Over the years of teaching the course, I have encouraged students to carefully examine the methods of data collection done by USGS and academic scientists who published work in the 1940s-1970s, setting the foundation for most of what we know about the region today. Interestingly, two years ago while in the field with students, we met an elementary school teacher who is an amateur paleontologist and who grew up near many of the fossil localities. Spending an afternoon with her in the field exposed us to some new sites and additional interpretations that were as valuable as the "expert" publications … or more so! Our perspective on who is part of the scientific community was greatly broadened by her contributions, and meeting her was entirely random and serendipitous!