About Teacher’s Corner


Teacher’s Corner is a place to consider Earth Science topics of particular interest to teachers, like how to develop lab activities, or what’s going on in a student’s head when they ask a question, or how the new Next Generation Science Standards can be implemented in the classroom.  We will also make other posts, including the ongoing Geoscience Challenges, and we invite other teachers to respond with their own classroom experiences.

Your friendly Chief Blogger is Mary Colson.  Mary has taught 8th grade Earth Science for over twenty years in Tennessee, Texas, and Minnesota.  She develops almost all of her own activities and curricula, and is always eager to hear other people’s ideas!

Guest Blogger is Russ Colson (Dr. C).  Russ teaches college geology and planetary science.  He established the Earth Science Teaching major at Minnesota State University Moorhead, serves as the director of the program, and is always interested in learning more about teaching Earth Science at all levels!

This blog is hosted on http//earthscienceissues.net, a resource for writers and teachers interested in discussing Earth Science issues.

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Conversations on Science Education with a Colleague

It’s quite a delight when your children become colleagues and friends. This past weekend, I talk with my son who teaches physics at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. Our conversation turned to a passion that we share: science education. Some of our conversation, and thoughts on the connection between science education and science fiction, are shared in Putting Science back in Science Fiction at The Writer’s Corner of Issues in Earth Science.

Russ Colson

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Teaching Science and the Lost Adventure Story

It’s been a while since we wrote a new blog entry. We’ve been busy writing a book: Learning to Read the Earth and Sky. After an intense three years of proposing, writing, rewriting, reviewing, revising, editing, and re-editing, we finished our comments on the proofs last week and sent them back to the publisher (Please look for our book from NSTA Press this coming November 2016!)

Thus, we can get back to our blog.

While reviewing the proofs for our book, a line caught my eye as a potential seed for a blog entry: “The important aspects of understanding, at least in science, are found in the process of discovery, not in the conclusions at the end.”

Teaching science is not about what we know–the facts and theories that centuries of study have uncovered. Rather, it is about how we do the uncovering. How can we—not just the scientists–uncover the nature of our universe through observation, experiment, modeling, and arguing from evidence? It is the doing of science that we should be teaching in our classrooms, not the knowing of science.   Thus, Learning to Read the Earth and Sky is not about the story of the earth and sky that someone else has told us, but rather it’s about how we can learn to read that story on our own.

That is a true adventure.

Adventure stories have fallen on hard times in the science fiction world—at least adventure as I define it. For me, an adventure story must have exploration and discovery at its heart. That discovery might be internal (discovering yourself), external (discovering a new world or an ancient space ship mysteriously buried in rock on Mars), or intellectual (discovering the workings of a mysterious force or how a strange feature came to be as you find it today).   But there must be discovery.

That’s different from Action. The focus of an action story is on conflict and challenge.

It’s also different from the Thriller. A thriller focusses on the chase as the protagonist tries to escape some threat or pursuer that is always just a step behind.

In the Adventure story—or the science classroom–the protagonists are the pursuers as they try to catch an idea, find a lost world, or understand a mysterious event.

I have trouble finding my kind of adventure story in the published books of today, and even more trouble finding it in movies. I wonder if the death of my kind of adventure story began with the emergence of video stores. Adventure stories were lumped with action stories in sections called Action/Adventure. Maybe because they shared a first letter. Maybe because someone imagined that since adventure often has action in it those two genres must be the same.

Or maybe adventure died because we no longer have an accessible frontier. Any frontiers we can imagine are quite far away from what we can reach in the immediate future. Without a frontier to beckon us to explore, our hunger for discovery wanes and we focus instead on the action and intrigue in the more immediate life that we know.

Even so, mysteries remain in science and that makes exploration and discovery possible. Mysteries remain in dark energy, in the unexpected geological activity revealed on the surface of Pluto, and in how the Earth’s core can generate such a powerful magnetic field when Mars’ does not. There are still real frontiers in science. Adventure stories—and good science teachers—can still beckon us to explore them.

Russ Colson

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New Earth Science Story with Teacher Resources

Our latest short story for the Earth Science Classroom (with teacher resources) is up at Issues in Earth Science – along with a great essay on the importance of asking questions–not just accepting the theories.

Cassie Morant loves puzzles, but can she put together the planetary geology clues fast enough to save the landing team from execution? Find out in Jigsaw by Douglas Smith.

Our Topic for Debate for Issue 4 is Theory in the Classroom.  Science teacher Patrick Schuette considers the importance of questioning theories in Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

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New Story and Essay Published and ‘Theory’ in the Science Classroom

We have a new short story published!  Can Marie’s knowledge of geology solve a mystery and get her big brother out of trouble?  Check it out at Fiction for the Classroom. 

To accompany the story, we offer some suggested activities and labs for teachers of middle and high school. 

We also have a new Topic for Debate essay.  Read about Comic Book Science and its impact of science literacy!   at Topics for Debate

The topic for our next issue is ‘Theory in the Science Classroom’. You are invited to respond to the seed-essay below. Please feel free to submit your essay for consideration for publication in our next issue.  We pay!  Submission guidelines.


Seed Thesis for ‘Theory in the Science Classroom’, by Russ Colson

Most of us are aware that the word ‘theory’ is used differently in common conversation than it is in science.  For example, as we approach the highly-anticipated release of Star Wars VII, one might say “My theory is that Yoda will come back from the dead and save the day!”  On the other hand, in science, the word ‘theory’ refers to a conceptual synthesis of observational data that has been extensively tested in the lab and field.  It is not someone’s idle speculation subject to casual challenge with limited data.

The misunderstanding of the meaning of scientific theory has led some people to think that alternative ‘theories’ should be presented in the science classroom, such as ideas arising from religious beliefs.  Although religious ideas are an essential part of the human experience and should be included in a well-rounded education (in the view of this writer!), most scientists and science teachers don’t believe those ideas belong in the science classroom because they do not arise from the methods and practices of science, nor do they meet the scientific criteria to be considered a theory.

However, do we teachers, in our eagerness to emphasize the well-tested nature of scientific theories, present theories as the goal of learning?  Instead of teaching the processes of questioning, testing, and reasoning that provide the foundation for theories—what the Next Generation Science Standards (2013) call the ‘Practices of Science and Engineering’—do we jump to the theories themselves as the end product of education?  Do we sometimes even treat the theories as ‘facts’ to be memorized instead of a synthesis of observations derived through the practices of science?

It seems to me that even the Next Generation Science Standards–despite their goal of encouraging more practice of science in the classroom–emphasize theories a bit much, especially theories that are politically controversial.  Consider for example the importance placed on teaching the theory of evolution in the life sciences or the importance placed on telling students that climate change is real in the earth sciences.

In placing so much emphasis on the theories that have been derived by the practices of science, we short-shrift the practices of science.  Students then arrive in my college classroom without the ability to distinguish between theory and the evidence for it.  In fact, sometimes students even get confused on which is more foundational, the theory or the observation that supports it.  One student wrote “Some people don’t understand that (an observation) can’t be true if it goes against scientific theory.”


 So what are your thoughts?  What is the best balance in the classroom for teaching theories versus teaching the methodologies by which we have figured out and tested those theories?

 Dr. C.



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Challenge from Glacier NP

I hope you have all had a chance to check out our short story by Robert Dawson and the associated teacher-suggestions at http://earthscienceissues.net/fiction_for_the_classroom!

Our latest Geoscience Challenge comes from Reilley Attenburg courtesy of Jessie Rock (don’t you envy Jessie that great last name?!)  The picture was taken in Glacier NP, and I have not seen the rock, so I’m not sure myself how it formed or what story it tells, but I have ideas!  I may award victory to whoever gets closest to what I think–or maybe someone will come up with a better idea!  Be sure, like good scientists, to cite the evidence supporting your interpretation!

Dr. C–

“When the ancient Tk’klt people first arrive on Earth from omega-3, they built beautiful temples supported on ten great hexagonal columns made of stone…”



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Uncertainty in Science

Another Kind of Shades of Gray: 

Uncertainty in Earth Science and how we teach it

You may remember the Italian geoscientists who were convicted of manslaughter in October of 2012 for failing to warn the public about an earthquake that struck L’Aquila, Italy in 2009.  I remember the dismay I felt, given the complexity of Earth’s systems, that people would expect such certainty from science.  I wondered if the human need for certainty is part of our nature, or if the way we teach science contributes to the public’s misperception that science is never ambiguous.

 This week, I read Naomi Lubick’s article “Be Prepared: Navigating the risks of hazards research” in the January 2014 edition of Earth (http://www.earthmagazine.org/article/be-prepared-navigating-risks-hazards-research).  She explores the thicket of misunderstanding that exists between scientists’ understanding of “uncertainty” and the public’s need to have answers in black and white.  The article reminded me of those questions and made me think about the difficulty my students have in understanding uncertainty.

Recently, I had students read eyewitness accounts of earthquake damage and estimate the intensity of shaking based on the qualitative Modified Mercalli scale.  To help them evaluate their judgments, we reviewed the “answer key”, but, because data from some locations was inadequate for determining the Mercalli ranking, a question mark replaced some answers.  A student told the class “I think I’m uncomfortable with the answer key having question marks.”  Students don’t expect uncertainty in science.  Students think that in science there is right, and there is wrong.  There are no question marks.

Some things we don’t know about earthquakes.  Other things we do know, and with a high degree of certainty.  But some things, we know only with a significant measure of uncertainty.  It is the last of these that are hardest to teach or to convey to the public.  Perhaps one approach is to point out that scientists don’t claim to be able to predict earthquakes exactly, but they do have some ability to predict earthquakes within uncertainty limits.  For example, the legend to the 2008 United States National Seismic Hazard Maps ( USGS) states “Colors on this map show the levels of horizontal shaking that have a 2-in-100 chance of being exceeded in a 50-year period.” However, just stating probabilities doesn’t necessarily convey meaning, especially for middle and high school students.  How exactly can teachers help students understand what this statement means?

Maybe one way to help students understand uncertainty is through a variation of the common math exercise of flipping coins.  Instead of flipping one penny 10 times, consider flipping 10 pennies at the same time.  How many of them will come down heads?  Well, on average, 5.  But in practice, it will only be 5 about a quarter of the time.  It will be either 4 or 6 about 41% of the time (66% chance of being within “1” of 5).  And it will be 3 or 7 about 23% of the time (an 89% chance of being within “2” of 5).  Even though our answer of “five on average” is quite true, there is an uncertainty in our prediction.  Likewise with earthquakes, we may know what’s going to happen on average, but predicting exactly what will happen and when is uncertain.

What have you tried that helps students understand uncertainty?  How did it work?  Does our responsibility to teach “correct information” get in the way of exploring how science works? Please share!



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Geoscience Challenge–Jan 2014-by Dr. C.

Geoscience Challenge Jan 2014

Where is it? What does it mean?

Here’s my latest Geoscience Challenge–Can you figure out where the picture above was taken, and what the nature of the river tells you about the geology of the region?  Please post answers!  I will declare a winner in a month or so.  -Dr. C



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Geoscience Challenge, Feb 2013–By Dr. C

Woman sitting on rock columns

Here is Dr. C’s second Geoscience Challenge, moved from his facebook page.  Geoscience Challenge Feb 2013–This month’s challenge is to figure out why the rock in the picture has such a geometrical form and where this picture was taken. (Hint: Volcano’s can be in most amazing places, can’t they!) Answers in a month!— with Mary Colson.

Mary Colson I look a lot younger then, well at least a lot younger than the rocks! :0). February 17, 2013 at 7:12pm
  • Laurie Sand Is that columnar basalt at the north shore of lake superior that I see??? February 17, 2013 at 7:52pm
  • Jessie Rock Oh what fun. I love this idea Russ. Is it columnar basalt in the pacific northwest? The vegetation looks lush. These columns form from the contraction of thick lava as it cools. Here’s a question: Why are the columns always vertical? February 21, 2013 at 10:37am
  • Christine Kimmelman Columnar basalt are amazing, formed that way from cooling lava, the certain minerals in the lava maybe take that shape when cooled slowly. I don’t think columnar basalt are always vertical but these ones are, could be from the lava flow placement? I think it’s Washington state like Jessie Rock said about the lush vegetation. This is fun. Can’t wait to find out.  February 21, 2013 at 11:23am
  • Jane Dahl Feickert Apparently I don’t have a geological clue….:)February 21, 2013 at 4:19pm
  • Russ Colson Jane: 3 people like the Pacific NW, you being one! Answers in a week or so.  February 21, 2013 at 4:42pm
  • Ann Dulhanty being from Canadian shield country, every fractured rock I see looks like glacial influence, but that doesn’t seem to be the trend in the conversation, presumably by people who know better than me  February 21, 2013 at 8:01pm ·
  • Jessie Rock Look at those trees. I think Laurie Sand is right. Could that be the” North Shore”? Are these rocks associated with the the failed rift?  February 21, 2013 at 11:32pm
  • Russ Colson Well. Sorry for taking so long to get back to this! End of February to middle of May is my “hang on by the fingernails” time of the year. And the Answer IS…..Sure enough it’s ancient volcanic basalt from the North Shore of Lake Superior! Gooseberry Falls SP to be exact. An amazing place for volcanos isn’t it? Volcanos all gone, lava still here. The basalt columns form when lava cools and shrinks, causing the rock to fracture in roughly hexagonal columns. Jessie, do you want to comment on your questions–Why are they vertical?  April 6, 2013 at 5:14pm
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Geoscience Challenge, October 2013–by Dr. C

A river of ice, mountains on either side

Moved from Dr. C’s facebook page: 

Oct 2012 Geoscience Challenge:
Where was this pcture taken?
What caused the squiggly tire tracks down the middle?

Stanley R. Michalski Maybe Alaska or Norway ? The lines are caused by: 1) a really big dump truck, 2) millions of migrating lemmings or 3) the rock debris of a medial morain resuting from the top & center of the glacier moving faster than the bottom & sides.  October 22, 2012 at 8:57am·
Russ Colson I vote for the lemmings! Driving a dump truck!  November 2, 2012 at 8:24pm ·
  • Russ Colson Well, only one entry in my October Geoscience Challenge–so the winner is—Stan Michalski! The glacier is the longest in Europe, taken from the Sphinx station, the Top of Europe. Mary and I visited there for our 25th Anniversary in 2010, where we truly were at the top of the world just like I’ve been ever since we got married! The dark “tracks” are indeed lateral moraines dragged into the interior of the ice flow to become medial morraines, debris scraped from the surrounding mountains and entrained in the ice! November 21, 2012 at 11:47am 
  • Mary Colson It’s hard to believe that we were on the JungFrau two and a half years ago! Time just keeps on keepin’ on. We are still at the top of the world :0)  November 21, 2012 at 12:28pm
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