NSF Grant Shakes Up the Geoscience Curriculum

Assistant professor of physics Dr. Maggie Benoit admits that seismological instruction at the undergraduate level can be outdated and perhaps a little boring. However, she is looking to change that with a recently funded grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The $200,000 award from NSF’s Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program will support the creation of curricular materials that foster hands-on and active engagement with cutting-edge research and authentic data.

In collaboration with the Education and Outreach Program of the national consortium Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) as well as representatives from the seismological research community, Benoit intends to bring into the classroom ten Grand Challenges identified as promising research directions on the frontier of seismology. These ten challenges, formally known as the “Seismological Grand Challenges in Understanding Earth’s Dynamic System,” were formulated at the Long Range Science Plan for Seismology workshop in 2008 to guide fundamental research for the next several decades. In developing classroom activities, including six inquiry-based laboratory exercises, based on each of the ten “Grand Challenges,” Benoit hopes to address the shortcomings in current seismological instruction.

According to Benoit, laboratory experiments in geoscience courses utilize methods that are generally outdated and fail to address misconceptions many students have about seismic phenomena. For example, one of the most common exercises is one in which students triangulate the location of an earthquake by means of an S-P method that has not been used since the late 1960’s. “When students leave their courses, there seems to be a real lack of understanding about seismology, waves and earthquakes,” explained Benoit. “Incorporating the Grand Challenges into laboratory activities is a much more fun and engaging way to meet the learning needs of students.”

As lead investigator, Benoit is responsible for the design of the data-intensive instructional modules which will be tested at three pilot institutions, including TCNJ. From there, the activities will be evaluated by undergraduate educators and seismological researchers and disseminated to instructors through education outreach programs utilizing IRIS’s existing national infrastructure. “Our goal is to have as many instructors adopt these modules as possible,” said Benoit. “We are planning special sessions at national meetings in geophysics devoted to faculty and seismologists around the country sharing ideas about how to fulfill the rest of the great challenges and so far there has been a lot of great feedback.”

One of the first activities Benoit developed explores the connection between seismology and climate change as demonstrated by the increase of glacial earthquakes along the coast of Greenland in the past fifteen years. Addressing Grand Challenge #3: “How do processes in the ocean and atmosphere interact with the solid Earth,” this exercise enables students to interpret and analyze authentic data to determine the cause of glacial earthquakes. “One of the goals of this project, other than just providing new activities for geoscientists to teach, is to get students excited about seismology,” said Benoit. “We are trying to pick really new discoveries and connect them to students’ lives.”

Dr. John Taber, Program Manager for IRIS’s Education and Outreach Program, expects the activities to become an important part of earth science curriculum nationwide. “We are pleased to be partnering with TCNJ on this project because the target audience is primarily students in colleges without graduate programs in seismology and the project was first proposed by Dr. Benoit,” Taber said. “Once [the activities] are tested, they will be distributed throughout the U.S., which is likely to enhance TCNJ’s profile among earth science departments.”

TCNJ physics department currently has nine students within the earth science track, and there are plans in the works to transform the track into a geophysics concentration. Benoit is excited about the new possibilities for students in geophysics and acknowledges that her involvement in the ten challenges program will greatly improve TCNJ’s standing in the community. “This will put TCNJ on the map in terms of the program we have here for geophysics,” Benoit said. “Having a higher profile not just in the teaching community but in research, will definitely help our students go on to graduate school.”

View article on TCNJ’s School of Science website

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