Weekend Wandering 11: EarthLabs

EarthLanbsCongratulations to Carlton College in Minnesota. Through their Science Education Resource Lab (SERC), they have created dozens of Earth Science labs on their EarthLabs website. The labs are designed for high school students to discover, in their words…

What could be cooler than learning about the planet you live on?

The labs are all online with numerous links to data, graphics and animations.

Even better, they have a corollary site EarthLabs for Educators as a guidebook for teachers using the labs. Included are State and National Science Teaching Standards to make it easier to link the labs into courses.

Take a few minutes or, indeed, a few hours to wander through…


Ploughshares and Conflict Studies

ploughsharesDYK: In one year (2014), the world spent over $1.6 trillion on the military, over 1/3 of which was spent by one country…the United States.

DYK: The United States spends more on their military than the rest of NATO (#2) China(#3), Saudi Arabia (#4), Russia (#5), India and Japan COMBINED!!

Lately, I’ve been working with my Canadian and World Studies students on Conflict Studies. This has come out of our work in Current Affairs classes (once per week) which seems, every week, to revolve around conflicts. There is always, always, always conflicts in the news, but very little understanding around who is actually involved and why it’s happening in the first place. There is only so much a news organization can bring into a 30-second sound bite, which is what so much of the news is made up of.

ploughsharesEnter Project Ploughshares. Project Ploughshares started back in the 1970s. It grew out of a Mennonite Central Committee background and currently operates as an arms-length project of in the Canadian Council of Churches. To quote its website:

Project Ploughshares takes its name and its vision from the ancient biblical vision in the Book of Isaiah in which the material and human wealth consumed by military preparations are transformed into resources for human development, thereby removing the roots of war itself.

“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4

The value of ploughshares.ca is many-fold. It is a local organization to us, operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. It is dedicated to bettering the world: “A secure world without war • A just world at peace”. And, equally important, is its unbiased (read: “not churchy”),  authoritative/credible documentation of the numerous conflicts plaguing the planet today. Each year, it produces an Armed Conflict Report with a summary, interactive map and poster, to summarize the various conflicts, locations, combatants and human toll. My students are using the website to create info-posters to help others understand the background of what’s going on around the world.

It has been a real eye-opener for my students. They are beginning to see the complexity of each conflict with multiple layers of historical background and multi-party support of each side. They are also seeing the huge human toll, not just in news clips of a thousand here and 10,000 there, but in terms of the millions of people who have been internally and externally displaced over the years. They have also come to realize there is a whole area of study at the university level called Peace and Conflict Studies. Just one more realization of “what’s out there”.


The Tribes of London: London OAC Supergroups

I’m always amazed at how way leads to way when surfing the Internet.

This morning, I thought I’d have a look at some geography blogs, just to see “what’s out there”. I subscribe to a few different geography magazines – Canadian Geographic, the Geographical, National Geographic – as well as others that relate to geography such as the Alternatives Journal and New Internationalist. But more and more frequently, I’m finding the content of magazines, while interesting, not entirely engaging. And when consumer-oriented geoinformation is engaging, it becomes melodramatic and too focus on the unique (and sometimes outrageous) experiences of a few people. Many travel magazines fall into this last category.

So, more and more, I’m turning to blogs, particularly those being maintained by geographers doing geography. This morning, I came across the blog Geo: Geography and the Environment. It’s an off-shoot of the peer-reviewed journal, Geo. I was pleased to see it is British in origin; from my experience of three years teaching geography in England, I know geography is alive and well – perhaps the strongest geography program in any secondary setting in the world.

The blog has numerous fascinating insights into what is being done in geography today – cutting edge stuff that forces me to think. Yes – that’s the difference. The articles in many consumer-oriented magazines are predictable; the same old same old, re-packaged in a different context, but few insights that are new or thought-provoking.

I started off reading about the “Geographies of Openness and Information” which charts the spatial distribution of national-level domain names. Of even greater interest to me, with my bent towards wildlife populations, was the article following: “Learning from guano: In search of a paleo-seabird proxy“. It was a year ago next month that I led a group of 23 Grade 8s, 9s and 11s to Galápagos to take part in on-the-ground conservation research, so, to see how researchers are making use of seemingly disparate data and concepts of crater lakes, Nitogen isotopes and anchovy populations in an historical and pre-history context, is, to me, fascinating.

I particularly enjoyed “Mapping the Tribes of London“. The title itself is fascinating, but what I found was a new way of imagining and describing different “cultures” across the human landscape. It immediately got me thinking about my own neighbourhood. I also checked out places I am familiar with from my years in England. Based on census data, researchers are able to predict the type of people living in specific areas: urbanites, suburbanites, constrained cits dwellers, multicultural metropolitans, for example. It would be an interesting comparative study of the structurally homogenous neighbourhoods in my city of Guelph, here in Canada, with my former city of Chelmsford, UK, with structurally heterogenous neighbourhoods: how different is the human mix of people in the quite different styles of neighbourhoods? Are heterogenous neighbourhoods “superior” (however that may be defined) to structurally homogenous neighbourhoods of the same age? Sounds like a Masters or PhD thesis in the making.

Of course, the hazard in this approach is that it may over-average groups of people into homogenous pods within a neighbourhood, but it seems their scale is large enough to allow for variability within a neighbourhood. The data has been mapped as “OACs” (Output Area Classifications) for the country, and, within London as London OACs or LOACs. I’ve linked each of these to map views from the Datashine website – which, in itself, is a true Weekend Wandering. It makes our Statistics Canada look downright dinosaurian.

As well, the term “tribe” seems to be ill-used. While there is a certain level of homogeneity within a tribe (bringing in the idea of Tobler’s first law of geography: “All things are related, but nearby things are more related (similar) than far away things”), within a traditional tribe, there would be daily or, at least, regular interactions within the tribe. Whereas, with this use of “tribe” people of the same tribe may never interact even though they live in the same neighbourhood and ride the same train to work – so are they really a “tribe”.

Much exploration here and much thought needed around this idea of breaking down a country or city into “tribes”. Very dangerous from my North American point of view, which causes me to eschew the hierarchies and divisions my ancestors escaped from and tried not to repeat here in Canada. But that’s a whole other topic for discussion.

Towards a new definition of Geography…

Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems and how they interact in the environment at the local, regional and global scales in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  1. What is the feature, process or system?
  2. Where is it found?
  3. Why there?
  4. How is it important?

I have recently updated my GeoKnow.net website to include a page on What is Geography?

I realize this sounds like navel-gazing to some extent, but I’ve been in a thirty year battle with the Five Themes of Geography, first introduced by the American Association of Geographers in 1984.

Location – Place – Human-Environment Interaction – Movement – Region

I have always found the five themes to be forced. To students sitting on the other side of the desk, they are five random words/concepts that unite only because a geography teacher gave them a handout and led them through a lesson, and, even then, the five concepts do not naturally flow, nor are they linked. they don’t “go” anywhere; they are just “there”.

Take Location and Place. Now, as a geographer, I know they are different (somewhat, anyway). But, c’mon, to most people they mean the same thing and will always mean the same thing. If you want to make something new and meaningful, don’t choose two words that are so closely linked that every thesaurus declares them the same (rightly or wrongly).

Then there is Human-Environment Interaction. Wow – what a mouthful compared to the other four  1-word themes. And, there’s no doubt this is a central theme. But it doesn’t fit amongst the other four,  almost trite, themes. Anyway – enough of this. The Five Themes do not work for me and never have.

Geographers study physical and human features, processes and systems…

Since entering teaching back in the early 1990s, I have always understood that Geography is where the sciences and humanities meet. Maybe this is a reflection of my own background as one who first completed a BSc (in Zoology, but always flirting with physical geography and biogeography) prior to completing a BA in Geography. I’ve always seen the disciplines of physical and human geography as a dichotomy, but one that is central to the concept of what geography is.

The shops in Karatu, Tanzania

Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, regarded by the Maasai as the Mountain of God, stands high above the flat valley floor and western wall of the Great Rift Valley, Tanzania, East Africa

And we study more than just features – the processes that form those features and, ultimately, the systems are all central to our understanding of how the world works. Think of volcanoes, for example: they are features in the landscape but are also the result of physical processes. Those processes occur within a whole series of processes, all part of the Earth system we call plate tectonics. The same can be said of migration; it’s a process within the larger human systems of economics and politics. Yet, each of these phenomena – volcanoes and migration – occur at a variety of scales and interact within the greater environment.

…and how they interact in the environment…

Geography is where the two meet and interact: people responding to the physical world and physical world responding to us. This is the essence of geography and while it is espoused in the five themes it doesn’t carry them. When I developed my definition of geography many years ago, I recognized the importance of both disciplines as independent fields as well as the interactions between them. I took it one step further, though, to recognize how these fields operate at different scales.

…at the local, regional and global scales…

But more than that, learning is an investigative endeavour and students are naturally curious beings, so why not build that into our operative definition. To that end, I created a series of four questions to guide the inquirer from the known to the unknown from the simple to complex. They are a subset of the commonly-known 5Ws+H. As such, the questions encourage students to move up the hierarchy of learning. Students can determine where their understandings are and have a road map to where they need to go in working towards the next level. The questions turn the definition into an investigative framework.

…in an attempt to answer four key questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Where is it found?
  3. Why there?
  4. How is it important?

What is it? is further refined to What is the feature? or What is the process? or What is the system? and is meant to define the thing being investigated (a ___ is a ___ that ___s) and is descriptive in nature. It’s meant to be a simple introduction, low in the learning hierarchy, to bring in learners at all levels.

[Aside: There is a definite movement, as of late, to leap over these basic understandings. I first noticed it years ago when GIS became all the rage. Students were following recipe labs drawing polygons and querying databases without the slightest understanding of the underlying geography of the river systems or interactions. There wasn’t time to teach and learn those basics – a map had to be produced which analyzed and solved a problem. Hmmmm… the cart before the horse? It is also a trend in the new Gr 9 course from the Ontario Ministry of Education which is big on issues, but short on underlying concepts.]

Where is it found? begins to get at the geography of it all. Location is key – both absolute and relative. It also brings in the notions of site and situation – concepts I find easier to understand than absolute and relative locations.

Why there? or, more completely, why is the feature (or process or system) found there? or Why there and not elsewhere? begins to unravel the processes that create the feature. One of the key questions becomes: what processes created the feature? Students naturally move from description to explanation –”Why…?” begets “Because…” –  a higher level of understanding, distinct from description.

How is it important? is where it all comes together, where higher-level thinking skills are demanded. It’s where the two worlds – physical and human – interact. Students can delve into the depths of how the physical world influences our decisions and how our decisions and actions influence nature. Conflicts, issues, causes-effects-solutions, economics, politics, societies and cultures all come into play. I like how the textbook publishers Nelson have introduced the idea that geographers look at the world with each of these perspectives in mind. Brilliant. This is what sets us apart from every other discipline and what makes geography central to problem-solving.

Over the years, my students have responded very positively to this framework. When in doubt, just look to the four key questions to guide your inquiry, moving up the levels one step at a time.

Hands-on Glaciation using “Glacier Trays”

GlacierTray1I can’t say for sure, but I think I’m seeing a resurgence in hands-on learning and modelling in the classroom. From my perspective, I have introduced a lot more of it this year and, when I stop and reflect on it, I understand why. In this computer age of geotechnology, on-screen animations and Google Earth, it’s easy to forget that kids benefit from having those hands-on tactile learning experiences provided by “real-life” models.

For the last few years, in the Physical Patterns unit of my Grade 7 World Studies course, I’ve made great use of Google Earth and Google Earth elevation profiles in the teaching of the various landforms and patterns around the world. In small groups, students create a landforms investigation, explore and illustrate it using Google Earth and elevation profiles before telling us about human interactions with their assigned landform. All well and good, but each year after teaching it I find my students still disconnected from the landform. It was a thing on a screen rather than being something in real life. So, my goal this year was to introduce landform models – somehow…

I love it when ideas spawn ideas. Coincidentally, I was speaking with a parent who is also a teacher and she mentioned using ice cubes on a tray of sand to replicate continental glaciation in the classroom. Wow – did I feel dumb. I’ve been teaching geography for almost 25 years and had not come across this. That being said, I’ve only had an opportunity to teach glaciation a few times – not when teaching in Africa, but a bit in England and here in southern Ontario.

A week of thinking and surfing and a quick trip to the dollar store and we were outfitted, ready to go for the total cost of about $25 (that’s Canadian, so about $15 US dollars!!) I purchased 4 plastic serving trays – one for each group – about 30cmx50cm and 3cm deep. I also bought a number of small square plastic “leftovers” containers with lids. You see, rather than using your typical ice cubes, I thought – hmmmm, we need more realistic glaciers. Freezing ice in these 12x12cm containers would make larger “ice sheets” or “lobes”. I even tried freezing ice in a large cookie sheet to make an even larger sheet. While it broke apart easily enough to fit onto the glacier trays, it didn’t convey the idea of a glacier any better than the square blocks. Trial and error at work here!

Besides having sand in the trays, I also wanted to replicate what glaciers do to bedrock. Here in southern Ontario, many students have cottages up on the Canadian Shield in places like Muskoka, Haliburton, the Kawartha Lakes and along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay – prime places to find striations on the exposed bedrock. After having a good think, I added modelling clay to the shopping list. It worked brilliantly. I buried a section of modelling clay in the sand, leaving the top of it exposed.

To ensure some striations would show up, I made the glaciers more realistic by adding a pinch or two of sand and a few small pebbles (aquarium gravel works) to each “glacier”. This not only added to the reality of the glacier (“Eeewwww – why is the glacier dirty?” “Why are there pebbles in the ice?” were two common questions), but upon melting, we had erratics – another common feature here in southern Ontario. The other two features I wanted students to be able to re-create were terminal moraines (easy-peasy – just push the ice along through the sand) and kettle lakes as we have a number of them around us and North America’s largest is just few kilometres south.

To this end, I also used regular-sized ice cubes made in an ice cube tray and tried using a hair dryer to melt the ice more quickly. Sure enough, it did a great job melting the ice, although we had to be careful not to blow sand around, which brings me to the last pice of the puzzle: plant mister bottles. We used these to dampen the sand to give it some “clumpability”, making the progress of the glaciers over the “land” more realistic. It had the added effect of reducing the amount of blowing sand with the hair dryer.

Glacier-RecedingOne thing I tried at home when setting all of this up was to freeze the glacier tray before introducing the glaciers. I thought this would provide a more realistic landscape for the glaciers to flow over. However, when I pushed the glacier over the frozen sand with enough force to push up some sand ahead of it, the whole frozen block of sand slid on the smooth plastic bottom of the tray. In retrospect, the bottom of the tray needs some kind of ridge or set of ridges to help hold the frozen sand in place. Also, it might help if the tray has had a chance to thaw slightly – perhaps spraying the surface with water would help. Hmmmmm – I need to think more on that one.

Interlobate moraine

Interlobate moraine

Puddling in the glacier tray

Puddling in the glacier tray

Finally, the day came. With the glaciers packed in a cooler, off to school I went. The students were prepped the previous class by examining photos of various features and completing a diagram illustrating continental glaciation features. For the lab, I challenged them with trying to replicate as many features as they could. One group wanted to have two glaciers on the same table and within a few minutes, without realizing it, they had interlobate moraines – a perfect teachable moment. They finished the lab by drawing a labelled field sketch of their glacial landscape, then cleaning up – all in an hour.

The same lab became a little more challenging for my second class as now the glacier tables were quite damp. Interestingly, though, this created the conditions for puddling behind the terminal moraines – again, a perfect teachable moment as that’s exactly what we have evidence of here in southern Ontario. This second class even had water in their kettle lakes; in the first class, the meltwater was simply absorbed into the sand.

Successful? – Definitely. The students not only enjoyed themselves, but had a much better understanding of the forces of erosion and how various landforms in our region were formed. The enjoyment factor can’t be understated; in a contest between a paper/screen lesson vs a hands-on-get-dirty-modelling lesson, the hands-on wins every time. Given the low cost and the short time needed, there’s really no reason why not to do this in the classroom. It certainly makes the learning real!

More ideas for glaciers and erosion in the classroom:

Good Luck and have fun!