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Bring the Outdoors In

Bring the Outdoors In
Kerry Shea, Science faculty

In my 8th grade Earth Science classroom, we learn about big concepts. From exploring the origins of the Universe down to reviewing very basic elements of matter, we explore topics that can be both abstract and expansive. It can be a challenge to bring relevant, hands-on classroom experiences to a study of Earth Science.

One method I have found to bring these topics to life is through field study experiences. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in a field study in Western Washington as part of my graduate program in Geosciences.

In the summer of 2019, I joined a group of fellow graduate students and professors as we explored the rain forests, lava tubes, volcanic mountains, glaciers, and the rugged coastline of Western Washington.  We took turns presenting the geological history of each location. We discussed the evidence left behind from tremendous volcanic eruptions and violent mudslides at Mount St. Helens. We explored the impact of climate change on the glacial terminus at Mount Rainier. We searched for evidence of plate movement in the folds and faults of the rocks surrounding the coast. These experiences gave me an understanding of our dynamic Earth that I could never have found in just a textbook or video.

How do I bring these experiences into our classroom at Dana Hall? Although my students like to tell me that I remind them of the indomitable Ms. Frizzle, I do not have access to her amazing magic school bus. How can I transport my students without actually leaving campus?

What I have found is that we need to explore our surroundings with a critical eye. What do we see now that gives us clues and context to our geologic past? An exploration around campus for the signs of weathering and erosion in the melting snow and ice of early spring brings us to a discussion of the massive glaciers that covered New England more than 20,000 years ago. The large stone erratics dropped by the retreating glacier, remnants of the water flowing beneath the glacier along with mounds of debris, can all be found within walking distance of our classroom. Additionally, a survey of the different types of rocks found around campus gives us clues to our ancient past. Igneous rocks like granite and diorite are prevalent. These rocks formed when ancient magma chambers deep underground slowly cooled and solidified. How did these rocks make their way to the surface? What do volcanic rocks tell us about this area millions of years ago? 

What clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, had we actually seen them emerging from the bosom of the deep? …. The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.

James Hutton, 1788.  

While I will always encourage my students to explore beyond our campus, there is much we can learn without the need for a headlamp or climbing gear. The story of our Earth can be illustrated by looking at the artifacts that surround us. The principle of uniformitarianism, as defined by Charles Lyell, tells us that the processes by which current geological features were created are slow, steady, and constant. We can look at our present environment for clues to our geologic past, and we can understand how these processes will change our area in the future.