This week, the 8th-grade Earth Science students at Arrowhead Middle School began studying volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains, and the layers of the Earth. To begin this lesson, each student was asked to define four different types of scientists: Volcanologist, Seismologist, Geologist, and Geochronologist. Most of the students were able to figure out the first three types of scientists fairly accurately, although the Geochronologist gave the students the most problems. Next, the students were introduced to the “testable question”, a replacement name for the less descriptive “research question.” Several key attributes of testable questions were stressed, such as that they must be specific, measurable, and testable via experiments that show cause and effect.
The students then split into four groups, and each group was assigned to be one of the four types of Earth scientists and given a map of Earth related to their field of study. The Volcanologists’ map showed every currently active volcano. The Seismologists’ map showed every earthquake within the last few years. The Geologists’ map showed the height of the Earth’s mountains and the depth of its ocean trenches. The Geochronologists’ map showed the relative age of the Earth’s crust.
Each group was then asked to study their map and to develop several testable questions from the information presented on it. Additionally, they were to identify important characteristics on their map and copy these features to their own blank map. After completing this, the students gave a poster presentation of sorts, where they described their map and testable questions to the students in the other groups. Finally, the students discussed similarities between the maps and created a master map, containing the key characteristics of all four of the maps.
The effectiveness of this activity was often hit and miss. While some of the groups throughout the day attempted to follow directions, other groups were disinterested and put very little effort into the activity. Often times, the students were focused more on coloring their own maps, sometimes without even understanding the information that was being shown on the map. After prompting the students, I saw that the students rarely took the time to investigate what the map was showing, such as by reading the map title or key. For example, most students simply assumed that the map of earthquakes was colored by the magnitude of the earthquakes, while it was actually colored based on the depth of the earthquakes.
Throughout the activity, I walked from group to group and tried to help the students develop testable questions. Again, the participation varied significantly by group, but by carefully asking questions, the students gained more interest in material, and, after some coaxing, were able to to come up with their own testable questions about their map.