A Web site created at Carleton College to make earth science come alive in the classroom has been awarded the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education.
In an era in which knowledge of geoscience is fundamental to handling such pressing issues as climate change and environmental degradation, the Web site, known as On the Cutting Edge, fosters the sharing of ideas about teaching with the aim of improving education throughout the field.
“In the United States, many students get earth science in seventh or eighth grade—and never have another geoscience class,” says Cathryn Manduca, director of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College and a co-founder of On the Cutting Edge. “Yet now it is especially important for students in general to understand what is facing us environmentally, and for the workforce to have more and better-trained geoscientists.”
Science is published by AAAS, the world’s largest multi-disciplinary science society. The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) was designed to honor and promote the originators of the best online materials available to science educators.
The contest bears the acronym SPORE—meaning a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in inhospitable conditions, into something new—with the idea that these winning projects may be the seed for valuable progress, despite widespread challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each recipient of the award explaining each winning project. The article about the On the Cutting Edge Web site will be published in the February 26 issue of Science.
“We’re trying to advance science education,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “This competition will provide much-needed recognition for innovators in the field whose efforts promise significant benefits for students and for science literacy in general. The publication in Science of an article on each Web site will help guide education around the globe to valuable free resources that might otherwise be missed.”
In 2009, visitors to On the Cutting Edge numbered more than 700,000. They visited the site’s 3000 pages a total of 850,000 times. The site contains more than 1200 classroom activities contributed by the teaching community, and includes step-by-step instructions for how to put new techniques into place. The Web site also includes a wide variety of visual tools for use in the classroom, such as artistic renderings, visually represented data, and video and models of the Earth’s processes.
“The Web site created a culture of sharing teaching resources that wasn’t there before,” says Manduca.
Pamela Hines, an editor at Science, says On the Cutting Edge builds engagement among geoscience teachers—with their subject matter and with each other.
“With workshops, information about teaching, and opportunities to connect with and learn from other geoscience faculty, On the Cutting Edge builds a community of engaged geoscience teachers,” Hines said.
Manduca’s commitment to geoscience education dates back to her own undergraduate education at Williams College in Massachusetts. During a winter intersession, she took a class in the geology of U.S. national parks. By the time the class ended, Manduca was hooked. She continued her studies in physics and geology, and based her Ph.D. on the geology of where she had grown up, the mountains of central Idaho. She says her own education showed her just how fascinating geoscience can be.
“I loved learning about the Earth and how geology brought together science and my love of the outdoors,” Manduca says. “One of the reasons that I’ve been involved in improving teaching at the undergraduate level is I had really good instruction.”
She says many of the teaching techniques presented on the On the Cutting Edge Web site are “modern analogs to some of the practices I experienced as a student.”
Now a resident of Rochester, Minnesota, Manduca got together with three other colleagues in 2002—Heather Macdonald of the College of William and Mary, David Mogk of Montana State University, and Barbara Tewksbury of Hamilton College—and developed a workshop series using the professional development programs each was conducting individually. The “On the Cutting Edge” workshop series became the primary catalyst for the Web site, which is funded by Carleton College with a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Critical to the Web site’s value is it success in encouraging geoscience faculty to try new methods of teaching, particularly active-learning techniques. Users of the Web site report that the Web site gives them confidence to try new approaches. To assess the relative effectiveness of the many educational methods presented, the Web site presents current research on how students learn, pointing out which methods produce the best results.
With such a broad range of materials offered, the Web site appeals to all kinds of instructors within the geosciences, including groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in the field. Furthermore, the Web site’s users include many teachers of other sciences.
“The strategies that we’re using to make better teachers are transferable to other sciences,” Manduca says. More than half of the Web site’s users are from outside of the discipline, she reports.