In this activity, students examine annotated photographs of the Grand Canyon, answer questions about the processes that shaped the rocks in each photograph, and then write the geological history of the area in the form of a story. The target audience is undergraduates in an introductory course for non-science majors. The presentation is light-hearted, trying to intrigue this tricky audience without intimidating them.
The photographs are stunning, and will be eye-opening to the vast majority of undergraduates who don't have a chance to visit the canyon itself. The exercise requires intro-level students to develop the difficult and fundamental skills of making connections between observations and interpretations, and connecting multiple observations into a coherent interpretive narrative.
Learners who reviewed the resource reported that it had increased their curiosity about the topic and that they had learned a lot. 'The topic was designed to make me think about how the history of the grand canyon evolved. This encouraged me to ask questions which motivated me to find more answers.' 'I thought there were just enough facts presented to make me wonder why things happened the way they did.'
Both the CRS staff QA tester and the community reviewers reported the resource to be free of bugs and technical difficulties. A few of the photos are dark, and the recommended strategy of altering the computer monitor's contrast will be too much effort for most users. Some reviewers (specialist and community) found it annoying to have to click back and forth between the photos and the questions, and one reviewer noted that this structure would be very frustrating to students with memory or visual impairments, ADHD, processing deficits, or mobility impairments. Some wished the activity to be more interactive.
In addition to materials intended for the student, the resource includes one web page directed towards the instructor, with notes on how to position the exercise within the semester and how to assess the students' products. The instructor's page seems intended to be confidence-building for instructors who don't have much experience assigning or assessing such open-ended exercises. One of the specialist reviewers notes, 'It is likely that in combination with a motivational instructor and plenty of guidance in the classroom, this would be a great exercise.' An instructor who doesn't have enough background to provide 'plenty of guidance in the classroom' will have to look elsewhere to gain the necessary knowledge. The instructor's page does not include supporting information to bring an instructor up to speed who has little background in depositional processes or Grand Canyon history.
Two reviewers, one specialist and one community, requested a map showing the photo locations and perhaps photo view angles. Although acquaintances of this editor will know that I love maps in almost every context, I actually think that the one-dimensional focus of the exercise in its current form serves to keep the students' attention firmly focused on variation of depositional environment through time, without compromising the scientific integrity of the information presented.
Some college professors may feel, as did one of our specialist reviewers, that it is a mistake for this resource to encourage students to write in a less-than-serious style, because this leads to graduates who cannot produce the quality of research reports demanded by employers. This valid issue needs to be considered in the context of a department's entire curriculum: For the minority of students who go on from an introductory course into a departmental major, are there pedagogical structures to help them transition from the casual story-telling encouraged in the Grand Canyon Exercise to a professional writing style? Or would it be better not to encourage the casual style in the first place?
Kim Kastens, 17 August 2004