Author Archives: Amy Pallant

The repeal of the Clean Power Plan and how to teach about energy choices and climate change

The Clean Power Plan, which sets state-by-state targets for carbon emissions reductions, has been called a climate game changer, but the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has repealed the plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Over the last several decades there has been an increasing awareness of the ways humans affect Earth’s systems. To understand the impact of policy changes, it is important to understand the core science concepts and the role of human activity. With this latest decision by the EPA, there is no better time to learn about energy choices and the future of Earth’s climate.

The Concord Consortium’s High-Adventure Science project has developed six free, high-quality curriculum modules in collaboration with National Geographic Education for middle and high school classrooms. One module explores the question “What are our energy choices?” Another investigates “What is the future of Earth’s climate?”

In the climate change module, students explore interactions between factors that affect Earth’s climate. Students analyze temperature data from ice cores, sediments, and satellites, as well as greenhouse gas data from atmospheric measurements. They also run experiments with computational models and hear from a climate scientist working to answer the same question about the future of the Earth’s climate.

The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies video shows the changes in Earth’s temperature across the globe between 1884 and 2012, compared to the baseline temperature between 1950 and 1980.

In the energy module, students explore the advantages and disadvantages of different energy sources for generating electricity with a particular focus on natural gas extracted from shale formations through the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process. Students examine real-world data to learn about electricity consumption trends worldwide, and use an interactive with data from the Energy Information Administration to investigate the sources of electricity in their state (and across the U.S.) from 2001 to 2010.

Explore some ways that an aquifer can be contaminated by drilling for shale gas. Click the About link in the upper right of the model for instructions to create a drill, set off explosions to fracture the shale layer, fill the pipe with water or propane to hydraulically fracture the shale further, and pump out the fracking fluid.

When considering our energy future and how that impacts climate change there are no easy answers. Many factors need to be considered when making energy choices. The choices we make—whether locally, nationally, or globally—have direct and indirect effects on human health, the environment, and the economy. How do you teach your students about energy choices and the future of Earth’s climate?


The physics of a dynamic 3D plate tectonics model

Earth’s landforms have been shaped over hundreds of millions of years by the movement and interaction of Earth’s tectonic plates. While geoscientists can correlate the wide variety of landforms to this movement, teaching about it poses significant challenges. It’s hard for students to reason spatially and temporally about such processes.

One of the goals of the GEODE project is to design an interactive, dynamic plate tectonics model. Plate tectonics is a fundamental theory that unifies Earth science. It describes Earth’s surface as consisting of a number of “plates” that pull apart, move towards each other, or move side by side. These interactions are responsible for the formation and distribution of geologic phenomena.

Creating a model to represent the complex Earth system is no simple task. We wrote about the challenges of starting with a 2D version in Modeling Plate Tectonics for Learning, but decided to abandon that approach in favor of a 3D model. While visualizations of Earth’s plates exist, a 3D dynamic, interactive plate tectonics model based on physics that runs on school-based computers did not. Until now.

We have begun work on a new 3D GEODE model. The beta version already simulates the following geological processes:

  • subduction and related volcanic activity
  • continental collision and orogeny
  • forming of a new oceanic crust at divergent boundaries

Play the video to watch GEODE’s new 3D geodynamic model representing interacting plates on a modeled planet.

The plates are modeled as rigid bodies that rotate around the center of a planet. Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields with various geological properties:

  • crust type (oceanic or continental)
  • elevation (which can be changed by volcanic activity or orogeny)
  • geological data describing processes like subduction, volcanic activity, or orogeny

Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields that interact based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon

Every step of the simulation is based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon. In addition, the final torque (sum of all torques coming from the hexagonal forces), angular accelerations, and angular velocities are calculated for each plate modeled. As plates interact along the plate boundaries, the model detects either the need to generate new fields (hexagons) where plates move apart—like what happens along mid-ocean rifts—or detects collisions and determines what processes are happening—for example, subduction, mountain building, volcanic activity.

Earth Educators’ Rendezvous

Last month, I attended the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous in Albuquerque where I participated in the Geoscience Education Research and Practice Forum. Approximately 40 geoscience educators and researchers gathered for four days to prioritize grand challenges in geoscience education research and recommend strategies for addressing the priorities.

Both in small working groups and large group feedback forums, we discussed research on students’ understanding in geology, and environmental, ocean, atmospheric, and climate science; research on K-12 teacher education; Earth and societal problems; access to underrepresented groups; cognitive science unique to geoscience (e.g., quantitative reasoning, temporal reasoning, spatial reasoning); instructional strategies to improve learning; and research on institutional change.

In the evenings to clear my mind, I took to the hills—literally—and was amazed by the local geologic landforms!

Amy Pallant at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The cone-shaped tent rock formations are the products of volcanic eruptions that occurred 6 to 7 million years ago and left pumice, ash, and tuff deposits over 1000 feet thick.

Basalt cobbles at Petroglyphs National Monument created by a lava flow around a hill (that has since eroded).

Back at the meeting, I was in the working group focused on research on instructional strategies to improve geoscience learning in different settings and with various technologies. Because this topic is so broad, developing a list of grand challenges brought up a wide range of ideas. In the end, we narrowed our list to six grand challenges and began to outline strategies to address them.

The ideas developed will be presented at AGU and AGI this fall, and members of each group will be writing white papers. I’m hopeful that the product of this work will be like the influential Earth and Mind II, with the geoscience education research field and educators benefiting similarly.

The Earth Educators’ Rendezvous and the nearby landscapes were both inspiring. No wonder they call New Mexico the land of enchantment.

The National Science Foundation awards grant to study virtual worlds that afford knowledge integration

The Concord Consortium is proud to announce a new project funded by the National Science Foundation, “Towards virtual worlds that afford knowledge integration across project challenges and disciplines.” Principal Investigator Janet Kolodner and Co-PI Amy Pallant will explore how the design of project challenges and the contexts in which they are carried out can support knowledge integration, sustained engagement, and excitement. The goal is to learn how to foster knowledge integration across disciplines when learners encounter and revisit phenomena and processes across several challenges.

Aerial Geography and Air QualityIn this model, students explore the effect of wind direction and geography on air quality as they place up to four smokestacks in the model.

We envision an educational system where learners regularly engage in project-based education within and across disciplines, and in and out of school. We believe that, with such an educational approach, making connections across learning experiences should be possible in new and unexplored ways. If challenges are framed appropriately and their associated figured worlds (real and virtual) and scaffolding are designed to afford it, such education can help learners integrate the content and practices they are learning across projects and across disciplines. “Towards virtual worlds” will help move us towards this vision.

This one-year exploratory project focuses on the possibilities for knowledge integration when middle schoolers who have achieved water ecosystems challenges later attempt an air quality challenge. Some students will engage with EcoMUVE, where learners try to understand why the fish in a pond are dying, and others will engage with Living Together from Project-Based Inquiry Science (PBIS), where learners advise about regulations that should be put in place before a new industry is allowed to move into a town. A subset of these students will then encounter specially crafted air quality challenges based on High-Adventure Science activities and models. These, we hope, will evoke reminders of experiences during their water ecosystem work. We will examine what learners are reminded of, the richness of their memories, and the appeal for learners of applying what they are learning about air quality to better address the earlier water ecology challenge. Research will be carried out in Boston area schools.

Sideview Pollution Control Devices In this model, students explore the effects of installing pollution control devices, such as scrubbers and catalytic converters, on power plants and cars. Students monitor the level of primary pollutants (brown line) and secondary pollutants (orange line) in the model over time, via the graph.

The project will investigate:

  1. What conditions give rise to intense and sustained emotional engagement?
  2. What is remembered by learners when they have (enthusiastically) engaged with a challenge in a virtual figured world and reflected on it in ways appropriate to learning, and what seems to affect what is remembered?
  3. How does a challenge and/or virtual world need to be configured so that learners notice—while not being overwhelmed by—phenomena not central to the challenge but still important to making connections with content outside the challenge content?

Our exploration will help us understand more about the actual elements in the experiences of learners that lead to different emotional responses and the impacts of such responses on their memory making and desires.

Lessons we learn about conditions under which learners form rich memories and want to go back and improve their earlier solutions to challenges will form some of the foundations informing how to design virtual worlds and project challenges with affordances for supporting knowledge integration across projects and disciplines. Exemplar virtual worlds and associated project challenges will inform design principles for the design and use of a new virtual world genre — one with characteristics that anticipate cross-project and cross-discipline knowledge integration and ready learners for future connection making and knowledge deepening.

Hitting the Wall

Gas laws are generally taught in high school chemistry. Students learn that Boyle’s law, for instance, can be expressed as P1V1=P2V2, where P is pressure and V is volume.

From the equation, it’s clear that there is an inverse relationship between the gas pressure and volume, but do students understand the molecular mechanism behind this relationship?

Since students are programmed to plug and chug, if you give them, say, P1, V1, and P2, they can find the numeric value of V2. Although students can get the correct answer, teachers have told us that their students don’t really understand the gas laws because they don’t have a mental model of what’s happening. Gases are, after all, invisible! Nor can students see volume or pressure.

Molecular Workbench makes the gases, volume, and pressure visible. With a new set of Next-Generation Molecular Workbench interactives, students can experiment with increasing the pressure on a gas to see why the gas volume decreases.

The “What is Pressure?” interactive (above) shows the inside (yellow atoms) and outside (pink atoms) of a balloon. (Even the velocities of the individual atoms are visible with vectors!) The green barrier represents the wall of the balloon.

Students learn that pressure is nothing more than molecular collisions with a barrier. In the beginning, atoms hitting the balloon wall on either side move it just a tiny bit—transferring some of their kinetic energy to the barrier. At equilibrium, the balloon wall remains (relatively) stationary. (Go ahead and run it to see!)

But if you add atoms to the balloon, the balloon wall moves out; more atoms means that there is increased pressure pushing outwards on the barrier. Since the number of atoms on the outside of the balloon hasn’t changed, the pressure pushing inwards is the same as it was before. With unbalanced forces, you get net movement.

With barriers, we can also measure the pressure caused by those molecular collisions.

In the “Volume-Pressure Relationship” interactive (above), students see a visual representation of Boyle’s law.

Other models allow students to investigate all the relationships of Charles’s law (V1T2=V2T1), Gay-Lussac’s law (P1/T1=P2/T2), and Avogadro’s law (V1/n1=V2/n2).

And, of course, all of these relationships together make up the Ideal Gas Law (PV=nRT). Explore gas laws today with some HTML5 molecular models!

If we build it, will they come? Feedback from the field.

The Molecular Workbench team has a unique opportunity—take our wonderful software and increase access to it. But we know that this is no “Field of Dreams” task. If we build it, will they come?

We’re using The Lean Startup as a guide to optimize our software for the Web. It’s encouraging us to experiment to see which ideas are brilliant and which are crazy and get feedback from users early. We’re thinking about how not to assume we know what people want, but instead go and find out, and be prepared to shift our ideas. In short: Test. Iterate. Repeat.

So we held our first focus group with several Rhode Island teachers who have been loyal users of Molecular Workbench. Our goal was to get feedback on ways to make our new browser-based MW more valuable to them. We asked them to evaluate new designs (we invite you to take our survey, too). We also asked about tone and length of activities. And the teachers described ways they’d like to select and integrate MW models and activities into their classrooms.

Two major themes emerged: flexibility and student accountability. This confirmed what we knew about the classroom: teachers have limited time, a wide range of learners, a diversity of classes, and pressures around high-stakes tests. We’re now working on prototyping ways to incorporate teacher feedback into our Web-based MW models and activities. We’ll share our progress on our website.

And, of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.