Observation key to Earth science - Catholic Courier

Observation key to Earth science

Earlier this year, when sixth-graders from Kathy Ragan’s class at St. Agnes School in Avon missed out on a whale watch during a trip to Boston due to unfavorable weather conditions, a few quick phone calls ensured they didn’t miss out on an educational opportunity.

Calls by their tour company allowed the group to swing by Howe Caverns, which is 40 miles west of Albany, where students were able to tour the caverns, take a boat ride, learn the caverns’ history, and spot stalactites hanging from cave roofs and stalagmites sticking up from cave floors.

"It was wonderful," Ragan said.

It’s just one of the many ways Catholic schools have turned hands-on experiences into lessons about the Earth.

McQuaid Jesuit, for instance, has a seismograph that records earthquakes and other seismic activity, and science students use it to study earthquakes that have happened around the world. Scientific experiments also are a key part of Earth science classes at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton and Aquinas Institute in Rochester.

The schools’ Earth science curriculum is based on state standards that require students to learn about four disciplines of Earth science: geology, meteorology, astronomy and oceanography.

Geology forms one of the main starting points for study of Earth science, said Mercy High School science teacher Barry DeSain, who coordinates the science curriculum at the school.

"When they come in (at the beginning of the year), they think they are going to just study rocks all year, but by the end of the year, they are bringing rocks to me," DeSain said.

Projects are one way that DeSain gets students excited about studying geology, he said. For instance, in one project, Mercy students research a mineral and then write an elementary-level children’s book about that mineral; DeSain cited Super Chromium as one of the books from this project.

Students also learn to translate two-dimensional topographic maps into three-dimensional maps in the materials of their choosing, such as blocks or clay.

"The biggest thing we try to do is make it fun," DeSain said.

Mercy students monitor the school’s weather station, which is connected with the Weather Bug network. Unusual weather patterns, such as this year’s extended period of dry weather, also are discussed.

When studying space, the students challenge their spatial reasoning as they look at the orbits of the planets. Hands-on demonstrations help them grasp the difference between the revolution of the Earth and the rotation of the Earth, DeSain said.

As part of oceanography, students study plate tectonics. Students also learn about conservation of water as a resource, and they take a pledge to avoid bottled water and use only reusable water bottles if possible.

Finally, students pay attention through the year to news of natural disasters, and they discuss the mechanics of what happened, DeSain said.

"We try to focus on the Earth science part of it, but we also look at the human impact of it," he said.

Natural disasters also are a focus of Aquinas’ Savage Earth course, as well as a component of its Regents and honors-level Earth science classes, said George Lombardo, an Earth science teacher at Aquinas.

Lombardo said natural disasters have been escalating in severity, noting that as the Earth gets more crowded, people have begun to move into areas that were once considered too dangerous to live.

"Overall there has been an increase in natural disasters and that’s mostly because the population density is increasing," Lombardo said. "There’s nowhere for people to go, so they move towards the coastal regions."

In addition to studying disasters, students learn to take measurements and make scientific observations during field trip to local parks, where they study how glaciers shaped the topography of the area.

He said he encourages Earth science students to bring in rock samples to study. Students date the rocks and study real-world applications for rocks that range from jewelry to fossil fuels.

Additionally, Lombardo incorporates Catholic teachings, debate and critical-thinking skills into the classes. For instance, this past spring Lombardo had students select quotations from the Bible and discuss whether the quotations fit into the big-bang theory. Some students said they did not believe in the big-bang theory, while others said they did believe in it, but felt God was ultimately responsible.

He said he shares with students what Pope John Paul II said on the topic.

"It is OK to believe in the big-bang theory, and it is OK to believe in evolution so long as God is responsible for guiding all these things," DeSain said in paraphrasing the pope.

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