Geotimes Banner

Geotimes is now


Customer Service
Geotimes Search

GeoMarketplace Link

EARTH magazine cover

  Geotimes - July 2007 - Education and Outreach

On the Cutting Edge of Teaching About Early Earth
Cathryn A. Manduca

All images courtesy of Cathryn Manduca

Participants in the “On the Cutting Edge” workshops developed activities that help geoscience faculty teach topics, such as early Earth history, to undergraduate students.

For geoscience faculty and students, it often feels as if what we don’t know — especially about early Earth — outweighs what we do know.

How did plate tectonics evolve? Did such plates exist when Earth was forming? Was early Earth molten? How rapidly did it cool? When and how did the atmosphere and hydrosphere evolve? How did life originate?
How did these elements interact at the beginning of Earth’s evolution to arrive at the planet we know today?

These are just some of the big questions geoscience educators wrangled with at the most recent “On the Cutting Edge” workshop, held in April at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. As students and geoscience faculty grapple with the same questions, faculty need to be prepared to help students understand what scientists know, what they infer, and how they draw conclusions. One of the most valuable resources for faculty in meeting this challenge are the experiences of other faculty.

The workshop brought together experts in early Earth research and undergraduate geoscience education to strategize about how the latest research on early Earth could best be presented to undergraduate students. The workshop was designed not only to benefit the participants but also to produce common resources that other faculty could incorporate into their curriculum about early Earth research.

Teaching about early Earth presents some unique challenges. For instance, the present may not be the key to the distant past. Earth processes may not have operated by the same mechanisms or at the same rates as those observed today. And, as much of the deep time geological record is missing, our understanding of this period in Earth’s history is uncertain. What evidence does exist is complicated, and often the conclusions can only be inferred from sophisticated use of proxies, models and comparisons.

On the other hand, this quandary provides a tremendous opportunity to help students understand the true nature of science. The range of techniques and strategies geoscientists use to infer the nature of this obscure past is one of the most exciting characteristics of early Earth research.

The major research questions discussed at the workshop spanned the breadth of the issues of our understanding of early Earth. We learned about how modeling can be used to test whether or not the early Earth was fully molten and how sulfur isotopes help us understand the early atmosphere and climate. We discussed evidence for the evolution of early life drawn from both modern species and the paleontologic record.

All images courtesy of Cathryn Manduca

Field trips, such as this one to the Stillwater Complex in Montana, are an important component of “On the Cutting Edge” workshops, illustrating both important scientific findings and methods for teaching in the field.

Using our scientific discussions as a springboard, we developed a variety of ideas for incorporating them in our teaching. These emphasized the use of data analysis and discussion to help students understand the range of certainty in our knowledge. You can find a summary of the scientific discussions and the resulting teaching ideas on the workshop Web site: Teaching about the Early Earth (

The workshop on early Earth history is one of six workshops related to geoscience education that are being held this year as part of the “On the Cutting Edge” professional development program. Sponsored by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, this National Science Foundation-funded program helps faculty stay up-to-date with new geoscience research and methods to teach it. Since the program’s beginnings in 2002, more than a thousand geoscience faculty members, post docs and graduate students have attended these workshops.

The “On the Cutting Edge” professional development program is founded on the premise that the geoscience community contains abundant expertise to support effective teaching of geoscience, but that it hasn’t been as effective as it could be in sharing this expertise internally. The program and its Web site facilitate sharing of knowledge and ideas. Of course, field trips play an important role in these programs, as they do in geoscience education.

While each workshop focuses on a different topic, participants from all of the workshops indicate that they leave with a new attitude about teaching that emphasizes student learning and recognizes the wealth of knowledge and research that is available within the geoscience community to support their ability to teach effectively.

The “On the Cutting Edge” Web site now contains 23 topical collections developed through the program, which address numerous aspects of geoscience education, ranging from assessing student learning to teaching geology and human health. Workshop participants and other faculty have contributed 383 teaching activities, which are available through the site. We estimate that more than a quarter of the 8,000 U.S. geoscience faculty members use the site, including those who teach a class for the first time, such as the one who wrote: “I unexpectedly found myself teaching the second term of a structural geology series this winter term. Unexpected because I’m a geophysicist who has never taken a structural geology course. I have now used probably half the links from the Web page. Although I was able to learn what I needed to teach the methods for the course from the textbook, I found the Web page was an excellent resource for finding examples and illustrations of how the methods are applied in the real world.”

Looking back at the program’s first five years, I think one of the most exciting aspects has been its impact on the way we share our teaching expertise. No longer is it rare for faculty to talk to one another about teaching earth science. It is especially gratifying to receive e-mail from new faculty talking about how much they value the activities and resources available through the Web site as they teach for the first time. As a community, we are starting to help one another as professional educators much as we support one another as professional scientists. There is no question that the more we share, the more we will improve geoscience education.

Manduca is director of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Heather Macdonald, Barbara Tewksbury, David Mogk and she direct the Cutting Edge program.

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Undergraduate Education. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Teaching about the Early Earth

Back to top


Advertise in Geotimes

Geotimes Home | AGI Home | Information Services | Geoscience Education | Public Policy | Programs | Publications | Careers

© 2019 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of the American Geological Institute is expressly prohibited. For all electronic copyright requests, visit: