Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Teaching geoscience to religious students

The blog En Tequila es Verdad posted an interesting article about teaching geoscience religious students. Ron Schott noted that taking a slow approach, introducing the scientific method, evidence, and how science is made, encourages them to critically think about the evidence and engage in the class. It's a great article, go check it out.

This article reminded me of a time in the 4th grade. Our class was learning about dinosaurs. I was talking with a friend about how dinosaurs were millions of years old. He replied with "but the Earth is only 6,000 years old." I can't remember exactly what my response was, but I do remember giving him a quizzical look. Being in elementary school, we weren't given a proof of how we know the age of the Earth. I accepted it on faith that the teacher was telling the truth, and probably on the fact that dinosaurs and rocks are really old and really COOL (thanks, Dad and ,uhh, probably Bill Nye, too). Hmm, now that I think about it, I wonder how much this plays into my rejecting religion from an early age? Eh, that thread is a quite off topic for this blog. How then can we give young kids the lines of evidence when teaching geoscience, or science for that matter?

What evidence can we present to show how we know rocks are really old? Show pictures of zircons? Well, then you're talking about radioactive decay and isotopes, way too advanced for elementary school. Maybe show a sedimentary rock and talk about how it formed into it's present form? Any elementary teachers out there with experiences/insight they'd like to share?


  1. I think the best way to teach children about deep time is the same way Hutton published his thoughts on the topic--show them a serious angular unconformity and get them thinking about how long it takes to deposit that much sediment, tilt it (+/- metamorphose it), erode it, and then deposit that much more on top of it.

  2. The way I approached it with my Intro Geology classes was to mirror James Hutton's likely line of thought. Begin with Steno's Laws (Superposition, Original Horizontality, Lateral Continuity). These all make intuitive sense, thus don't raise any hackles. Then apply them in a view of the strata of the Grand Canyon (or some local exposure of relatively flat-lying sedimentary rocks); no discussion of absolute ages yet, just make sure they get the principles of relative age dating. Next, introduce them to Hutton's angular unconformity at Siccar Point. Work them through the types of rocks (sandstone, shale) and discuss geologic environments by which sand grains are eroded, transported, and deposited. Then there's burial and lithification. Finally some tectonic event causes these layers to be tilted. But that's not all; you have to erode all the overlying rock so that they get back to the surface as tilted rocks. And then you have to do all that over again! The coup de grâce is explaining Hutton's understanding of Hadrian's Wall. It was built by the Romans in the first century AD, and Hutton would have known this from written histories. By the time Hutton sees the wall in the 1780s its age is somewhere between a quarter and a third of the entire earth's history by a Creation = 4004BC perspective. And yet it still stands. Yes, it's overgrown and many boulders have fallen out of the wall, but they've hardly begun their process of weathering down to sand. Now think back to all the geologic events that had to occur for the Siccar Point unconformity to have formed, and with this single insight into the rates of geologic processes, it should immediately be clear how Hutton was able to apply naturalistic explanations to break free of the Biblical literalist interpretations of his time and not at all shocking that he would make the even greater leap to "... no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end..."