Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Quiz on Earth History: Can You Pass? A Comment on Science Education

Which is older, the dark dike, or the lighter sedimentary rocks?

How would you do on this test (taken from a chapter in Carlson, Plummer and Hammersly's excellent Physical Geology: Earth Revealed textbook)?

1. “ Geological processes operating at present are the same processes that have operated in the past” is the principle of a. correlation b. catastrophism c. uniformitarianism d. none of the preceding

2. “ Within a sequence of undisturbed sedimentary rocks, the layers get younger going from bottom to top” is the principle of a. original horizontality b. superposition c. crosscutting d. none of the preceding

3. If rock A cuts across rock B, then rock A is rock B. a. younger than b. the same age as c. older than

4. Which is a method of correlation? a. physical continuity b. similarity of rock types c. fossils d. all of the preceding

5. Eras are subdivided into a. periods b. eons c. ages d. epochs

6. Periods are subdivided into a. eras b. epochs c. ages d. time zones

7. Which division of geologic time was the longest? a. Precambrian b. Paleozoic c. Mesozoic d. Cenozoic

8. Which is a useful radioactive decay scheme? a. 238U-206Pb b. 235U-207Pb c. 40K-40Ar d. 87Rb-87Sr e. all of the preceding

9. C-14 dating can be used on all of the following except a. wood b. shell c. the Dead Sea Scrolls d. granite e. bone

10. Concentrations of radon are highest in areas where the bedrock is a. granite b. gneiss c. limestone d. black shale e. phosphate-rich rock f. all of the preceding

11. Which is not a type of unconformity? a. disconformity b. angular unconformity c. nonconformity d. triconformity

12. A geologist could use the principle of inclusion to determine the relative age of a. fossils b. metamorphism c. shale layers d. xenoliths

13. The oldest abundant fossils of complex multicellular life with shells and other hard parts date from the a. Precambrian b. Paleozoic c. Mesozoic d. Cenozoic

14. A contact between parallel sedimentary rock that records missing geologic time is a. a disconformity b. an angular unconformity c. a nonconformity d. a sedimentary contact

If you have a degree in geology, these questions on earth history should give you no problem; they represent basic principles in the science. If you are a student in a basic geology class, they would be challenging, but with a bit of study, you should get most of them right. And if given as an open-book test with no time limit, they should be no problem at all...except if you are a student in my distance learning class. They barely break 50% most of the time. It isn't that they are bad students; they do fine on most of the other chapters. It mystifies me why they do badly on this one chapter, year after year, but I suspect the reason lies in the student's previous K-12 education.

Earth history and evolution have always been a required part of the primary and secondary curriculum, especially in California, but I get the feeling they don't get a strong emphasis in the classroom, perhaps out of fear of controversy from creationist parents, or due to the beliefs of the classroom teachers themselves. Because we end up not teaching our students why science accepts the evidence for an ancient Earth, students are left with statements like "scientists believe the Earth is millions of years old" as if it were a 50-50 choice. It's this idea of belief in scientific findings that has brought us to this dismal moment in our country's history when we can't mobilize to fight global warming because politicians and their followers choose to believe it isn't happening. Because people like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Senator Jim Inhofe are accepted as climate experts. They aren't; they are appallingly ignorant or devastatingly cynical (or both).

There was an interesting moment last weekend at our Wild Planet Day celebration, though. A father was showing his daughter our skeleton of the sabertooth cat. She wasn't much more than 7 years old, but he said to her, "is this creature millions of years old, or thousands?" I kind of sat back, waiting for the assumed explanation of how scientists are wrong and that the earth is only 6,000 years old. But, to my surprise, he said "the dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, but the mammals like this sabertooth lived thousands of years ago". A small but satisfying moment to be sure. And too rare these days.

If you haven't had a class in geology, don't feel bad if you don't know the answers. I've listed them in the comments.

What do you think about the earth science education our children are getting these days? Am I totally off base?


Garry Hayes said...

1 c
2 b
3 a
4 d
5 a
6 b
7 a
8 e
9 d
10 f
11 d
12 d
13 b
14 a
How'd you do?

Unknown said...

I think you're pretty spot on in regards to the education. Hell, about 15-20 years ago, in the school system I went through there wasn't an Earth science course to be had after junior high if you were in the college preparatory track. (Which is why getting a degree in geology just never even occurred to me at the time.) It seems to have gone downhill since then, particularly at lower income schools. My friend that was teaching at an extremely poor grade school told me that science (along with art, music, and PE) was something they simply did not get to teach because it took time away from trying to get the kids ready to score well on the standardized tests. Thanks, No Child Left Behind.

Gaelyn said...

I only got 4 wrong, not too bad.

I'm happily surprised that when I talk geologic time at the canyon there is rarely any argument. Most people get it, young and old, at least the basics.

I didn't get earth science in the early years of education. And by the time I studied it in college there were many changes. I don't think it should be limiting to say, "Scientists believe...." any more than the closed minded having their own belief.

Good test.

Lockwood said...

Missed #6. Agree that earth sci education is disastrous, and even when attempts to teach it are made, coverage is lousy and largely irrelevant- both to the actual science and to students' lives. There are historical reasons for this, dating back to the 1800's, which I should put together and write up sometime. But I would argue that geology and the earth sciences are both more accessible and more important to decision-making in today's world than most people realize.

Andrew Alden, Oakland Geology blog said...

If geology were presented in high school with the same rigor as chemistry, this quiz would be easy to ace. So clearly it isn't, and I would place the blame on the curriculum. This brings me to the long crusade by Eldridge Moores to get HS geology accepted as a college-qualifying lab course. Moores told me in August that he has given up trying to budge the dinosaurs on the board about this.

Randy A. said...

It's not just earth science. It's science in general. Actually, it's education in general. In my college earth science classes I often have to give students tips on how to do basic math, how to take notes, how to study, and how to read.
Yes, I said how to read.
In college.
It's ironic -- we live in a time when we depend on technology, and science plays a giant role in our lives. We can instantly communicate with people anywhere on the planet, and participate in a global economy.
And yet:
People still believe in pseudoscience and quackery (and disbelieve in science)...
Are ignorant of geography...
And many of my students can't write a coherent paragraph in ANY language.
The answer is easy to say, but hard to do: we need to make education a bigger priority in this country. And that means real education, not passing standardized tests.

Vadrosaul said...

Ridiculously easy for this mid-second year earth science major, to the point where I would criticize #13 since Ediacaran period soft-body biota fossils are becoming more abundantly discovered, but you get away with the 'hard parts' part of the question; plus #14 is not specific enough to distinguish between paraconformity & disconformity.

I can't comment on the state of American education, as I live to the north. Up here, in my opinion, the problem is less about fundamentalist nonsense polluting the curriculum and more about parceling out education into bits & pieces so that general aptitude is eroding. One thing I dislike seeing is the pervasive fear of mathematics, like it is some crushing force that will drain your soul. Thus you have droves entering humanities & business & arts with the major reason not being that that is their passion, but rather it contains little math. Math can be tough, but only if you don't put a little extra effort into it and calm down about it. But i guess in an instant-gratification world its place becomes one of avoidance.