Geology by Live Instruction

 

(This 1128th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 4, 2012.)

 

Don Duggan-Haas Teaching at Niagara Falls

 

Two weeks ago I went back to school. I spent an entire day attending Don Duggan-Haas's nine classes. In a very small way I even participated in the instruction.

 

This was not, however, a usual classroom adventure. On that day one of those eight classes was in Michigan, one in California, one in Washington state, and five in New Mexico.

 

We didn't jet or teleport ourselves around the continent. Don was teaching these classes and interacting with the students by means of a technology that was entirely new to me. I remain amazed by what he was able to accomplish and excited about the prospects his teaching technique opens for future instruction.

 

In separate time blocks Don was introducing these classes to Niagara Falls. His instruction took place from Terrapin Point overlooking the eastern brink of the Canadian falls. He was able to interact with the students because he could see and hear them. More important, the students could see in one view Don himself and in another the same scenery we could see from the overlook.

 

Don was able to show them both the Canadian span in front of us and the American falls in the background, all this enhanced by bright fall tree colors and an occasional rainbow.

 

But this was not simply a tourist display. Don showed these science classes the rock wall across from us in Ontario, pointing out the harder crust of dolomite overlaying the other softer sedimentary layers. He described the U.S. and Canadian power projects and how the water diversion is delaying the erosion of the falls to a foot a year instead of almost five. In talking about this erosion he showed the students the deeply cracked rocks below the point that were clearly ready to break off.

 

In some classes I was called upon to talk about the gulls we could see below us and the canvasbacks that winter in the river.

 

Then the students had an opportunity to ask the questions that most interested them. Some had been emailed to Don beforehand; others came up in his conversation with them. As you might expect from classrooms that ranged from fourth to twelfth grade, the questions varied from simplistic to challenging. In a few cases we even had to respond that we would do some research and get back to these serious thinkers.

 

Here are a few samples: Where does the water come from and where does it go? How much water passes over the falls per minute? (6 million cubic feet) Who were the indigenous peoples who lived near the falls and what were their beliefs about the falls? And even: Is the Niagara River fresh or salt water?

 

How was all this instruction accomplished? When Don invited me to join him, I had visions of our lugging loads of TV equipment down the steps to Terrapin Point. Instead he simply used an iPad with the software application Skype. (For those of you who, like me a few weeks ago, are unfamiliar with an iPad, it is an 8-inch by 10-inch by 1/2 inch thick computer screen weighing less than two pounds.) Don keyed in commands to connect with the various classrooms and to start communicating. From then on cameras in the back and front of the iPad captured and sent the chosen images. I was quite simply flabbergasted at the simplicity of this operation.

 

Don Duggan-Haas is senior research associate with the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca and, with his associate Richard Kissel, his teaching is part of a National Science Foundation-supported demonstration project designed to enhance communication of geological information by creative means.

 

One of the outcomes of their project is the sharing of information and experiences between teachers and students. As one example of how this is already working, the students of Linda Tandy in California and Andrea Pokrzywinski in Alaska are contrasting the geology specific to the two quite different regions.

 

I hope you can see the possibilities for this activity. Instead of simply learning about their region, students organize, present and compare that information with peers in distant lands.

 

You can learn more about this exciting project and Ithaca's Museum of the Earth through VirtualFieldwork.org.