Putting earth science back in its place
STEVEN SEMKEN, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY
One of the most universal and fundamental things that humans do is to make places. We do this by sensing and experiencing the space around us, and attaching meanings to parts of it: here is a beautiful mountain, here is where my house is, here is where we have found copper, here is where my ancestors lived. The meanings that we affix to places can be aesthetic, ceremonial, historic, practical, and mythical, as well as scientific. Humans develop emotional attachments to meaningful places, sometimes to the point of making significant personal sacrifices to preserve or protect them. The combination of meanings and attachments that connect us to places is called the sense of place.
We study and teach about Earth through its places. From Monument Valley to Organ Pipe, the landscapes of Arizona are set with places that are not only great geological exemplars, but meaningful to people for all kinds of reasons. It is only human for us to become interested in these diverse place meanings even as we explore our surroundings scientifically. Our students may also have, or can be encouraged to develop, rich senses of these places—particularly ones that are relevant to their personal interests, family experiences, or cultural backgrounds. This is the nature of place-based teaching, which encourages students to explore, and become involved in, local environments and communities. Urban places are just as meaningful, and can be just as instructive, as rural or remote places.
It is not simply teaching about the geology of a place such as Grand Canyon or the Río Salado Valley. It is finding ways for your students to experience the place: if possible by bringing them there, but alternatively by bringing them local rock specimens, images, maps, and readings to investigate, or enabling them to explore virtually using Google Earth. It is also helping them to become more invested in local places: by being able to explain how they get their weather, drinking water, fuel, and electrical power; by doing a community-service project; by creating art that celebrates the beauty of land and environment. And authentically place-based teaching and learning are as trans-disciplinary as place meanings themselves are. Here are reason and motivation for Earth science teachers to collaborate with their colleagues in life sciences, geography, history, language, literature, and so on, to develop ways to explore and understand the natural and cultural landscapes of Arizona across the curriculum.
Why is this important? On one hand, cultural forces such as the pervasiveness and popularity of digital entertainment and the homogenizing effects of global commerce conspire against student and community interest in local places and concerns. There is mounting research and anecdotal evidence that children and families spend less time outdoors. To be oblivious to the importance of local places is to forego opportunities to learn from them and protect them from environmental and cultural degradation. On the other hand, right here in Arizona we are already faced with a number of what many scientists and policymakers have labeled “grand challenges” to sustainability if not human existence, including depletion of water resources, lessened biodiversity, declining air quality, continued dependence on fossil energy, and climate change. Place-based teaching is an appropriate response. And it is intellectually and emotionally delightful to reacquaint yourself and your students with the places of home.
Selected, Recommended Readings
ONE PLACE-BASED TEACHING AND LEARNING:
Gruenewald, D. A., & Smith, G. A. (Eds.). (2008). Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity.
New York: Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 978-0-8058-5864-8.
Sobel, D. (2004). Place-based education: connecting classrooms and communities.
Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society. ISBN 0-913098-54-X.
ON THE MANY PLACE MEANINGS OF ARIZONA AND THE SOUTHWEST:
Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: landscape and language among the Western Apache.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1724-3.
Ffolliott, P. F., & Davis, O. K. (2008). Natural environments of Arizona: From deserts to mountains.
Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 978-0-8165-2697-0.
Granger, B.H. (1982). Will C. Barnes’s Arizona place names, facsimile edition.
Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-0729-5.
Kamilli, R. J., & Richard, S. M. (Eds.). (1998). Geologic highway map of Arizona, Map M-33.
Tucson, AZ: Arizona Geological Society and Arizona Geological Survey. ISBN 1-891924-00-1.
McNamee, G. (1993). Named in stone and sky: An Arizona anthology.
Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1348-1.
Nations, D., & Stump, E. (1996). Geology of Arizona, second edition.
Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt Publishing. ISBN 0-7872-2525-8.
Trimble, M. (1986). Roadside history of Arizona.
Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8784-2198-5.
Wiewandt, T., & Wilks, M. (2001). The Southwest inside out: an illustrated guide to the land and its history.
Tucson, Arizona: Wild Horizons Publishing. ISBN 1-879728-03-6.