07 September 2011

earth's natural disasters

I'm so thankful I have the student contact during Earth's Natural Disasters. That class continues to be meaningful. We talk about Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Volcanoes, Floods, Wildfires, and Tornadoes. It's a bit scary when these kinds of events continue to happen regularly, especially when we are discussing them in class. 3 weeks ago we talked about earthquakes and there was a 5ish magnitude in Northern Virginia. 2 weeks ago our topic was hurricanes and Irene hit the Northeast. Last week we discussed wildfires and you have probably seen that Oklahoma City has been hit along with Texas, Arizona, and California. I think there have even been some in Oregon. It is one of those instances when you wonder if you are noticing the news more because you are teaching the class, or is there really some correlation to the topics discussed in class and the cause!

Either way, I love teaching the class and one of my favorite things students do is to reflect on their learning over the past week. One student did some great reflecting this week and I thought I might share her reflection and my response. Nothing groundbreaking, but I can't help sharing when I see that students are taking what they learn and applying it to everyday life.

Class was very interesting this week. The information about Yellowstone Park stood out the most. I have been talking and thinking about the devastation it would cause if the volcanoes there erupted. I have asked myself if I would try to escape to Canada or if I would stand still and let the first wave of destruction take me out? I haven’t answered that question yet.

The video we watched was useful in gaining a perspective about super volcanoes. I don’t think that I could have fathomed the mass destruction one would cause had it not been presented in that way. I had thought that Mt St Helen’s would be considered a super volcano because of the amount of damage it caused but the reality is that it does not compare.

I feel like I am learning a lot in this class about science which is causing me to observe nature more. My family and I took a 12 mile trip down the Missouri river a few weeks ago and I couldn’t help but examine the rocks and the layers of earth pondering what I have learned in class and attempting to guess the age of each layer. I’m sure that my family would have liked me to just row the raft and enjoy the trip more but I was totally fascinated by different colors and types.

 It is interesting to me how the scientists get their data. How do they know their methods are correct and what do they use to back up their findings? Carbon dating for instances, how do they know that something is as old as they say? Can they be absolutely positive that the rocks that they study are as old as they claim? I’m sure the answer is more complicated then I can understand but I would love the abridged version if there is one.

Here's my response:

What a great question. We need to discuss this in class and I'd be happy if you would raise the question when I give time for that.

Just in case you don't ask in class, the short is answer is this: Scientists don't know whether their methods are correct. At least they don't know any more than you can know whether or not your car will start in the morning. You go out, turn the key and expect it to start based solely on past experience and your faith in the person who built/maintains that vehicle. Science is very similar in that it relies heavily on past experience. We also make inferences in science using logic.

Take your rocks for example. How do you know the rocks on the bottom are older than the ones on the top? You have some knowledge of the Principle of Superposition, even though you've probably never heard it called that. Logic and past experience tell us that the layers that are below were "laid down" BEFORE the ones above. This is called superposition.

So I'll answer your question with another question. How do you KNOW that superposition holds true? Can you be absolutely POSITIVE that you are correct? To tie our classroom activities in to what we are talking about...I suspect there may be some checks left in your envelope. You'll never know the whole story. You just have to keep rolling the die and check that your hypothesis still fits the data. :-)

I hope this helps. I tried really hard to make that the abridged version!

This exchange shows why I love teaching science - We never know the entire story. We never know whether we are 100% correct. We only know what the data tells us (assuming we are listening) and we can only look for patterns once we have some experience. It's like having built-in job security. You can never know everything, because it is constantly changing. It is a dynamic system!

That's why science is better than fiction. In fictional writing, you can make up some wildly fantastic stories. But in science, you don't have to make it up. It is wildly fantastic while being utterly true and accurate!