What is the context for this assignment?
The assignment comes from “Origins and Evolution of Earth: Building a habitable planet,” an Enduring Questions course during which about 19 freshmen are taught the same content but from two different perspectives: science and theology. We come together to discuss what we think are some of the grandest questions that we can ask. One of our aims as faculty is to try to show that this conversation need not be one of conflict and irreconcilable differences, but rather one of potential integration and common ground. Throughout the semester, we had joint Reflection sessions — including two field trips — wherein we shared these different, though perhaps surprisingly complementary, perspectives on the origins and evolutions of the Earth.
What are the Course Descriptions?
Here are the course descriptions from the university catalogue:
We will explore the scientific underpinnings of our ongoing quest to answer some of Earth’s grandest questions. This course will introduce you to the scientific method and the perspective of geology, geochemistry, and geophysics that have been developed to unlock the history of the Earth. The history of the earth begins 4.5682 ± 0.0002 billion years ago with the first condensation of the solar system and continues to unfold today. During this vast expanse of time, an incredible array of events and processes have shaped the earth into the habitable planet we know: a planet we continue to shape ourselves. In this class, we will do more than simply review a list of events in Earth’s history as written in a textbook. As students of science, we should seek not just to know what the history is, but how we know it. How do we know the age of the earth? How do we know when life first evolved? How do we know when and why the dinosaurs and other early life became extinct? How do we know the continents are moving? How do we know what questions to ask next, and which questions to ask again? By learning the basic interpretive tools of the geologist, the geochemist, and the geophysicist, you will learn how to see the story of the earth in the rocks, sediments and geological formations which preserve the only records of past earth processes and events. The goal is to expose you to these interpretive tools in order to appreciate the vast history of our natural world more fully, and better appreciate our role in that world. The final third of the class will focus on the impact of human activity on the Earth, and the responsibility that humans have to protect it in the future, or suffer grave consequences.
How have religion and science shaped our understanding of the Earth, its evolution into a habitable planet, and our human relationship with it? This Core course addresses both Christian and Islamic understandings of the grand meanings of life, the universe, creation, evolution and the age of the earth, and how human use of earth’s resources reflects our theological understandings of ourselves and our place in the world. Theological perspectives will include both historical and contemporary voices from both faith traditions, with attention to inclusion of the voices of women, marginalized persons, and non-Westerners.
Why did you choose to use a creative assignment?
Ethan Baxter: One of our learning goals for this assignment is for students to appreciate the ways in which scientific and theological ways of thinking come together, rather than oppose. When we first taught the course, we had students submit two different final papers on the same topic. The second time, we asked them to complete one final paper on the same topic, integrating both categories. These were fine but, in part given disciplinary differences in how you write and communicate in your scholarship, it made it awkward and clunky for students to write a paper in a way that worked for both traditions. This also stifled potential creativity, because it imposed rigid and awkward structures. So, in 2021 we decided to shift to a final video where (we hoped) creativity would flow freely.
Natana DeLong-Bas: Part of our willingness to try something new was rooted in the new digital possibilities that the era of teaching through COVID demanded. We also wanted to integrate this assignment so that students would have opportunities to demonstrate their learning through varied mediums over the course of the semester, giving all students a chance to shine. We sought to craft an assignment that was focused not just on content, but also skill sets, as a hallmark of what these special EQ/CP courses have to offer to freshmen — a gateway to both knowledge and different kinds of skills that would be applicable to coursework moving forward. From my perspective, this is also a reflection of commitment to educational equity — rather than privileging one kind of assignment or assuming background skills, we worked to teach them to bring everyone up to the same level.
What was the final project and how did you scaffold it?
First, we had students submit a project proposal (instructions below). We provided feedback on their proposals and then they had two weeks to provide an outline of their presentation and identify the mechanisms they might use for the videos.
Project Proposal Assignment Instructions
- State your topic question. (10 pts)
- Tell us what your rock will be. (10 pts)
- Provide a short paragraph (one page max) telling us why you are interested in your question and how the rock ties into it. (52 pts)
- Provide SEVEN references relating to your topic. This is to give you practice at research and referencing style, and to make sure you can find content for your chosen topic.
- Two from primary scientific literature (8 pts)
- One more from primary scientific literature that you found via forward referencing from one of the papers above. Put an asterisk to mark this one. (4 pts)
- Two from the Christian theological literature (8 pts)
- Two from the Islamic theological literature (8 pts)
- Use proper formatting for the science refs based on Geology Magazine
- Use Chicago Style referencing for the theology refs
The following resources can help you get started with your research:
- Boston College Library Databases
- Science resources:
- Earth and Environmental Sciences Librarian: Enid Karr is at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Web of Science
- Google Scholar
- Theology resources:
- Theology Librarian: Chris Strauber is at email@example.com
- Theology Lib Guide: Getting Started
- Theology at O’Neill Lib Guide
- Oxford Islamic Studies Online
- Oxford Bibliographies Online
How did you grade students?
Most important to us was the synthesis of the two disciplines and the degree to which they were integrated into the presentation. We used a rubric to communicate our expectations to students.
What did students submit?
We were blown away by the diversity of contributions, the diversity of styles and the messages they came up with. We were both really happy with the way that it allowed the students to be creative and bring out messages as freshmen that went way beyond what we had expected.
What lessons did you learn for next time?
Natana DeLong-Bas: To work toward classroom equity, we recognize that not all students come in with the same background and experience in research or even with respect to access to a computer and various softwares. We scheduled special sessions with the subject matter librarians in order to put faces, names, and contact information before all students, as well as with the Center for Digital Innovation in Learning (CDIL) and the Digital Scholarship Group. We mapped out specific information to be included for both disciplines for each project, but then left room for students to be creative in their responses.
For the next iteration of the course, I have developed a series of 10 consecutive Research Milestones to help assure that projects are moving along all semester (time management) and that there is a coherent storyline. It also enables discovery of student struggles along the process, rather than just at the end. The Milestones also serve as a rubric, indicating the broad content of what is to be included, but again leaving students space for creativity. This model proved successful in a different EQ course I taught this fall and seemed to serve the needs of incoming freshmen with a variety of skill sets. This format may also help to circumvent some of the concerns surrounding potential student use of AI tools as the overall project and delivery mechanisms would make such usage challenging, particularly the synthesis of science and theology.
Ethan Baxter: The weakest presentations were from students who did not have experience in presentation and so did not present a coherent message from start to finish. Our suggested outline was intended to help with that, but some students still struggled to find a clear theme and wove it throughout. Of course we invited and encouraged students to consult us during office hours, or consult with CDIL and the Digital Scholarship Group. Beyond that, the required Milestones (described above) are a good way to check on students’ progress in this regard and to make sure the format and messaging are clear.
Note: The Digital Scholarship Group, part of the University Libraries, provides guidance on digital scholarship and digital pedagogy curriculum design, particularly for coursework focused on the critical use of digital tools for conducting and presenting research. For more information, see the Digital Scholarship Group website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Center for Digital Innovation in Learning (CDIL) partners with faculty and programs to design, develop, and implement digital innovation to enhance teaching and learning across Boston College. If you’re interested in discussing a possible innovation project, please reach out to CDIL: email@example.com.