Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Rocks & Weather: Radon!

[Those of you who are tuning out due to lack of math, please note that there will be a math competition of sorts starting on my blog’s anniversary in February. With prizes! Until then, enjoy the qualitative science, it will put hair on your back chest.]

My geology class has now learned quite a bit about sedimentation and the once prime real estate that Iowa possessed in the middle Devonian.

As my students so eloquently put it:

“It’s -10 outside right now, and you’re telling me 500 mya it was like the Bahamas? We got screwed. Evolution is too slow.”

So true, so true.

I open with a salvo of Iowa geology, because, let’s face it, that’s what they know. They’ve lived their lives on Iowa soil and Iowa limestone. My students live near a lake, there’s plenty of awesomeness there, but I doubt many have troubled to look into it.

We’ve been on a field trip, and we’ve collected a lot of fossils and prints already. They’re starting to get a picture of how limestone is deposited and with nary a direct instruction from me.

To finish the menu that is Iowa’s geologic monotone, we land on Radon. A common household pest in the state.

How to introduce it? Tell them that it’s dangerous? Tell them that they should care? That never works. Let’s go the Dan Meyer route:

Radon levels across the US

What can you do with this, kiddos? The goal with any WCYDWT is to scream the question with the media. If you have to frame it, or if you feel like you need to “provide enough background information,” you’re not getting the point. The point is that background information is now free and accessible every second on nearly every student’s phone.

Your job is now investigation primer. Your job is the wind-up. Your job is to shut up and let them wonder for a hot second.

What questions do you ask yourself upon seeing that map? Here’s some my students spontaneously asked:

  1. What’s Radon? Why is it bad?
  2. What’s a pCi/L?
  3. Why is Iowa in the danger zone?
  4. Why are the colors where they are?
  5. Where does Radon come from?

The beauty here is that I don’t have to ask, motivate, or otherwise play dentist. They do it. They think it’s a gift when I say, “Geez, guys, I just don’t know, better get the computers and phones out and figure this thing out, huh?”

Like I’m some schmuck getting taken for a ride on their investigation carousel. If that’s what it takes, I’ll play the schmuck and the shlimil.


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Shawn Cornally • January 20, 2011

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