December 2, 2015

Writing a take-home final exam? Look to Chipotle for inspiration

Posted by Laura Guertin

It is happening again this semester – the AGU Fall Meeting is taking place during my university’s final exam week. I’ve been building up a collection of take-home final exams over the years, as I always try to think of something new and creative that requires students to pull together information from throughout the semester for their “cumulative assessment summary.” And I also need to think about academic integrity issues, with students having the freedom to work on their finals where and when they want, and with access to Google.

As I was thinking about what my take-home final exam would look like this year for my introductory-level Earth science courses for non-science majors (one course that’s an overview of Earth science, another that focuses on water science and society issues), I came across this tweet on my Twitter feed:

I immediately clicked on the article link, and was fascinated to read about this idea of a vending machine that dispensed 1-minute, 3-minute, and 5-minute short reads. The article states that the motivation for this new style of vending machine is to “allow people to experience cultural moments during boring times when they’d usually reach for their phones.” I was disappointed to learn that these machines are currently being installed only in France. How interesting would it be to have these in the United States? And then I thought… why can’t a machine like this vend short non-fiction Earth science stories? The impact on improving the scientific literacy of the general public was exciting to consider. And what would these Earth science stories look like?

The article continued on to say that although these vending machines are not available yet in the United States, one just has to look at a cup or bag from a Chipotle restaurant for a two-minute story written by an American author. I ran out to a Chipotle for lunch the next day, and sure enough, my beverage cup and take-out bag had stories as part of their Cultivating Thought Author Series. Interestingly, my beverage cup had a story on geologic time! I never thought I’d ever see a cup from a restaurant have the word “trilobite” on it. Written by Anthony Doerr, the story is online [link no longer functions], as well as the stories written by additional authors.

… and here came my “ah-ha” moment! Now that we are at the end of the semester, what do my students feel are Earth science topics important enough to be communicated from a vending machine or on a beverage cup for the everyday person? And how do their topics/ideas for short reads connect back to our overarching course goals and the Earth Science Literacy Principles? For their final exam, I will challenge my students to write a one-minute and a three-minute short read for a hypothetical Earth science story vending machine or restaurant take-out bag, complete with references and connections back to the Earth Science Literacy Principles. I look forward to their creativity and thoughts as to what topics they feel are important and relevant to society.

(*if anyone would like a copy of the final exam handout and my grading rubric, just send me an email, and I’m more than happy to share!)

Good luck to everyone as you work on writing your final exams!