November 30, 2016

Take-home final exam – Earth Science for Future Presidents

Posted by Laura Guertin

Another fall semester is drawing to a close, and another AGU Fall Meeting is taking place during my final exam week. This template for a final exam I have used in previous semesters – but it seems so appropriate and important to use for this semester in particular. I must give Carsten Braun (Westfield State University) full credit for inspiring me to further develop this format. He introduced me to the “For Future Presidents” books at the 2014 On the Cutting Edge workshop, “Undergraduate Research in Earth Science Classes: Engaging Students in the First Two Years.”

forfuturepresidentsThis final exam was inspired by two books. One book is titled Physics for Future Presidents (2009, in Google Books), and the other book is Energy for Future Presidents (2013, in Google Books). Both books are authored by Richard Muller and focus on “the science behind the headlines,” presenting the necessary knowledge for a President to act quickly and wisely on relevant issues. I strongly encourage students to access these books (either through Google Books or from the copies I put on reserve in the campus library). At a minimum, students are told to read the preference in the Energy book, read the introduction to each book, and review the Table of Contents for each book. This gives students an idea of the structure and purpose of why these books were written and what they are about.

Then, the students are presented their task:

The book that has yet to be written is Earth Science for Future Presidents, to make sure every President is prepared when it comes to Earth science and Earth issues. For your take-home exam, you are writing a nonfiction book proposal (not an entire book!) titled Earth Science for Future Presidents… include a one-page summary, chapter-by-chapter outline to reflect your book’s organization (an enhanced table of contents), along with sample references you would include in each chapter.

Students are encouraged to go back to class notes and data exercises, refer to their textbook (this semester, we used Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe), and tap in to the Earth Science Literacy Principles document. Although I strongly encourage students not to write the book for one specific candidate or person in office, I have collected a range of articles for students to see what the concerns are being expressed by scientists with regards to our President-Elect and his beliefs and promises relating to science.

The handout that I provide students is available here, along with the grading rubric, if you are interested in seeing the full instructions. My other course this semester is titled “Water: Science and Society”, and I’ll be having them do the same final exam, except proposing a book on Water Science for Future Presidents.

I have been very pleased with the student submissions in the past to this format of a take-home final, and this final is a nice extension to the Earth science election activity students completed earlier in the semester. It will be interesting to see if, during this semester, students can maintain their objectivity and a neutral tone.


Previous posts on take-home finals

Take home final exam – why Earth science/the ocean matters

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

Additional articles on take-home exams

Lopez, D., J-L Cruz, F. Sanchez, A. Fernandez. (2011). A take-home exam to assess professional skills. Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 2011. DOI: 10.1109/FIE.2011.6142797 (Abstract online)

Brown, I.W. (1991). To Learn is to Teach is to Create the Final Exam. College Teaching, 39(4): 150-153. (Abstract & first page online)

Salerno, A. (2013, February 3). The take-home lesson from the Harvard cheating scandal. American Mathematical Society (AMS) Blogs – PhD + Epsilon. (Blog post online) ” The large scale of the cheating has led to much speculation as to whether the students were really at fault, or whether it was wrong for the professor to assign such difficult take-home questions and then expect the students to work alone.”

Willens, M. (2015, December 21). Do In-Class Exams Make Students Study Harder? The Atlantic. (Article online) “Research suggests they may study more broadly for the unexpected rather that scour for answers.”