September 3, 2022

Getting Earth Science Students to Learn by Letting them Speak [guest post]

Posted by Laura Guertin

This guest blog post is from Russell Losco, Soil Scientist & Geologist with Lanchester Soil Consultants, Inc., and part-time instructor with Delaware County Community College and West Chester University (Pennsylvania). Russ was part of the pilot faculty in the NSF-funded project Student Produced Audio Narratives (SPAN) (see Journal of Geoscience Education paper for research outcomes). Here, Russ shares his experiences with having students create and record their own audio narratives in his introductory-level courses.


Over a decade ago, I was given the opportunity to teach Earth Science as an adjunct professor. This was quite a step to go from being a field geologist and soil scientist to becoming a teacher. I began by teaching the way I was taught, by lecturing and then administering exams, but over time my style of teaching has evolved significantly.

With the past 11 years of teaching to draw upon, if I were asked to design the perfect classroom, I would start by placing the seats in a circle facing inward, maybe with a campfire in the center. The seats would be a combination of comfortable benches and individual chairs to ensure all students felt welcome. A batch of freshly popped popcorn might add to the relaxed atmosphere. As soon as everyone settled in, the story telling would begin.

Storytelling is a basic human behavior; storytelling is in our blood. When we see friends that we haven’t seen for a long time, what do we do? We tell each other stories about what has happened since we last saw them. When we return home at the end of a day, we tell our loved ones stories about what happened that day. In primitive societies, the tribal or village historian or storyteller is one of the most valued members of the community, preserving and transmitting the history and lore of the people to the next generation.

At the core of a strategy of storytelling is developing a relationship with the audience and making them feel a part of the story. Taking a complex subject, such as Earth Science and relating it as stories is not as difficult as it may sound if one is deeply immersed in the science.

I am the creator and co-producer of the podcast series for the Pennsylvania Council of Professional Geologists (A Poorly Sorted but Well Graded Series), which is available worldwide and has been listened to, so far, on every continent except Antarctica. In order to complete the circle of storytelling and cooperative learning, it is necessary to let the students become the storytellers. Humans place a lot of value in the things that they create. This has been referred to as the Ikea Effect, where furniture that one assembles themselves means more to them than furniture that is purchased completed.

It has been said that the best way to learn something is to be forced to describe it or teach it to someone else. This is the idea behind this method of teaching. This approach, of weaving the subject into a story, making it relatable to the individual, drawing them into the narrative, then turning them into the storyteller makes the semester into a journey. In this journey, I start out as the guide. As the journey progresses, the students gain confidence and knowledge until they become, in their turn, guides who can lead others along the same path. This approach is rooted in the ageless practice of transmitting critical knowledge from generation to generation in a manner that is informative, inclusive, and interesting. It allows the students to express an art form in a science class, which is not what they expect. Most of the students are only taking my class because it is required, and they are expecting a dry, rigid and boring class. The production of the audio narrative upsets that expectation in a good way.

For a number of years now, I have assigned a project to my intro-level students that is a significant part of their grade, the creation and recording of an audio narrative. I start by introducing the students to some short podcasts early in the semester. Then we do a lab where I teach them how to use the recording software Audacity, which is free and works on all platforms. A subsequent lab teaches them how to research reliable sources and distinguish them from unreliable yet readily available sources. I tell the students that I want them to be creative in everything except the facts behind their narratives. The students then research a topic related to the Earth or Space Sciences, develop a script, which is reviewed by me, then finally record an audio narrative that is usually at least two-minutes in length. Some of the audios produced are truly exceptional. One student produced a first-person account of a devastating volcanic eruption in the 1980’s in Mexico.

“Abby Volcano Podcast” by Abby Herman


Another took a humorous approach, describing an upcoming volcanic eruption from the point of view of the volcano, which was highly embarrassed by all of the attention when all he wanted to do was let out some gas.

“Taylor Volcano Monologue” by Taylor Floria


Another described the formation of glaciers in a mildly humorous way.

“George’s Glacier Podcast” by George Plumley


It is my experience that the more effort that a student puts into this project, the better that they do in the other aspects of the class. I have had a number of students who were less-than enthusiastic about the class until they learned of the nature of the project, then they began to become more interested and took genuine pride in the audio that they created. This suggests that use of this method may be increasing the student’s interest in the course. This also brings a unique method of assessing learning. At the point early in the semester when the audio narrative project is assigned, the students are provided with a grading rubric. Rubrics are helpful but they are also imperfect in assessing how much effort a student puts into the project or how much they learned. For this reason, when grading the final audio narratives, I ignore the rubric and let each piece stand on its own and grade it and the student accordingly. Although this inserts some subjectivity into the grading process, it again removes some of the rigidity and allows me to consider student’s individual strengths and their growth during the semester.

Everybody has stories to tell. Using of student-produced audio narratives in the classroom allows students to tell the stores behind the subject matter. This can then enhance learning and student engagement, while letting them have a little bit of fun along the way.