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Return to the Rim: Earth History Workshop at Grand Canyon

Mary Lightbody and Angela Maas
March 11, 2003 | Professional Development

Top image: On a steep part of the south kaibab trail.

Editor’s Introduction: With the success of the first FOSS Earth History workshop at Grand Canyon during the summer of 2000, a second workshop was held this past summer from July 28–August 2. Thirty-five teachers and administrators from all over the United States convened for a week of training, hiking, inferring, and more at the Albright Training Center at Grand Canyon National Park in cooperation with the National Park Service. The following account was written by two of those participants.

If you will for a moment, think back to when you first heard about FOSS. Perhaps FOSS modules were introduced to you by a colleague or lead teacher in your district or by a consultant for FOSS. Maybe you attended a FOSS session at a regional or national NSTA convention. Perhaps you used the video from your kit as you planned to teach the activities to your students, refreshing your memory of how the activities were planned and assessed. Remember the early conversations you had with other science teachers in your building or district, about the modules and how great they were to use.

Now imagine how powerful an experience it would be to attend a week-long FOSS workshop on a single middle-school course, a workshop that combined all these elements of the FOSS middle program within the most appropriate natural arena, one both huge in scale and very grand. The course? FOSS Earth History. The place? Grand Canyon.


Majestic sunset over rim of canyon

Angela and I were among a group of 35 teachers and administrators lucky enough to participate in such an experience for an entire week during the summer of 2002. Imagine a collection of middle-school science teachers with varied backgrounds and content expertise, gathered in one place from across the country, with the curriculum developer from FOSS who wrote the course and with an experienced FOSS teacher consultant who conducts workshops for FOSS. What if Grand Canyon itself became your classroom? And if, at every turn, talented and knowledgeable park rangers hiked the trails with you and talked with you about your observations? That was our experience. You might understand how empowered we felt at the end of the week.

For some of us this experience opened the doors to the beauty and wonder of the Earth that we had never experienced. It also allowed us the unique opportunity to experience geology and have a strong desire to share it with our students. We wanted to return to our schools and take a piece of Grand Canyon with us. We plotted how we might be able to bring all of our students to Grand Canyon and allow them to have the same experience that we did. Every one of us was inspired and ready to return to our classroom and help our students understand and appreciate the rocks of the Earth and the majesty of Grand Canyon.

Over the course of the week we worked through investigations in the Earth History Course at the Albright Training Center. We viewed segments from the FOSS Earth History CD with virtual reality tours of the Canyon rim, a raft trip down the Colorado River, and close-up looks at rocks and landforms in Grand Canyon and on the Colorado Plateau. We took in an IMAX show in nearby Tusayan about the canyon, swooping through narrow canyons on the wings of a bird, viewing scenes of the early habitation of the canyon by the Anasazi Indians and the travels of Spanish explorers and the American adventurer Major John Wesley Powell. We learned about the traveling trunks the Grand Canyon Association and the park service have developed, which teachers can borrow to bring Grand Canyon closer to their students. We shared rock samples we had brought from home and connected the geology of Grand Canyon to the geology of our own backyards where our students can begin their geological investigations through field trips and hikes of our own.

In the classroom making sand

In the classroom making sand!

We do admit that all work halted the afternoon a very large elk buck walked past the classroom windows, calmly watching us admire him, grazing a bit, and then moving on through the trees out of sight.

Angela and I are sure the other participants would agree with us, however, that the most important time we spent in northern Arizona was spent out on the Canyon trails. We learned to read the story preserved in the rocks, hiking down the steep trails in the early morning light, cutting back and forth in switchbacks for a mile or more, knowing we would have to hike back out all too soon. For some of us, it was a time to step out of our “comfort zone” and really enjoy the beauty of one of the greatest wonders of the world with the unique understanding of how it was created.

We learned to appreciate the rocks of the Colorado Plateau and Grand Canyon, and we developed an intimate understanding of the four layers on top in the Canyon in particular as we hiked down through them and more slowly climbed back up past them. We learned about the processes that created the canyon and why Grand Canyon is so unique. We knew that our week would prepare us to be far better teachers of geology and earth science and better stewards of our land as well.


Large elk, a common sight in the park.

Our week came to a close at an elegant barbecue that we packed in to Shoshone Point, a secluded place meant for solitude and peace, a place where we shared one last sacred moment with a view to die for and an incredible sunset. We both agree: Sunset over the Canyon is not to be missed!

Mary Lightbody
Westerville, Ohio

Angela Maas
El Centro, California