Taking the Grand Canyon Experience Back to the Classroom

Jennifer Fischer
March 17, 2005 | Professional Development

Top image: Students in the 2002 FOSS Earth History course workshop hike the South Kaibab Trail.

I have been a middle-school science teacher for the past 12 years, teaching seventh- and eighth-grade students. Typically, I teach biology to the seventh graders and earth science to my eighth graders. Jane Cancellieri, who also happens to be my cousin, also teaches the eighth-grade science classes across the hall from me. Both Jane and I were trained in our undergraduate programs in education with some biology. Neither of us really had an interest in earth science. We would assign chapters to read and fumble through explanations of the rock cycle, the formation of the Earth, weather, and so on. It was a tedious task to say the least. We would commiserate about how bored the kids were and how tough it was to teach earth science to eighth graders.

In 2001 the state of Massachusetts implemented the new science education frameworks. Our district was able to connect with another district beginning in 2002 for teacher training through an NSF-funded initiative called Critical MASS. The goal of Critical MASS was to provide in-depth training in science and math content areas. Jane and I were comfortable with the biology concepts, but when it came to earth science, we were in trouble. That is when we met Sue Jagoda, one of the FOSS developers from Lawrence Hall of Science. Sue was able to make the earth science training interesting and relevant. She sparked an interest in both of us to understand earth science. We were beginning to realize that our own lack of content understanding of earth science was a big reason teaching it was tedious and difficult.

After the Critical MASS workshops, Jane and I would have impromptu conversations in the hallway between classes about earth science and how it should be taught in our classes. We had taught portions of the FOSS Earth History Course, but we weren't feeling confident and connected to the content. Our enthusiasm for the kit was about as heated as that of lukewarm tea.

In one of the Critical MASS trainings, Sue told us about the Earth History workshop being offered right at Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon is far away, and neither one of us had ever been there. Jane and I agreed that we had to attend this course one way or another. We even thought about paying for it ourselves. Luckily, our district had some money set aside for this type of professional development. We filled out the application and made our plans to head out West!


Jane Cancellieri (left) and colleagues view the results of the acid test on some rocks outside of Grand Canyon.

Jane arrived a week early and had a nice, relaxing time with her husband. She had rented a convertible for the trip to the Grand Canyon. We made a quick stop at the Hoover Dam and then continued to Grand Canyon. The landscape flew by on the way there. I fell asleep on the way, a victim of changing time zones. Jane woke me up when we entered Grand Canyon National Park. I was thinking, “Oh, this is nothing, just some pine trees and it doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. It reminds me of the White Mountains.” Then, we got to the first open area and my mouth dropped open. We parked and I had my first look into Grand Canyon. I had never seen such an incredible sight. No words can describe the feeling I had. All I knew was I had to get down into the Canyon and explore what was there. Jane laughed at me as she had already experienced her first sight of Grand Canyon the prior week. Having had her first experience, she was thrilled to see my face when I saw it for the first time.

It was getting dark and we had to find where we were staying and check in with Sue. I felt like a little kid on Christmas Eve. I couldn't wait until morning to really see Grand Canyon during daylight hours. Something was starting to change for us, “the biologists,” and we were on the path to become “rock heads” and didn't even know it. During the weeklong training, we were able to get in-depth explanations about the different layers of Grand Canyon and what was going on geologically. Being there and getting my hands on the materials helped me understand how the magnificent Grand Canyon is and what amazing things have gone on in geologic history. The concepts we were beginning to grasp were amazing.


Jenn Fischer takes a break from studying fossils in the Kaibab Formation along the Hermit Trail.

First, being on the Colorado Plateau took some getting used to. Physically, we had to drink gallons of water. The idea that we were sitting on the top of so much geologic history was mindboggling. Understanding that each layer had a story to tell was fascinating. The day that we went to the site where we could investigate the actual fossils in the limestone was a highlight for me. I looked at the Canyon in a whole new light. I tried to imagine what the area would have looked like submerged under a great ocean with these critters residing on the bottom. I tried to visualize what the landmass looked like surrounded by ocean and what creatures were emerging from the water onto that landmass. Simultaneously, my teacher mind was thinking of ways to bring back the wonder I was feeling to my classroom. All sorts of cool lesson plans were forming in my mind that day. The idea that limestone could tell such an interesting story blew me away. Jane and I shared many ideas about how to bring this enthusiasm back with us to school.

The workshop inspired both Jane and me to actively pursue more information about geology. We have, since the Grand Canyon visit, signed up for more courses in geology at our local college. We felt the need to have more understanding of geology to teach the Earth History course well. We now teach the Earth History Course with much more enthusiasm then ever before. Even the students have remarked to Jane that she is almost over-the-top with her passion about rocks! I think that comment made Jane realize how much the experience at Grand Canyon influenced her teaching of what was before a rather tough and tedious curriculum. For myself, I have found that understanding more about Grand Canyon and its history has made me more excited and confident to teach the Earth History course.


Jenn and Jane pose among petrified logs in Arizona's Painted Desert.

With this newfound confidence with geology, I have tweaked my earth history lessons to reflect the geology surrounding my school. Not only are the students learning about the geology of Grand Canyon, they are able to use their new skills to help them identify the rocks and minerals of Massachusetts and begin interpreting the geologic history of the area.

The Grand Canyon workshop transformed two stubborn biologists into budding geologists—an amazing feat! The work we did during the workshop sparked something in both of us to find out more about rocks and bring our newfound enthusiasm for earth science back to our students.