September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Earth Science in Your Backyard

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Liz Colvard

For any student of science, one of the most difficult tasks is making the leap from the abstract to reality. Why should I care about learning this? How does it impact me? The beauty of living in California is that we’re surrounded by earth science in action every day, and we’re constantly faced with the importance of understanding the world immediately around us. Making the leap isn’t all that difficult. As the Nation’s largest earth science agency, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a rich source of materials for both learning and teaching about topics like plate tectonics, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides. Unlike federal agencies like NASA and NOAA, the USGS has never had an Education Program, so all of our education products are written by individual scientists who simply have a passion for education. That means that although USGS education resources are somewhat haphazard, they’re all backed by solid science. The USGS Education website compiles all the best USGS websites for use in the classroom. Organized by grade level and topic, it is designed for teachers.



California is no stranger to volcanic unrest. Prior to the 1980 activity at Mount St. Helens, the 1914-1917 eruptions at northern California’s Lassen Peak were the most recent eruptions in the Cascade Range (did you know that seven volcanoes in the Cascade Range have erupted since 1776?). The separate chain of Mono-Inyo Craters (east of Yosemite) last erupted just 300 years ago at Paoha Island in Mono Lake. And fairly recent unrest at Mammoth Mountain is thought to be related to an intrusion of magma deep below the volcano in 1989. The USGS has two excellent volcano teaching guides for locations outside California, but their contents can easily be applied to any volcano. Explore the many classroom activities in Alaska Volcanoes Guidebook for Teachers, like using bottles of soda to understand the role of dissolved gases in volcanic eruptions, or using breadcrumbs and water to examine the impacts of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere. Living with a Volcano in your Backyard has more than 30 activities with a focus on the Cascade Range. Or demonstrate the forces that build a caldera (like Long Valley caldera) using flour and a bicycle pump.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can walk from one tectonic plate to another, but California’s 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault Zone offers the opportunity to do so. The fault zone marks the region where the North American plate and the Pacific plate are sliding past each other in a (mostly) horizontal motion. And right offshore from Cape Mendocino, those plates intersect with a third plate – the small Gorda plate – at the Mendocino Triple Point. Tectonic forces created by all three plates are the source of tens of thousands of earthquakes in California every year, many of which are large enough to be felt. Make sure your classroom participates in the annual Great California Shake Out, which offers classroom activities for learning about and preparing for earthquakes. Remind students of the power of a large earthquake by showing them amazing USGS ground shaking animations of actual and hypothetical earthquakes. The award-winning Shockwaves video has dramatic historical footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and shows what we’re learning about California earthquakes using modern technology.

When a significant earthquake does occur, have your students contribute to our USGS database by filling out a Did You Feel It? questionnaire, then check out the Earthquake Summary Poster for that event to get more information. The posters are a quick and easy way (with plenty of diagrams) to learn about an earthquake’s epicenter, the plate tectonic environment, the earthquake history of the area, and other information that helps you and your students put the earthquake in context.

Landslides occur in every state of the U.S., but California’s geography and climate make it an ideal setting for landslides. Learn more about the destructive nature of landslides and what causes them in the video Riding the Storm, about a 1982 storm that triggered over 18,000 landslides in the Bay Area. Another video, Debris Flow Dynamics, might be thirty years old, but it’s still the most popular film at the USGS Training Center. The USGS Landslide Handbook offers many illustrations and descriptions of different kinds of landslides.

If you just need help teaching basic geologic concepts, try using your own schoolyard and activities from Schoolyard Geology. That website was created by a USGS scientist who taught geology classes at San Quentin State Prison and needed a way to take his students on a virtual field trip. It uses simple features found on the street or in the playground to demonstrate geologic principles, and includes several classroom activities, like a “GeoSleuth” murder mystery. Another website, The Life Cycle of a Mineral Deposit is a teaching guide with ten activity-based learning exercises (many using foods like cookies and cupcakes) that educate students on basic geologic concepts, with an emphasis on minerals in our everyday lives. Make your own toothpaste using antacid tablets and baking soda.

Keep in mind that the USGS is one of the most accessible federal agencies. You and your students can always submit questions about our products and sciences by using the Web form, Web chat, and phone numbers listed on the Contact USGS website.

Liz Colvard is with USGS Science Information Services

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

Leave a Reply


CSTA Is Now Accepting Nominations for Board Members

Posted: Friday, November 17th, 2017

Current, incoming, and outgoing CSTA Board of Directors at June 3, 2017 meeting.

Updated 7:25 pm, Nov. 17, 2017

It’s that time of year when CSTA is looking for dedicated and qualified persons to fill the upcoming vacancies on its Board of Directors. This opportunity allows you to help shape the policy and determine the path that the Board will take in the new year. There are time and energy commitments, but that is far outweighed by the personal satisfaction of knowing that you are an integral part of an outstanding professional educational organization, dedicated to the support and guidance of California’s science teachers. You will also have the opportunity to help CSTA review and support legislation that benefits good science teaching and teachers.

Right now is an exciting time to be involved at the state level in the California Science Teachers Association. The CSTA Board of Directors is currently involved in implementing the Next Generations Science Standards and its strategic plan. If you are interested in serving on the CSTA Board of Directors, now is the time to submit your name for consideration. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.