An introduction to the case study method

Geology is a diverse and interesting discipline that can help us make sense of the world around us.  Citizens are asked to support or protest the siting of new oil pipelines, to approve or deny  new mining  permits, and determine the guilt or innocence of peers as part of our justice system.  A knowledge of the Earth's geological systems can provide much needed information.  Teaching geology through contemporary issues such as these, helps students to experience the relevance of course material in real time.  The notion that "someday this might come in handy" is not very compelling.  Working with groups of students to engage with the issues of today has been shown to increase student participation, engagement, enjoyment, and perception of relevancy while maintaining levels of content knowledge acquisition and retention.  We have found this approach to be particularly successful with those students that are not majoring in the earth sciences as that is a population that often struggles the most to envision a useful application of the material they are learning.  

The case studies provided here cover the general topics that comprise most introductory physical geology courses.  You may choose to string them together to create a course, or to add individual cases to your existing course.  

There are several key components to most of these case studies:

1.  Introduce the case first.  The case provides the structure for the entire unit.  The case provides "the need to know".  There is no "Learn this now because you will need it later.".  The case creates the need to know to accomplish a given task.  The information, obtained through activities, is provided in service to the end goal stated in the case.  This is often referred to as "just in time" learning as opposed to "just in case" learning.  Many case studies that you find elsewhere, are used at the end of a unit to provide application after all content material has been learned.  The cases presented here do not work like that.  

2.  Many of the case study units presented here require the students to take on a different persona.  They take on a different identity.  They are play acticing.  This accomplishes several goals.  If a student does not identify themselves as a scientist, it can be uncomfortable for a student to simply be one.  A teacher may say "You are all scientists." but that does not necessarily make them comfortable and they may even resist.  They may identify as an artist or a writer and the teacher telling them that they are a scientist can run counter to their own idea of self.  However, asking them to PLAY a scientist (or any other character in the case) is a different story. I, personally, am not a sports fan, but I can certainly and happily pretend to be one.  The second reason that we have students take on a different identity is that it helps them to see an issue from a position other than the one that they personally hold.  It helps build understanding and empathy for others.

3.  Important content spirals through the different case study units.  For instance, geologic time is taught and used in most all of the cases.  Reading a geologic map also crops up several times.  The intent is to expose students to the most fundamental concepts in geology in different settings and for different reasons.  Through this they build understanding of the concept and also have a chance to be introduced to a concept, work with and apply the concept repeatedly, and begin to assimilate it more fully into their own working knowledge.