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Petrographic problem-solving (PPS) assignments consist of a series of two-week mini-projects used within the context of an undergraduate petrology course. The central idea behind PPS assignments is for students to use thin sections as a geologic data source for conducting authentic scientific investigations. For each assignment, students are provided a thin section and corresponding hand sample. Drawing from their initial observations and foundation knowledge, students identify a scientific question, propose a working hypothesis to explain it, test the hypothesis using observations and data collected from the sample, and defend their results in oral presentations and written reports. They use digital cameras interfaced with microscopes to acquire photomicrographs and various software applications to collect and analyze data. For each assignment, students prepare a two-page paper and give a brief presentation to the class (5-10 minutes in duration with 3-5 minutes for discussion). During the presentation sessions, which each require a two-hour class period, class members are encouraged to question their student colleagues. Students are introduced to PPS assignments as part of the take-home final in the prerequisite Microscopy course. Three PPS assignments are in turn engaged in the subsequent Petrology course during the 10-week term. A summative take-home PPS exercise is completed as part of the final exam. In Petrology, PPS assignments augment more traditional laboratory exercises and are specifically aligned with course content, as follows (refer to student handout sheets in supplemental materials section). Using a set of rocks representing distinct lithologies, students are guided to think about what geologic conditions and/or environment the sample formed in. Using a set of plutonic and volcanic rocks from a description and classification exercise, students define their own geologic problem. Using a set of metamorphic rocks, students are instructed to interpret the genetic conditions based on textures and/or mineralogy. Using several different andesite samples, students are directed to consider the origin of the sample in context of a case-study activity conducted during the term. This PPS assignment is completed as part of the final exam and requires a summative two-page paper. In the context of a broad-based undergraduate Earth Science degree program, PPS assignments engage students in the study of Earth materials, actively involve them in the scientific process, and emphasize creative problem solving rather than factual recall.
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