Deaf High School Students Explore Faults in the Field Under Guidance of UMass Amherst Geologist

AMHERST, Mass. – UMass Amherst geologists recently led 20 deaf high school students and their teachers from around the country on an exploration of ancient and active geologic faults in central Utah. Michele Cooke, a UMass Amherst geologist, coordinates the field trips, which utilize the deaf students’ exceptional observation and strong spatial-thinking skills.

The trips are an outreach component of Cooke’s five-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant to study the evolution of geologic fault systems. The students received hands-on geologic education by becoming involved in data collection, mapping and interpretation of geologic structures with researchers from UMass Amherst, Colorado State, Utah State and the United States Geological Survey. The students all use American Sign Language (ASL), a language distinct from English that has a spatial grammar.

Cooke contends that such language is perfect for describing and interpreting three-dimensional geologic structures such as faults and that ASL-using students have ideal skills for becoming structural geologists.

Three more field trips for deaf students are to be included in the project. The next is being planned for 2006 in western Massachusetts. The NSF grant for the trip was augmented by support from the honors program at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., and the Bromery Fund of the UMass Amherst geosciences department.

Cooke and her team of graduate students and postdoctoral researcher, Mario Del Castello, are investigating whether faults grow by minimizing the total work done within the system. Numerical models simulate slip along faults and examine the work budget associated through processes such as frictional heating, uplift of rocks against gravity, and seismic energy release as ground shaking. To validate this approach, these numerical results will be compared to the evolving fault patterns within table-top experiments of faulted clay and sand layers.

Cooke’s team also developed in-class curriculum for the high school students to examine fault evolution within sandboxes designed at UMass. Each school built two sandboxes allowing the students the opportunity to explore in their classrooms the conditions that promote faulting. Viewing faults within layers of the sandboxes and in textbook photos prepares students for real faults in the field.

Although some students had limited background in geologic processes in the field they quickly grasped difficult concepts such as fault non-planarity and distribution of damage around faults. Cooke attributes this to the students’ exceptional observation skills and strong spatial thinking skills. Cognitive scientists have found that professional structural geologists are particularly adept at pattern recognition and spatial thinking because these skills are important to recognizing and interpreting geologic structures.

While geologists have honed these skills over years of geologic training, the deaf students have developed these same skills through use of their spatial language, ASL. Cooke used ASL on the trip to explain concepts such as measuring the attitude (strike and dip) of geologic layers. In ASL the explanation is easier and more straight-forward than in verbal language. As evidence of this, the high school students learned the technique and were taking their own measurements after 15 minutes of training while it commonly takes hearing UMass Amherst undergraduates hours to perform the same measurement techniques.

The field trip visited both active faults along the Wasatch front as well as ancient faults in and near Arches National Park. The students also visited a dinosaur quarry and collected their own leaf fossils. In addition to being their first experience observing rock outcrops, for many students this was their first experience in the desert and their first airplane trip. Several students were inspired by the unique program and are already contemplating majoring in earth science in college.

The students and teachers traveled to Utah from five different schools: North Carolina School for the Deaf (NCSD); Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) in Washington, D.C.; Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD); University High School (UHS) in Irvine, California; and Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD). The earth system classrooms in these five schools all share a common curriculum that establishes, with the help of videoconferencing, an Internet learning community, among the students. A few students from each school were selected by their teachers to attend the Utah field trip.