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Integrating Research into Geoscience Courses

NOTE: This page is based on a session led by Rachel Beane, Bowdoin College and Steven Wojtal, Oberlin College at the 2005 Workshop on Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences.

All of the specific examples below are described in greater detail in this downloadable PDF file. (Acrobat (PDF) 1.3MB Nov29 05)

Motivation

Integrating research into courses enables undergraduates to experience and, hopefully, enjoy one of the primary attractions of being a scientist: contributing to our understanding of natural phenomena by identifying and enumerating physical processes or ascertaining natural histories. Including research in courses is often challenging: equipment may malfunction, weather may not be cooperative, results cannot always be anticipated, analyses may take longer than a semester, etc. It is, however, usually rewarding: students understand the significance of fundamental material covered in other settings, recognize the importance of supporting disciplines such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry, make connections between different sub-disciplines in earth sciences, gain confidence in their abilities, and enjoy their discoveries. There are rewards for faculty too: as faculty and students work together they gain an appreciation and respect for each other, and in some cases publications may result. Research has many facets, and there are a variety of ways to incorporate research into courses. Some aspects of the research process are listed below with examples of how they might be incorporated into courses. Note that the examples range from relatively simple 'add-ons' to typical laboratory exercises through exercises that may be added to existing courses to more elaborate projects that are the centerpiece of a course.

Methods & Examples

Pose a Hypothesis

Research methodology can be integrated into any laboratory exercise by posing questions or constructing hypotheses at the end of a laboratory or other exercise, thereby encouraging students to think further or explore other applications. The assignment may be formal or quite simple; for example, at the end of an exercise introducing the SEM, an assignment states: "We collected sand samples as part of our beach profiles. Ask a question, or construct a hypothesis, that can be tested using the sand samples and the SEM/EDS." Depending on your course objectives, you may or may not have students follow through with testing their hypotheses. At the other end of the spectrum, one can have a research project as the centerpiece of a course, as in the example below.

Example:

In Modern Geologic/Geographic Mapping & Analysis, Steve Wojtal and his colleague Laura Moore ask students to pose a research question. After discussion with faculty, students write a research proposal, collect and analyze data, and present their results in a short oral presentation and in a short paper.

Write a Proposal

One assignment that some of our colleagues have used to advantage is to assign students to write a short research proposal. Such an assignment may invite students to choose their own research topic, or ask students to write a proposal derived from the same selection of articles.

Example:

Society for Creative Oceanography Proposal Request and Review (Bettison-Varga). These assignments invite students to write and review scientific proposals.

Background Research

A background-research type of assignment is common for intermediate- or advanced-level courses. One variant has students find two or three papers on a particular topic, compare the approach taken by those papers, analyze the results of the different approaches, and conclude what is known on a particular topic. Leading a class discussion of one of these papers or other journal articles prior to assigning students to undertake the analysis on their own may help them to learn how to read and analyze scientific literature.

Example:

Mountain Belts (Beane). This class, taught in a tutorial format, emphasizes discussion of current research through reading primary literature and writing scientific essays. Articles are selected to emphasize geologic debates.

Experiment

The experimental or data collection portion of a research project may be one portion of a longer class project, or it may be an assignment on its own designed to help students learn how to use a particular piece of equipment. One approach we have found useful is to have the students compare their results with the results of earlier analyses that the instructor or previous years' classes have completed. This provides a larger database from which students may draw their conclusions, and it provides internal checks on their results.

Examples:

Groundwater Flow in Karst Aquifers (Friehauf). The project documents water table changes in response to storms and changes in the rate of pumping as a means to analyzing the local hydraulic gradient and permeability of rocks surrounding a quarry. Students measure the elevation of the water tables in wells using an electronic tape, install a Minitroll water logger, and contour the resultant data.

Regional trends in the petrology and hydrothermal alteration in the Proterozoic iron deposits of the Mid-Atlantic iron belt (Friehauf). Individual mines in the belt are used for student projects in mineralogy and petrology classes. This class research feeds into one of Friehauf's research projects involving a regional comparison of the petrologic characteristics of the host rocks, hydrothermal alteration, and ore mineralogy of these deposits.

Mineralogy (Beane). In conference with the instructor, individual or pairs of students design a mini-project that can be accomplished with two weeks of laboratory work. One of the objectives of this assignment is to encourage students to become familiar with methods in mineralogy that are available at the college—including petrographic microscope, SEM with Energy Dispersive Spectrometer, and Electron Backscatter Diffractometer. Some students build on projects begun by students in previous classes or choose to continue their own projects as independent studies.

Data Analysis or Modeling

Data sets or samples collected by faculty, by previous classes, or available in the scientific literature or on the web are frequently incorporated into projects that emphasize data analysis or modeling.

Examples:

Final Project on the Geometry of & Regional Strain Patterns in Orogenic Belts (Wojtal). Uses maps, publications, and student observations of rock samples to develop an understanding the present structure and geological history of the central Appalachian portion of the Appalachian-Caledonian orogenic belt.

Digital Elevation Model (Dupigny-Giroux). This is an example of how research results might be turned into exercises for introductory students. They recreate the steps that a researcher would follow in generating research-quality graphics, while getting more hands-on experience learning the software.

Presentation

Whatever their future careers, students are likely to need to make oral, written or poster presentations. Having students present research proposals, analyses of background research, experimental methodologies, data analyses, or modeling will prove useful to them. Using a grading rubric distributed prior to their presentation may help to guide them.

Examples:

Field Studies Report (Wilson). Students write a report describing the taxa and geologic setting of invertebrate fossils they collect on a field trip.

Peaks Island Project (Beane). This introductory class project involved a weekend field study, followed by three weeks when groups of students conducted original studies contributing to different aspects of the project. Students presented their results as abstracts and oral slide presentations. The appended project also gives an example of a grading scheme used for the presentation portion of the project. This class project was part of a multi-year project designed to integrate research into all levels of courses and was partially funded by an NSF-Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement grant.

Further Thoughts

The above examples were selected to emphasize that there are many different ways to incorporate research into undergraduate courses. If you elect to integrate research in the courses you teach, then you will want to find the ways that fit best with your curriculum, teaching style, and research. Some classes might incorporate all the stages of research highlighted above; other classes might incorporate one or two aspects; or, a class project may be a small piece of a larger project or longitudinal study.

As you contemplate integrating research into courses, consider the resources of the department, institution and area. Are there field opportunities nearby? What analytical equipment does the department have? Do other departments or nearby institutions have facilities or equipment that you might use? What funding, if any, will be required? Might you apply to internal or external funding sources to support the class projects?

References

Below are some references for articles giving examples of integrating research in undergraduate classes. Although this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, these are references you may find helpful.


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