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Three examples of the use of inquiry-based, data-centered exercises in geoscience courses at the University of St. Thomas

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Thomas Hickson and Melissa Lamb University of St. Thomas
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This is a partially developed activity description. It is included in the collection because it contains ideas useful for teaching even though it is incomplete.

These 3 activities (Mammoth Cave Passages; Red Beans & Rice & Slope Stability; Basin and Range Tectonic Geomorphology) involve students in data collection, analysis, and interpretation, with the goal of answering very specific geomorphological questions. In addition, they learn to develop and test hypotheses.
GSA Poster (Acrobat (PDF) 19.4MB Oct31 03)

Learning Goals


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

1. Defining and testing hypotheses.
2. Developing clear arguments.
3. Drawing conclusions from data
4. Critiquing peer's writing

Other Skills:

1. Using Excel; creating clear graphs of their data.
2. Scientific writing and good organization of a research write-up


Instructional Level:

Mammoth Cave: Undergraduate entry level.
Slope stability: Undergraduate major
Tectonic geomorphology: Undergraduate major

Skills Needed:

Mammoth Cave Lab: basic groundwater flow and dissolution of limestone.
Slope stability: no prior skills required.
Tectonic geomorphology: some background on Basin and Range extensional tectonics.

Role of Activity in a Course:

Each of these activities are stand-alone exercises.

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

Mammoth Cave Lab: set of maps of the Flint Ridge Cave system (I have made this available on my web site).
Slope stability: a simple, acrylic box (Acrobat (PDF) 597kB Aug1 08) that is easy to build is needed for each group of 3 or 4 students; digital balances and buckets are nice to have, too.
Tectonic geomorphology: Students will need software that can read DEMs (MacDEM for macs, which is very easy to use) and image analysis software (NIH-Image is free and available for both mac and PC platforms). The DEMs are also available from my web site:

Logistical Challenges:

Mammoth Cave: none.
Slope stability: catching the beans can be difficult and messy (have a broom ready) unless you come up with a better design for the sliding gate on the apparatus; student bump the apparatus and send material flying; Excel can always be a challenge for plotting data.
Tectonic geomorphology: takes time to get students up to speed on the software they'll need to view, scale and analyze the DEMS; must have good communication to make sure that they are all collecting mountain front sinuosity data in the same way.


Evaluation Goals:

Mammoth Cave:
The goals are for students to:
(1) deepen their understanding of caves, focusing on Mammoth Cave in particular,
(2) practice making and testing a hypothesis,
(3) practice working with real scientific data, and
(4) learn one way that geologists quantify and visualize complicated map patterns.

Slope stability:
(1) Be able to explain how experiments can be used to understand the long-term behavior of some geomorphological systems.
(2) Be able to explain the role of slope failures in the evolution of slopes and landscapes, for the particular case we're investigating.
(3) Have a better understanding of how the material that makes up a slope may control the nature of a mass movement event.
(4) Be able to describe how this experiment supports the idea that oversteepened toes of slopes may not be evidence of a disequilibrium landform.

Tectonic geomorphology:
In this lab, students are asked to answer a basic question: can relatively simple, morphometric techniques be used to demonstrate that tectonic activity varies across the Basin and Range province (Fig. 9)? Ultimately, it is their goal to answer this question. In addition, other goals of this lab are:

1. To be able to understand and use digital elevation models (DEMs).
2. To give students a strong example of how geomorphology can be used to understand a big tectonic issue, how to collect appropriate data, how to analyze those data, describe the results, and make conclusions.
3. Provide basic proficiency with two computer tools that students can use for their course project: MacDem and ImageSXM (NIH-Image).

Evaluation Techniques:

I do not have specific metrics or instruments for these activities. In general, course midterms and the final are the main assessment tool.


We provide three examples of exercises developed for geology courses at the University of St. Thomas designed specifically to give students the experience of collecting and/or interpreting geoscience data. The first, the "Mammoth Cave Lab", is used in a Geology of the National Parks course. In this lab, students work with a set of maps of the Mammoth Cave system to discern whether the caves have a preferred orientation and, if so, why? Small groups of students initally make an hypothesis as to whether the caves have a preferred orientation, then they measure the orientation of cave passages on a small subset of the total map collection. These small groups pool their data with progressively larger groups, compiling rose diagrams of passage orientation at each step. This exercise specifically asks students to generate and test a hypothesis, then demonstrates to them that the larger the dataset, the more robust the results. The second, "Red Beans, Rice, and Slope Stability", derives from an article by Densmore et al. (1997) and is used in a sophomore-level geomorphology course. In this lab, students simulate the failure of fractured, sedimentary rock as a river undermines the toe of slope using a simple and easy-to-build experimental apparatus. Initially, students are asked to speculate on the behavior of the experiment before running it, thereby generating an hypothesis. They then run the experiment to determine the behavior of the experimental 'slope.' Finally, they are asked to submit a lab write-up where they describe their results and critically evaluate the experiment. This lab is followed by a group discussion assignment centered on the journal article. The third, "Basin and Range Tectonic Geomorphology," was developed for the same geomorphology course. The lab centers on the question, "can range-bounding fault morphology be used to analyze tectonic activity across the basin and range?" Small groups of students use USGS digital elevation models to map mountain front sinuosity on one 1:24000 quadrangle. Their individual data are pooled into a dataset that represents a transect across Nevada at the latitude of Reno. Students must critically analyze these data, in concert with GPS and seismicity maps, to answer the basic question posed in the lab.