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Understanding Estuarine Circulation in Puget Sound: models vs. field data

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Christian P. Sarason Ocean Inquiry Project
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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.

We assessed the efficacy of learning about Puget Sound using a 3D virtual world visualization(Virtual Puget Sound) with students and compared their learning to students which collected data in the field.
GSA Poster (PowerPoint 3.2MB Oct31 03)

Learning Goals


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Drawing conclusions from model results; drawing conclusions from field data; designing a sampling method (using a model); connecting field observations with seasonal cycles in Puget Sound.

Other Skills:

Data collection; operating oceanographic equipment; model manipulation (mostly time and/or particle releases)


Instructional Level:

Virtual Puget Sound (VPS) has been used to study learning in grades 6-8, 9-12, and undergraduate levels. Most of our field program has been with introductory oceanography students.

Skills Needed:

All students must be familiar with collecting and graphing data; more sophisticated students can ask more complicated questions using the model (right up to research at the graduate level).

Role of Activity in a Course:

This activity served as a standalone 1-cr course and as the first week of a 5-cr Ocean 101 course.

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

VPS is still an educational research tool, and is not yet ready for general release. The initial versions were coded for use with a fully immersive (e.g. a tracked head mounted display); subsequent versions require a fast Wintel PC with 1GB ram and a NVDIA GeForce4 video card. Current high-end gaming PCs have enough computing power to run VPS well.

Collecting data from the field requires a whole different set of equipment (ship, CTD, etc.) but our study has shown that time in the field is invaluable in understanding field related concepts (e.g. air temperature influences surface water temperature)

Logistical Challenges:

Using VPS offered technical challenges (finding enough high powered PCs to allow the students to form small groups)

Getting into the field has obvious challenges (weather, ship time) and more subtle ones (equipment failure, not enough coffee to keep students warm)


Evaluation Goals:

Discovering whether other programs which compare learning via a modeling interface and learning in the field found similar results to our study would be very interesting (are there things we can only learn in the field or by using a model?)

Evaluation Techniques:

We used pre- and post-tests, consisting of a 30 question true/false quiz and diagram (results are presented in the poster.) We also had students fill our concept maps as well.


Puget Sound is a complicated estuary and an excellent place to learn oceanography. In a partnership program with educational researchers at the University of Washington, Ocean Inquiry Project (OIP) is using a virtual learning environment based on a numerical-model of Puget Sound in introductory college level classes. OIP also provides students field-based research experiences on Puget Sound, sampling the Sound at a number of monitoring stations during day-long field trips. The learning goals for either technique are the same: understanding and appreciation of tidally driven currents and stratification in the Sound. However, the data (and tools for accessing and rendering them) are quite different between the two techniques, one being generated by computer and the other measured by the students themselves.

We are evaluating classes using each technique exclusively, as well as in combination, to understand which technique is most useful to understanding these concepts. The content of both classes is essentially the same, but students in one class learn the material by interacting with a computer model, and students in another class learn by interacting with instruments. The evaluation of each class is done identically with tests and concept maps and the design of this study allows us to elucidate the differences between learning via computerized curriculum and learning in the field.