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Data, Students, and Visualization

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Alexandra Moore Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University
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Discover Our Earth (more info) is a GIS-based application for the Web that allows students to access, query, and display spatial data. Its strengths are ease of use and ease of access.
GSA Poster (Acrobat (PDF) 28.4MB Jun16 03)

Learning Goals


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Examining and drawing conclusions from data

Other Skills:

Assembly of data into meaningful maps and figures that can be used to make a scientific argument or explain a scientific point


Instructional Level:

9-12, entry level undergraduate, home school, informal ed.

Skills Needed:

Very little...basic understanding of what earthquakes and volcanoes are

Role of Activity in a Course:

This activity is essentially stand-alone; it is the students' opportunity to learn about plate tectonics through a hands-on exercise.

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

Networked computer lab with reasonably modern computers, web browsers w/ java, Flash plug-in, (vrml viewer is nice but not essential).

Logistical Challenges:

A few combinations of operating system/web browser version don't run properly.


Evaluation Goals:

What I would really like to know is if students learn more and learn better with this activity as opposed to other methods (old-fashioned maps, other software applications etc).

Evaluation Techniques:

We use three assessments; the first is to compare student exam results - plate tectonics questions and scored separately and compared to average exam scores. Second, students fill out a user survey (motly about usability and student satisfaction). Finally, instructors and TAs keep a tally sheet of the kinds of questions that students ask in lab - are their questions about science or about software?


Discover Our Earth (more info) is a web-based system designed for classroom use, allowing access and display of geospatial data sets . It is an education and outreach module built as part of Cornell University's Geoscience Information System, originally constructed as a tool for geophysical research (http://atlas.geo.cornell.edu). Discover Our Earth has been used in university, high school and middle school classrooms. Working with real data is a powerful tool for helping students learn scientific principles, content, and the processes of scientific inquiry. In order to give students access to data that is otherwise difficult to work with, Discover Our Earth is comprised of several elements. The central component is a Java applet called QUEST (Quick Use Earth Study Tool). QUEST allows students to query and display data from three data sets selected from the 100+ housed within the Information System. Any attribute of earthquake, volcano, or topographic data can be selected and displayed, and multiple data sets can be overlain on each other, or on assorted background images (such as a geographic base map, age of the sea floor etc). Each image is saved in the QUEST history window, allowing students to compare multiple selections, or to animate a series of images as a "filmstrip." In order to help students better understand their results, the QUEST applet is supported by several other components. There are guides for both teacher and student. The student guide gives step-by-step instructions for a series of problems, and suggests others that will help students answer questions of local and global interest. The teacher guide provides background material, context, and answers to the student exercises. There are animations and 3-D visualizations that allow students to better interpret their maps. Additionally, there are interactive experiments on topics such as continental drift, isostasy, viscosity, that allow students to explore the physics that underlie the processes they are investigating through the use of real geophysical data. Finally, there is an opportunity for users to provide feedback to the developers. Through these efforts we hope to provide teachers and students with access to a wide variety of data applicable to problems in Earth science, along with the ability to easily display and analyze multiple data types-thus providing all users with access to state-of-the-art information.

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