Cutting Edge > Hydrogeology > Hydrogeology, Soils, Geochemistry 2013 > Teaching Activities > Environmental Research Project

Environmental Research Project

Colin Robins, W.M. Keck Science Department

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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Jun 6, 2013


The assignment is the development of scientific research project proposal, tailored to a specific range of course-appropriate topics and mimicked after current calls for NSF proposals in Environmental Science, Environmental Engineering, or Low temperature geochemistry. Project components include a one paragraph pitch, submission of a draft for peer-review, and submission of the final proposal with a response to peer comments. A final, oral or poster presentation is an optional component. This is a multi-week assignment, and typically a significant componenent of the course grade.



This assignment is appropriate for both introductory survey courses (esp. Environmental Science), as well as upper level Earth and Environmental Science topics courses enrolling students of varied majors or emphases.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must have basic literacy in scientific research and writing, and have been given prior feedback on drafting testable hypotheses and conducting experiments.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a culminating project.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students who complete this project successfully will have: (1) reinforced their rigorous understanding of the scientific method and the scientific process, (2) demonstrated the ability to apply factual knowledge to specific examples, and to make logical predictions from that knowledge, (3) reinforced their fundamental literary research skills, (5) gained experience evaluating and constructively critiquing the work of others, and, optionally: (4) given students practice working as part of a team.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students must formulate a testable hypothesis, and design a logistically and financially feasible project to test that hypothesis in the field or laboratory.

Other skills goals for this activity

The final format of this assignment can be written (a paper 5-15 pages long), oral (a final, 15 minute powerpoint presentation), or visual (a poster with short presentation), depending on class size and instructor resources.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this project, students learn how to thoroughly research an environmental problem and to design a simple study to address it. This could be an experiment or project to: (1) evaluate possible mitigation methods, (2) quantify processes, rates, or reactions, (3) conceptually model a system, or (4) confirm whether not a perceived environmental threat is, in fact, real.

This project must be developed carefully, with several component due-dates as failsafes. These include:
(1) Submission of the project pitch/preproposal for instructor approval. This will prevent projects that are too broad in scope, projects that are off-topic, or projects that are insufficiently scientific in nature.
(2) Submission of a complete first draft of the proposal (either a paper, or poster, depending on the desired format), for instructor and peer review. Ideally, this will be 3-4 weeks after the pitch.
(3) Peer review sessions, scheduled either during laboratory or outside of class (i.e., through institutional writing centers), to be conducted immediately following draft submissions.
4)Submission of the final proposal, with presentation as desired. Ideally, this should follow at least 1 full week, preferably 2, after peer review has been completed and feedback returned.
(5)Submission of self-evaluations by each student with the final proposal, to ensure functional group dynamics and fair grade sharing. This should be part of the final grade.

Materials the instructor should prepare in advance include:
(1) An example proposal
(2) the rubric for peer review and instructor evaluation of the proposal
(3) Tips or resources to aid with literature searches and reviews, writing, or poster design (a PPT or Adobe Illustrator Poster template are both helpful).

Peer Review Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB Apr29 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This project takes thorough planning by the instructor, and relies heavily on instructor enthusiasm to motivate students that are intimidated by independent research or who have difficulty adequately narrowing their topic of choice.

In-class discussions and literature critiques, with instructor feedback, are important prerequisite assignments for this project. The proposal should not be assigned without prior feedback on hypothesis development, figure and table critiques, and student familiarity with the format of scientific reports/papers.

This project works best as a group assignment; it is riskier if students work individually. Strategies for handling students that do not work well with others are advisable, and the instructor should anticipate these problems by getting to know students well. There must be adequate protection in place for students in groups that have a falling-out, OR clear statements that all students in a group will share the same grade.

It is helpful to assign funding limits (a budget should be part of the proposal), and temporal constraints (i.e., the project must be completed within two years).

Common problems include:
(1) Untestable hypotheses; projects too broad to complete.
(2) Student ignorance of analytical methodology - the instructor must be prepared to point students towards particular methods or equipment (narrowing the topic is helpful in this regard).
(3) End-of-semester stress and conflicting due dates - courses with laboratories, weekly problem sets, etc., must relax those secondary assignments or forgo them for this project to be reasonable for students.
(4) Some students inevitably need reminding that this is a proposed experiment only, and that they do no need to actually do the experiment.


Students are evaluated qualitatively based on several aspects of their project including factual accuracy, methodology, real-world feasibility, and writing quality. They can be evaluated quantitatively using a careful rubric or index of these aspects (e.g., a scale of poor, fair, good, very good, and outstanding = 1 , 2, 3, 4, and 5). A 'grade' of ~2.5 to 4 is typical for student evaluations of one another.

References and Resources

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