Teach the Earth > Undergraduate Research > 2014 Workshop > Activities > Florida River Project - individual and group research project

Florida River Project - individual and group research project

Kim Hannula, Fort Lewis College
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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 http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Aug 8, 2014


The Florida River Project is a semester-long project involving (1) an individual project in which students pose a scientific question and use existing data to test their hypothesis, and (2) a group project in which students collect and present data associated with stream monitoring.

Outcomes of the individual project include:
- Practice applying the process of science
- Graphing and interpreting data
- Making an argument supported by quantitative evidence.
- Communicating a scientific argument in writing.
- Supporting a scientific argument using appropriate formats (especially graphs and tables)

Outcomes of the group project include:
- Collecting field data (discharge, sediment load, water chemistry)
- Presenting data orally.
- Discussing preliminary interpretations of data.



Introductory Earth Systems Science (for non-majors, Education majors, Environmental Studies majors, and some Geology majors)

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

None - graphing skills (creating, reading, and interpreting graphs) are developed during the exercise.

The Math You Need, When You Need It (http://serc.carleton.edu/mathyouneed/index.html) is used to support math skills (including reading graphs and unit conversions) in labs associated with this assignment.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a sequence of exercises that leads to two final projects: an individual paper, and a group oral presentation (and hypothesis brainstorming session).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

River processes (discharge, suspended load, dissolved load)

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Formulation of hypotheses
Making arguments supported by quantitative evidence
Using appropriate formats (graphs, tables) to support arguments using quantitative data

Other skills goals for this activity

Graphing data using Excel
Writing about data using a scientific format
Extracting quantitative data from appropriate sources on the WWW

Description and Teaching Materials

This project includes two components: an individual research project (focused on applying quantitative skills to a scientific research question), and a group project (including data collection and presentation of preliminary data).

The project is designed to(1) support college-wide quantitative skills learning outcomes, (2) engage students in the process of science, (3) promote students' sense of ownership of their research project, (4) collect data in the field, and (5) present data in writing and orally.

In the individual project, students develop the skills needed to make an argument supported by quantitative data. The individual project consists of four components: two graphing exercises (to develop skills necessary to use data to answer questions), the proposal of a question, and a final paper in which students use previously collected data to address their question.

In the group project, students work in groups of 4 to 6 students to collect and present data. Each group is responsible for collecting a particular type of data during a field lab (discharge, sediment load, or water chemistry). Each lab section monitors a different site (out of nine possibilities) along the Florida River. The group work is divided into three components: (1) a short background paper discussing the type of data to be collected; (2) data collection in the field; and (3) an informal presentation of the data to the class (modeled after research group meetings, rather than conference presentations).

The Florida River Project: introductory handout explains the structure of the project.
The other four files are the handouts for specific components for the individual project.
Florida River Project: introductory handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB May30 14)
Florida River Project: Graphing Exercise 1 handout (Microsoft Word 35kB May30 14)
Florida River Project: Graphing Using Excel handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB May30 14)
Data for Graphing Exercise 2 (Excel 30kB May30 14)
Florida River Project: final paper instructions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB May30 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This project could be adapted to fit the local field areas and research interests of many faculty. Key points to keep in mind include:

1) Graphing with Excel is complicated by the differences between Mac and PC versions of the software, and by the changes that arise in each new edition of the software. Frustration with the software (and with computers in general) is a major barrier to student learning in this exercise.

2) It is difficult to break students' attachment to the simplistic Scientific Method that they learned before college. It is necessary to provide feedback about appropriate research questions at many points throughout the semester; otherwise, many students revert to proposing hypotheses like "the river will have 80 cfs on March 10," and "the discharge was 90 cfs; the hypothesis failed."

3) Writing a paper based on data (rather than on library research) is unfamiliar to students in an introductory science class, especially if they have taken college-level writing courses outside the sciences. It helps to give students opportunities to discuss their paper with the professor (or with a teaching assistant). However, these meetings are very time-intensive.


The individual project papers have been graded using the following rubric:

Content (30 pts)
(10 pts) Geologic concepts used correctly
(10 pts) Data used is appropriate to answer question
(10 pts) Data are used to support arguments

Science writing (20 pts)
(10 pts) Figures/graphs/tables used appropriately
(10 pts) Data is clearly separated from discussion/interpretation

General writing (20 pts)
(10 pts) Organized clearly (logical flow, coherent paragraphs)
(5 pts) Sentences are grammatically correct, punctuation is used correctly, spelling is correct
(5 pts) References are cited as necessary

Starting in 2015, I will be piloting the AACU LEAP rubric for quantitative skills (http://www.aacu.org/leap/vision.cfm) to assess the final individual paper.

References and Resources

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