Teaching and Learning about Complex Biogeochemical Processes in the Earth System

Karen S. McNeal, Dept. of Geosciences, Mississippi State University

As a result of the complex behavior of Earth systems (e.g., bifurcations, self-organization, chaotic responses, positive and negative feedbacks, etc.), there are three major challenges associated with understanding and learning about complex Earth systems. These include (i) identifying the interactions between system components, (ii) conceptualizing the changes in the system's state over space and time, and (iii) applying models to predict self-organization and feedback behaviors (Colucci-Gray et al., 2006; Herbert, 2006; Sell et al., 2006). Further challenges may include using interdisciplinary knowledge to understand the relationships between system components and identifying the importance of scale and its influence on a particular system (Sell et al., 2006). Inquiry based approaches combined with multiple representations (e.g., technology and physical models) can be used as teaching strategies to assist students learning and enhance their conceptual model development about complex Earth systems.

In my research I have employed the use authentic inquiry and multiple representations as the classroom pedagogy to enrich undergraduate student learning of complex Earth systems, and specifically in my teaching of the process of coastal eutrophication. I have found that simulated research activities (e.g., laboratory methods and/or physical models) provide an opportunity for students to participate in authentic inquiry activities and when these activities are coupled with multiple representations in upper and lower division undergraduate geology classrooms the learning results, especially in regard to student conceptual model development, are encouraging. In summary, the results of my previous research have shown that expressed conceptual models are significant (ρ < 0.05) predictors of inquiry performance of high prior knowledge students (Sell et al., 2006). Also, through comparing experimental and control groups, results evidence that the use of the coupled inquiry and multiple representations pedagogical strategy provides significant (ρ < 0.05) learning gains in students exposed to the intervention, specifically in regard to the development of critical thinking skills, the use of scientific literature and references, and the understanding of system behavior. Moreover, students in experimental groups have significant (ρ < 0.05) pre-post gains in both their conceptual model development and content knowledge (McNeal et al., 2008; Miller et al., 2010).

Furthermore, during my training of in-service teachers in Earth system science, the use of technology and inquiry based learning strategies are at the forefront of the designed professional development activities. As a result of these practices, teachers' attitudes about technology and Earth system science have improved (McNeal et al., 2009). These teaching strategies have also proved effective while teaching 5th and 6th grade science students in at-risk school districts (McNeal et al., 2007; Radencic and McNeal, 2008). In my teaching at the graduate level, I have integrated these same ideas into the biogeochemistry classroom where my students conduct inquiry based experiments and simultaneously employ appropriate biogeochemical laboratory research methods during their analyses. I also affirm best practices in my teaching of complex Earth systems (and in my teaching in general) which includes highlighting the learner-, assessment-, community-, and knowledge-centered lenses described in the How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Bransford et al., 1999) framework and the backwards design approach in assessment and lesson design described in Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) whenever possible in order to properly support and facilitate my students' learning.


Bransford, J.D., Brown, A., Cocking, R.R., 1999. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

Colucci-Gray, L., Camino, E., Barbiero, G., Gray, D., 2006. From scientific literacy to sustainability literacy: an ecological framework for education. Sci. Educ. 90, 227-252.

Herbert, B.E. 2006. Student understanding of complex Earth systems. In Manduca, C.A., & Mogk, D.W. (Eds.) Special Paper 413: Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about the Earth (pp. 95-103). Boulder, CO, Geological Society of America.

McNeal, K.S., Buell, R., Eiland, L. 2009. Training Teachers to Use Technology and Inquiry-based Learning Practices in the Geosciences through an Industry University Partnership Paper Number. In 2009 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, Section ED44A, San Francisco, December 14-18, Eos Trans. AGU, 90 (52), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract ED44A-04.

McNeal K.S., Miller H.R., and Herbert B.E. 2008. The effect of using inquiry and multiple representations on introductory geology students' conceptual model development of coastal eutrophication. Journal of Geoscience Education 56: 201-211.

McNeal, K.S., Vasquez, Y., Alvandano, C., Moreno, C., Besnaiz, J. 2007. At-Risk and Bilingual Fifth-Grade Students' On-Task Behavior and Conceptual Understanding in Earth Science-Related Topics during Inquiry-, Technology-, and Game-Based Activities. In 2007 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, Section ED23B, San Francisco, December 10-14, Eos Trans. AGU, 87 (53), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract ED23B-1293.

Miller, H.R., McNeal, K.S., and Herbert, B.E. 2010. Inquiry in the physical geology classroom: supporting students' conceptual model development. Journal of Geography in Higher Education: in revision.

Radencic, S. and McNeal, K.S. 2008. The Use of Internet-Based GIS Resources to Increase Conceptual Understanding of Hydrologic Systems In Low-Income, Middle School Students. In 2008 Joint Meeting of The Geological Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies with the Gulf Coast Section of SEPM, Section T175, Houston, Oct. 5-9, Conference abstracts with programs, pp. 192.

Sell K.S., Herbert B.E., Stuessy C. and Schielack J. 2006. Supporting student conceptual model development of complex earth systems through the use of multiple representations and inquiry. Journal of Geoscience Education 54: 396-407.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. 2005. Understanding by Design (2nd edition). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

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