Hypothesis Testing through Field Investigation of Mystery Mounds

Lisa Ely
Central Washington University
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Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2008 | Reviewed: November 3, 2013


Students formulate and test a hypothesis that addresses the potential processes involved in forming or subsequently shaping an unknown geomorphic feature, in this case mima mounds or patterned ground. Students gain experience in the process of conducting an original scientific investigation.

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Undergraduate intermediate-level geomorphology course; students range from sophomores to seniors; mixture of Geology and Geography majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

-Knowledge of scientific method, particularly hypothesis testing
-Elements and format of a scientific report
-Basic field surveying with compass, measuring tape, clinometer

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is mid-stream within a sequence of exercises to develop students' knowledge of how to conduct a scientific field investigation. The sequence starts with an exercise in which students develop and test hypotheses within a 2-week lab on stream-channel processes, which is more structured. In the activity presented here, the students propose a testable hypothesis about an unknown geomorphic system and carry out a brief investigation in one afternoon, with the supervision and help of the instructor. The final activity in the sequence is an independent research project carried out by pairs of students.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Investigation of the possible origins of, or processes that have shaped, mima mounds. The geomorphic content goals of this activity are really secondary to the higher order thinking skills. The activity could be applied to other types of geomorphic features.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The goals of this activity are for students to:
-formulate a testable hypothesis about an unknown feature
-design a set of observations and measurements that test their hypothesis
-distinguish data from interpretation
-interpret their results
-critically evaluate competing conceptual models
-discuss potential sources of uncertainty in their data

Other skills goals for this activity

-Writing a scientific report
-Working in groups
-Using simple field surveying equipment

Description of the activity/assignment

In this field exercise, students examine the mystery mounds and patterned ground on the top of Umptanum Ridge in central Washington. Groups of 3-4 students design and conduct a field investigation and write a single joint report. Each group formulates a testable hypothesis that addresses one of the proposed processes involved in forming or subsequently shaping the mounds. The groups design an experiment to test their hypothesis, collect the necessary field observations and measurements during a regular afternoon field lab period and write a scientific report that includes an introduction, statement of hypothesis, background information, methods, data, analysis and interpretations, discussion of uncertainties, conclusions, and references. One week later, reports are turned in and students form "jigsaw" discussion groups composed of one student from each field research group. Each student briefly summarizes their group's research hypothesis and results to the jigsaw group. The jigsaw groups then each develop a revised hypothesis based on these combined results and present that to the entire class.
Designed for a geomorphology course
Uses online and/or real-time data
Has minimal/no quantitative component
Addresses student fear of quantitative aspect and/or inadequate quantitative skills
Addresses student misconceptions

Determining whether students have met the goals

The students are given a hand-out describing the elements that should be included in their final report and the points that will be assigned to each element. Their reports form the basis of my final assessment of whether they have met the goals of the project. I conduct informal interim assessement by requiring each student group to discuss their hypothesis and methods with me in the field before they begin collecting data, and by circulating among the groups as they work to ask questions and provide suggestions. Jigsaw groups write down their revised joint hypothesis and turn that in along with a 1 paragraph justification before they leave the classroom.

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