Geophysics in the community

Jackie Caplan-Auerbach
Western Washington University
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In this activity students develop independent or small group research projects in collaboration with local community organizations, or with the goal of investigating a topic relevant to the greater community. This inspires outreach and interaction with the community and promotes connections with local geology and geophysics firms.

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This project is part of an upper level (combined undergraduate and graduate) applied geophysics course, for which introduction to geophysics is a prerequisite.
Designed for a geophysics course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must be familiar with the theory and methods for a specific geophysical technique (e.g. seismic refraction, ground penetrating radar, gravity). Students should understand how to design a geophysical survey and collect and analyze the data.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a culminating project for a geophysical methods course. The first part of the course is spent introducing geophysical field methods including seismic refraction, ground penetrating radar, magnetism, resistivity and gravity. Every other week or so, under the guidance of the instructor, the class designs a geophysical survey of the field next to the geology department using one of the above techniques. The successes, tribulations, uncertainties and results associated with each survey are discussed in class so that students can modify their approach to geophysical surveys. Thus, by the later part of the class, students have sufficient skills in field methods to accomplish an independent project.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Through this activity students (a) gain experience in designing and planning a geophysical survey, (b) learn about the uncertainties of "real world" data collection (i.e. where data may be noisy and they may get a null result), (c) analyze and interpret geophysical data, (d) contribute to solving important problems in their community and (e) make contacts with local community organizations and firms.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The first major skill that students develop in this activity is the ability to identify a problem and determine the best method for addressing that problem. This is often accomplished in collaboration with a local community organization or technical firm, thus providing students with the opportunity to improve their communication and collaboration skills. Based on the problem to be solved, students design an appropriate survey to tackle it. In planning a survey they may select transects over which to collect GPR data or opt against using magnetics due to the likelihood of magnetic interference in the region. Once the data are collected, they analyze the data, focusing on addressing the problem identified at the beginning. Students present a detailed summary of the entire project from design to data collection to data analysis and present it to their contacts within the community.

Other skills goals for this activity

Teamwork is a huge part of this project. Most students work in small groups, so they must learn to plan they survey as a team, delegate tasks to group members, and most importantly, communicate.

Description of the activity/assignment

As a culminating project in Applied Geophysics, students plan, design, deploy and analyze independent geophysical field surveys at the university or within the town. These surveys may be on campus (i.e. using GPR or seismic refraction to investigate the likelihood of landsliding near a campus road), or within the greater community. In many cases, potential projects are brought to the class by community groups such as the local Department of Public Works or environmental firms. Recent projects include looking for evidence of an underground storage tank beneath a downtown sidewalk, using GPR to identify debris flows on a nearby alluvial fan, and documentation of ancient tribal gravesites in a local cemetery). Students work in small (2-4 person) groups and where appropriate collaborate with community members to plan the survey and ensure that the appropriate data are collected. Students first submit a project proposal, which gives them experience in developing a hypothesis and justifying their proposed work. Following data collection and analysis, the students write a summary report of the project, a copy of which is given to the community member or organization (in an unofficial context). Students present their work to the class in a short Powerpoint presentation.
Has minimal/no quantitative component
Uses geophysics to solve problems in other fields

Determining whether students have met the goals

Although students design and analyze the projects independently, I oversee all major parts of the assignment to ensure that their projects are well planned, feasible and thorough. A key part of the assignment is the project proposal which allows me to evaluate the proposed survey before students invest too much time in it. I also join the students for data collection, although I act only as an advisor. If class sizes are small, I require students to submit a rough draft of the project reports so that the final version is appropriate for distribution within the community.

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