Use of Semester-Long Data/Research Projects in Introductory Earth Science Courses

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Dan E. Olson/Tina Johnson Edgewood College / UW-Madison
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This is a partially developed activity description. It is included in the collection because it contains ideas useful for teaching even though it is incomplete.

Semester long research projects as a partial substitute for traditional laboratory exercises have been implemented in two, two-semester long Introductory Earth Science sequences. At the end of each semester of study, students are required to prepare a poster presentation and a short oral presentation of their results. This exercise is to simulate a poster session at a professional, scientific conference.
GSA Poster (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Oct30 03)

Learning Goals


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Articulating research questions
Developing testable hypotheses
Drawing conclusions from data
Synthesis of data

Other Skills:

Data collection and organization
Evaluation of trustworthiness of data
Internet search skills
Use of spreadsheets in organizing, analyzing and displaying data


Instructional Level:

Instructional Level: Entry-level undergraduate

Skills Needed:

Skills Needed: Basic computer skills (e.g. ability to access Internet, word-processing skills; knowledge of use of spreadsheets is helpful

Role of Activity in a Course:

Role in course: The activity is conducted as part of the laboratory portion of our introductory earth science courses. Students are given time in the laboratory throughout the semester to work on their project. Students present their results in poster form during the last laboratory session of the course.

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

Required Tools: Networked computers with Internet browsers and a spreadsheet program; networked printers. Access to SeiVolE software.

Logistical Challenges:

Logistical challenges: Biggest challenge is the variety of questions students will develop, and the availability of appropriate on-line data sets. In addition, since students work in teams, there have been issues of dividing up the workload of the teams, and communication issues among team members.


Evaluation Goals:

Students must submit proposals, including their research questions and hypothesis. These are evaluated for relevance and feasibility.
Students are assessed using a rubric developed to grade poster presentations
Student attitudes regarding these projects is also gleaned from end of semester student evaluations. In Spring 2001, a survey was developed to assess student attitudes about the semester long projects. The survey was distributed at the end of the course asking specific questions with regard to the usefulness of the Research Project to their learning. The response to the survey was good with 42 of 44 students in the class returning surveys. The following questions were asked.
1) As a result of the Research Project, I am better able to critically evaluate societal problems and issues that involve science;
2) As a result of the Research Project, I am better able to make connections between science and my everyday life;
3) As a result of the Research Project, I gained useful practice in interpreting figures, charts, and maps;
4) As a result of the Research Project, I gained useful practice in making observations about the natural world and interpreting them.

Evaluation Techniques:

The vast majority of the students indicate Agree or Strongly Agree with all four of the survey questions. Written comments on the survey about the research project were overwhelmingly positive. Several students indicated that they found the project very confusing at first, but in the end they had a much better appreciation of how research is conducted in relation to environmental problems.

Embedded questions on the final exams have been developed to assess the impact of the project on content knowledge. A scoring rubric was developed for the questions, and students were scored as to whether they had: 1) met the content goal of the question, 2) had partially met the goal, or 3) did not meet the goal. A slight improvement in understanding of seismic waves and plate tectonics since the introduction of the semester long projects.


The use of active and collaborative student-centered activities to promote a better understanding of the nature of science has been recommended by a number of sources (Yuretich et al., 2001, Palmer, 1998, D'Avanzo et al, 1997; Springer et al., 1997; NRC, 1996; AAAS, 1990). Pedagogical strategies to promote this type of learning have been recommended by the National Research Council (NRC, 1996) and by AAAS Project 2061 and include: inquiry-based learning, active engagement of students, collaborative learning, ongoing assessment, and establishing a community of learners. In order to best understand the nature of science, students need to have experience with the types of thought and methods of study that are typical of the sciences, which means teaching science as it is practiced.

In order to provide a more inquiry based experience for students, we have introduced semester long research projects that utilize Internet databases for students to propose and test hypotheses related to the earth sciences. A number of learning goals are met by these projects. Upon successful completion of the projects, students should be able to:

Describe the earth sciences as a human activity that, in part, deals with a variety of problems that societies face when interacting with the environment
Describe the scientific process of investigating phenomena, including:

  • Articulating valid research questions
  • Formulating a testable hypothesis
  • Describing observations that would support or refute the hypothesis
  • Collecting data and evaluating the validity of the data collected
  • Synthesizing data
Describe the usefulness and limitations in the use of modeling to comprehend earth processes

Students also gain a deeper understanding of a number of content areas covered in the two semester sequence, including:
  • Distribution of earthquakes and their relationships to plate tectonics
  • Stream behavior and flood prediction
  • The relationship of global climate phenomena (e.g. El Niño or La Niña)

These projects also develop a number of other skills that students have found useful, including:
  • Internet search skills and the ability to discern websites with trustworthy data
  • Spreadsheet skills, including simples statistics and graphing
  • Team building skills


These research projects have been developed for use in two introductory level, undergraduate earth science sequences:
GEOS 102F5/1035- Introduction to Earth Science I &II
  • Primarily traditional age student population (60-80 per semester)
  • 3 lectures and one 3 hour lab per week for 15 weeks

GEOS 165F5/166F5 - Introduction to Earth Science I &II
  • Non-traditional age student population (10—20 per semester)
  • Part of College's Returning Adult Accelerated Degree program, and meets once per week for four hours over a period of seven weeks.

Although the format and clientele of the two courses are different, the content is very similar. The first semester deals primarily with physical geology, while the second semester introduces students to topics in oceanography, meteorology and climatology. Although the GEOS 102/103 sequence is required for two Majors (Broad Fields Natural Science and Broad Fields Natural Science Teaching) as well as two minors, most students take the course to fulfill the College's general education requirement in Natural Science.

The research activity is conducted as part of the laboratory portion of both sequences. Although most of the work on the project is done outside of class, students are provided some time in class throughout the semester to work on the project and seek advice from the instructor. Students present their results as either a poster or PowerPoint presentation during the last class period.


Successful completion of the projects requires student access to networked computers with Internet browsers and a spreadsheet program. For research question in the areas of seismology and plate tectonics, we have students utilize SeisVolE freeware program that is available from

Projects are conducted in three member teams. It is the responsibility of the team to divide the work in an equitable manner, and the team is responsible for making sure everyone completes his or her assigned responsibilities.

The students follow a standard scientific method:

1. Develops a research question
2. Develop a testable hypothesis based on the research question.
3. Determine the type of information needed to falsify the hypothesis.
4. Submit the proposal to the instructor for review and suggestions.
5. Collect and analyze data.
6. Develop a presentation (poster or PowerPoint).
7. Present results during the final class period of the semester.

Regardless of the format, the Final Project Presentation is graded on organization of ideas, clarity, appropriate level of information, depth and originality. The scoring rubric is as follows::

Timelines Met - 20%

Informational Content—40%

Title and authors (i.e. the names of your group)

A brief summary of the contents of the study

Gives historical information and reason for the study (Including a description or statement of the hypothesis being tested)

A short description of the methods that were used to collect the data (students reference the source of the data)

A description of the data including figures and graphs
What did you data tell you? Did your investigation support or refute your initial hypothesis. What new things did the data tell you? What new questions were raised?

Includes a minimum of three references at least one of which is not a website.

Presentation - 40%
Includes: neatness, organization, relevant visuals, creativity, amount of information, use of color and 'readability'

Students are encouraged to check with the instructor about the outline of their presentation.


On-line databases that have been useful in developing these projects, include:

Earthquakes (SeisVolE):
Ozone Depletion
Streams and Flooding
Seafloor Data

Examples of Projects

Seafloor Studies of Mamala Bay, Honolulu, Hawaii
Web-based Database Resource:
Projects in this category have included: estimation of predominant direction of bottom currents from bottom photographs; comparison of heavy metal content (e.g. Cd, Hg) of dredge material to native sediment in Mamala Bay; comparison of burrowing activity in dredge material vs. native sediment from box core photographs.

Earthquakes and Plate Tectonics:
Database Resource: SeiVolE
Number of plate collisions vs. frequency of Earthquakes
Cause of Intra-Plate Earthqaukes
Activity of the Earthquakes
Comparison of (3) stratovolcanic eruptions

El Niño
Database Resource
Wisconsin Crop Yields vs ENSO
Cause of 1994 Mississippi flood
Cause of Coldest Winters and Hottest Summers in Wisconsin


The dependence on web-based resources does lead to some complications. There were a number of instances in which the URL of a web-site either changed, the contents of a site were radically edited, or the site was permanently removed from the web. Students quickly learn to copy data sets or images so they would have access to them. Downloading capability from home computers limited off-campus work. The College's Library and computer labs were accessible and allowed access to programs and databases.

Students' backgrounds in Math/Statistics and familiarity with the various computer applications improves quality of presentations.

Student responses on the survey, from student evaluations and anecdotal comments all indicate that the research projects were useful in helping students become engaged with 'real-world' problems in the earth sciences. These types of exercises provided a more inquiry-based approach to introducing new topics in a traditional lecture and laboratory course.

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