Living Learning Community: Spaceship Earth Research Course

Penelope Boston, New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology

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Freshmen enrolled in the Spaceship Earth Living Learning Community conduct research on a real project that is formulated and conducted during a 2-semester academic year.

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This is an effort to enhance freshmen retention by involving a cohort of students in a social and work group for their first most vulnerable college year.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Almost none. We teach them whatever they need. Most of them are very smart, but they come from a variety of backgrounds.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the entire research course, 2 semesters.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The concept is very high level. It is devoted to teaching them by apprenticeship how to do science in a field and laboratory context.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Observation of interesting phenomena in nature.
Formulation of meaningful and testable hypotheses.
Imagining ways to test the hypotheses.
Implementing laboratory and field tests of the hypotheses that can provide strong inference.
What constitutes actual proof of a concept? What is necessary to have meaningful controls?

Other skills goals for this activity

Writing plays a major part of the activity. STudents learn to operate whatever equipment becomes necessary in the course of the year. Oral presentation culminates in presentation of research results at our annual spring Student Research Symposium. And working within subteams on individual parts of the research, cross=training with other tasks, and sharing results across teams that might enhance each team's progress.

Description and Teaching Materials

We do some basic labs to acquaint students with properties of soils, plants, rocks, remote sensing, fire, ecosystems, and microorganisms during Semester 1. In mid semester, we begin to settle on a particular research site, and a set of interesting observations. Towards the end of Semester 1, we brainstorm hypotheses about those observations. We brainstorm experiments and observational campaigns to speak to the questions generated by the hypotheses. During Semester II, we conduct the experiments, collect and analyze results, and prepare our conclusions for presentation.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This approach requires a huge amount of energy and time. We have conducted it with a lead professor, and two auxilliary professors, and with additional help from a program director, and an undergraduate learning coach. Willingness to create science in real time with a gaggle of freshmen requires a significant amount of flexibility, creativity, and ability to guide the students as they slowly make their way through the challenges of research, without clobbering them over the head with how it should be done. Patience is a virtue.


Engagement of students actively in the research is critical. There are no ordinary exams. Points are earned for participation. Ensemble thinking and the building of an extended family like social group is key. Production of meaningful research that is reportable in a public venue. And lastly, the higher than usual degree of retention of freshmen in the group compared to other freshmen at our institution.

References and Resources