Designing a sedimentary geology course around field-based class projects that yield publishable research

James R. Ebert
SUNY College at Oneonta
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Field-based research projects can be the heart of a course in sedimentary geology. Course content, organization, readings and laboratory experiences are dictated by the nature of the specific project. Less content may be "covered" with this approach, but students' depth of understanding, sense of accomplishment, and growth in confidence are greatly enhanced. Scientific reasoning skills, which are generally not addressed in the traditional lecture/lab format, increase noticeably. Using this approach, 50% of class projects over 4 years were of sufficient merit to present at regional GSA conferences.

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I have used field-based research projects as the focal point for my undergraduate course in Sedimentary Geology (required course for geology majors (typically juniors and seniors, 4-12 students per semester)) with great success. This course addresses the major aspects of sedimentary geology (e.g., stratigraphy and sedimentology), but the emphasis changes from year to year depending on the nature of the field project. In some years, the focus has clearly been on sedimentology (with some elements of sedimentary petrology) and in other years, the field project has necessitated a greater emphasis on stratigraphic principles and practices. The course is offered in the fall semester to take advantage of the weather for field work. In addition to this course, I have also designed graduate courses in Advanced Stratigraphy and Advanced Sedimentology with a similar approach.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students entering my junior/senior-level course in Sedimentary Geology have generally had some experience in observation through laboratory activities in the prerequisite course in Historical Geology, which I also teach. Historical Geology also has several field-based labs (interpreting paleoenvironmental conditions from a fossiliferous unit, reconstructing depositional environment from an outcrop with sedimentary structures, reconstructing geologic history from a deformed outcrop) which provide some experience with geologic field work. However, some transfer students who have not had these experiences develop the requisite skills during the field project.

How the activity is situated in the course

Students are introduced to the field project on the first day of class in Sedimentary Geology. I have scheduled the two hour lab meeting so that it is adjacent to one of the three 50 minute class periods. Therefore, a minimum of three hours are available for field work, though I typically inform the students that it is likely that we will be out for four hours each week. The first lab of the course takes the students to the field site and is used to introduce the students to the units to be studied, the nature and significance of the project, to provide a refresher on observation and taking field notes and to allow the students to make preliminary observations and record questions that may occur to them. From this point onward, anywhere from 8 to 10 weeks are spent in the field with an additional 1-2 weeks devoted to sample preparation and analysis. Because this project is the focal point of the course, all lecture topics and assigned readings are designed to support the students in their work on the project. Therefore, the topics do not follow a "traditional" order (see syllabus). The project is used as a case study in the conduct of research in sedimentary geology and the rest of the course content is chosen accordingly. Therefore, some common aspects of "traditional" courses may not be covered.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Some projects are designed to investigate sedimentologic questions or questions of paleoenvironmental interpretation. Other projects examine stratigraphic relationships between outcrops (typically two). Within these contexts, most principles of sedimentary geology can be explored. In addition, the research skills of questioning, forming hypotheses, gathering data, synthesizing and interpreting data, drawing inferences and making conclusions are addressed. For many projects, the additional skills of preparing results for presentation and presentation at conferences are also utilized.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Through the class research project, students should be able to 1) generate questions for research, 2) identify types of data that are required to answer the research question,3) formulate strategies for conducting research, 4) compile and organize field data, 5) draw conclusions from data, 6) compare their results with previously published work in the primary literature, 7) defend their interpretations with evidence/field data and by citing appropriate literature, and 8) identify questions for further research.

Other skills goals for this activity

Upon completion of the field project, students should be able to 1) construct a paper with typical scientific structure to report their results, 2) prepare a poster or talk for presentation to the class, instructor and possibly a professional conference.

Description of the activity/assignment

Field-based research projects are the focal point for my course in sedimentary geology. For each offering of the course, projects are selected which will enable students to engage in authentic research and learn fundamental principles of sedimentary geology at the same time. Projects have addressed problems as diverse as sedimentologic processes, paleoenvironmental interpretation, stratigraphic correlation between outcrops and the nature of contacts between units. Each semester, the specific content of the course, how the content is organized, which readings are chosen and selection of laboratory experiences are dictated by the nature of the specific project and are planned to support students in their work on the project. Less content may be "covered" with this approach and topics may not follow a "traditional" order (see syllabus), but students' depth of understanding, skills in scientific reasoning, sense of accomplishment, and growth in confidence are greatly enhanced. Class projects from half of the past four offerings of the course culminated in the presentation of three posters at regional GSA conferences. Results of the other two semesters were not submitted for presentation because the instructor failed to identify problems of adequate significance for the class to investigate. However, these projects did yield data which may be useful in future projects.

Field projects must be chosen carefully so that they a) have the potential to yield results of scientific significance, and b) can be completed within the time-frame of one semester. In addition, it is essential to provide students with experiences that enable them to develop the expertise necessary to gather and make sense of the data. To ensure these conditions, the faculty member should be involved actively as a collaborator in the project. Therefore it is mutually beneficial if the class project is related to the faculty member's research or to a topic of interest to him/her. Guidelines for the development of successful projects are available in the Instructor's Notes file.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Owing to the fact that these field projects involve original research, evaluation can be a complex matter. In general, I evaluate students' reports on projects in three categories: description/observation, interpretation and justification.
Description/observation comprises approximately 50% of the grade. This is based largely on the completeness and level of detail of descriptions (I emphasize to the students that interpretations change, but a good description lasts forever.). Because I am in the field weekly with the students, I know what features they should be reporting and can judge how complete/detailed their descriptions are. A portion of this category also includes the actual presentation of the data, typically in the form of one or more measured sections. Neatness and clarity of presentation factor into the evaluation.
Interpretation comprises approximately 25% of the grade. Two criteria are used to evaluate interpretations: a) are the interpretations consistent with the observations? and b) are they geologically reasonable? About one quarter of the grade is based on justification. Here the students are required to support their interpretations with specific data/observations. Commonly, the interpretation and justification components are intertwined in student reports and so they may be evaluated jointly rather than as separate categories. Because this evaluation is somewhat subjective, I assign letter rather than numerical grades.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

This course has supplemental information submitted as part of the InTeGrate Teaching the Methods of Geoscience workshop in June 2012.

An Annotated Bibliography of References Concerning Projects
in Sedimentology/Stratigraphy Classes
(download this information in a Word file) (Microsoft Word 33kB Jun26 06)

Compiled by
James R. Ebert
Earth Sciences Department
SUNY College at Oneonta
Oneonta, New York 13820-4015
(607) 436-3065;

Drzewiecki, P.A., and Hyatt, J.A., 2005, Teaching sedimentological and stratigraphic concepts using outcrops from the Hartford Basin, Connecticut: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 37, n. 1, p. 20-21. (Small projects illustrate lateral facies change, cyclicity, etc. in the field.)

Eves, R.L., and Lohrengel, C. F., II, 2003, Local stratigraphy: a resource for a problem-based undergraduate sedimentology/stratigraphy laboratory: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 35, n. 6, p. 46. (Includes presentation of select projects at regional meetings.)

Garver, J.I., 1992, A field-based course in stratigraphy and sedimentology, Jour. Geol. Education, v. 40, n. 2, p. 119-124. (The only full length paper that I could find on the subject! It describes a course in which students gather data in the field from a variety of depositional environments and rocks of various ages and use these data to reconstruct regional tectonic history. Definitely worth a read!)

Glumac, B., 2005, Designing a field-oriented and project-based undergraduate sedimentology and stratigraphy course: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 37, n. 1, p. 20. (Describes a project-based course with a modular structure. Elaborates on Glumac 1999.)

Glumac, B., 1999, A project-based undergraduate sedimentology course: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 31, n. 7, p. 36. (Describes a project-based course with a modular structure.)

Hickson, T.A., 2004, One-hundred percent project-based learning in a sedimentology and stratigraphy course: GSA Abstracts with Programs: v. 36, n. 5, p. 277. (Outlines a project-based course with active learning strategies incorporated.)

Knight, K.L., 1989, Undergraduate sedimentology project; point bar field study and computer analysis: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 21, n. 6, p. 369.

Lohrengel, C. F., II and Eves, R.L., 2005, Incorporating undergraduate research in the curriculum; using local stratigraphy as a resource for a project-based undergraduate sedimentology/stratigraphy laboratory: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 37, n. 6, p. 38. (Includes presentation of select projects at regional meetings. Repeats much of Eves and Lohrengel 2003.)

O'Connell, S., 2004, Modern-ancient comparison as the focus for a first course in sedimentology: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 36, n. 5, p. 164. (Field studies in Mesozoic and similar modern sedimentary environments model a comparative sedimentology approach.)

Ryberg, P.T., 2000, Utilizing state-of-the-art field equipment in project-oriented curriculum at an undergraduate geoscience department; examples from Clarion University: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 32, n. 7, p. 421. (Describes use of various types of equipment for field projects in multiple courses, including Stratigraphy.)

Sebastian, G.R., and Haywick, D.W., 2004, One outcrop, two possible interpretations; using field work to teach geological reasoning: GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 36, n. 5, p. 155. (Small, directed field projects are used to build skills which are then employed to test two competing hypotheses with data collected in the field.)