Long-Term Sedimentology Projects Using Local Geological and Environmental Problems

David A. Franzi
SUNY Plattsburgh
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Initial Publication Date: July 4, 2006 | Reviewed: November 3, 2013


Project-based exercises engage students in all aspects of the scientific inquiry, reinforce previously learned concepts and information and provide longer periods of time for students to analyze and synthesize data. In this session we shall examine examples of long-term student projects and discuss the advantages and pitfalls of this approach for sedimentology courses. The benefits of a longer integrated lecture-laboratory format over traditional course formats for teaching sedimentology and other upper-division geology courses will also be discussed.

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Sedimentology is a required upper-division undergraduate course for geology majors. Physical geology and mineralogy are prerequisites but most students complete historical geology and petrology courses prior to sedimentology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must have a fundamental understanding of geology and basic mathematics skills. A working knowledge of petrography, spreadsheets, GIS and computer graphics software is beneficial.

How the activity is situated in the course

Two to four long-term projects are scheduled during laboratory sessions throughout the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students learn basic sedimentologic and stratigraphic principles and methods and work cooperatively to apply these skills to local geological questions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Hypothesis formulation, multiple-working hypotheses, experimental design, critical thinking

Other skills goals for this activity

team work and time-management skills, effective written communication skills

Description of the activity/assignment

The goal of long-term laboratory projects is to allow students to apply newly learned concepts and methods to real-world problems and thereby add value to the laboratory learning experience. Effective projects are those that are carefully planned, have clearly defined learning objectives and reasonable workload and final product expectations. Exercises vary in length and content depending upon learning goals, class size, available resources, methodology and scheduling concerns (e.g. beginning or end of course, available class time or time of year). Each project begins with an introduction in which a geological question is posed and students are presented with background information, published reference material and guidelines for effective scientific writing.

The introductory presentations are followed by group discussions to formulate the hypothesis(es) to be tested and determine the experimental design, with due consideration to the constraints listed above. It is important that students understand their individual responsibilities and their role in the larger group effort. In the following weeks, students are provided with the materials and methods they need to conduct each phase of the project. Students collect and process their own data whenever possible. Preferably this phase involves field description and collection of samples for later lab analysis but previously collected sediment or rock cores or samples may also be used. Data analysis is a class-wide effort with each student or student team contributing a component to a larger class-wide database. Workload expectations must be clearly defined and students must conform to a tight timeframe during the analysis portion of the exercise so that the final database is complete and available on schedule. Interim deadlines for data components generally help students stay on schedule during this phase. Data synthesis and final report preparation are individual efforts. Students are encouraged to be creative in the interpretation and presentation of their results but are warned not to draw conclusions that cannot be supported by their data.

Examples of long-term projects that have been used for sedimentology at SUNY Plattsburgh include:

  • Particle shape analysis of beach and fluvial gravel in the Champlain Valley
  • Provenance of glacial till in the Champlain Valley and northeastern Adirondack Mountain region
  • Sedimentology, stratigraphy and landslide susceptibility of proglacial lake and marine deposits on the Lake Champlain lakeshore in Plattsburgh, NY
  • Sedimentology and stratigraphy of the Potsdam Sandstone in the Champlain Valley
  • Sedimentological evidence for breakout floods in proglacial lake and marine deposits in the Champlain Valley

Determining whether students have met the goals

Evaluation is based upon the level of student participation, quality of results, ability to meet data reporting deadlines, ability to draw logical and defendable conclusions, and the quality of the final report.

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