Use of an inquiry approach for exploring relationships between small stream dynamics, channel geometry, and bedform movement

Dr. Kerry L. Keen
University of Wisconsin-River Falls
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This group activity allows students to identify questions in the field on an actual physical system (in this case a small sand and gravel bed stream), then design experiments to answer their own questions. The greatest strength of this activity is that students can become quite invested in this, because it comes out of their own innate curiosity and creativity.

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Junior-level undergraduate course in stratigraphy and sedimentation.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Minimal skills and concepts are required.
This exercise can be used with students having a range of backgrounds.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity occurs at about week 3 or 4 in the semester. It coincides or slightly precedes lectures on fluid dynamics and sediment transport.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

That students actually "do" science. This activity embodies the scientific method, without "formally teaching" the scientific method. Exposing students to "true" inquiry is an important part of their development as scientists.
Beyond this general goal - that students gain some insight into fluvial sedimentary processes through this hands-on activity.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This method employs basic observation and recording at its foundation. But then allows the students to build to whatever cognitive level they are able to achieve.

Other skills goals for this activity

Other goals include: 1) working in groups, 2) taking good field notes, 3) refining questions to achieve questions that are testable, 4) designing field experiments that make sense and are consistent with the questions asked, 5) synthesizing and analyzing field data to reach conclusions.

Description of the activity/assignment

Open-ended, field, inquiry projects can be very useful in sedimentary geology courses to explore dynamic relationships in sedimentary systems. I have used this approach to allow students to "do" their own science in a small stream near our campus. These projects generally involve studying relationships between the nature of stream flow, stream dynamics, geometries of the channel, and characteristics and rates of movement of bedforms. The small-group inquiry project begins with students observing a section of the stream (located a couple miles from campus), followed by brainstorming questions about the features observed in the stream and on its bed, then to designing and implementing experiments to answer specific questions that they have formulated, and concluding with data analysis and student presentations of their research. Approximately a dozen steps comprise the complete inquiry approach.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Evaluation is by the instructor (although I have used some peer evaluation of draft reports and oral presentations).
Points are given for field notes (that are tied to the inquiry steps given in the direction sheet) and for the final group presentation. The review of field notes is to assess whether they achieve the goals listed above. (This assumes the short version of the inquiry project - see attached documents). An evaluation form that has been used is provided in the supporting materials (below).

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

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