Embedding Research in Undergraduate Classes Across the Geoscience Curriculum

Wednesday, 16 December, 1:00 P.M. – 4:00 P.M.
Leaders: David Mogk, Montana State University
Location: San Francisco Marriott Marquis - Golden Gate A

Workshop Description

Inquiry. Discovery. Exploration. Undergraduate students can engage authentic research at all levels in the geoscience curriculum, from introductory courses (PCAST, 2012) to required courses for geoscience majors. Research projects embedded in formal coursework are increasingly recognized as an important mechanism to inspire and recruit students to the geosciences in introductory courses, and to provide essential pre-professional development for students continuing in geoscience degree programs. This workshop will present numerous strategies for conducting in-class research projects including use of archived on-line Earth data, use of instrumentation, computer and physical modeling, and field-based research. Participants will receive practical advice on design principles, development and implementation plans, and research project assessments. This workshop builds on the On the Cutting Edge modules on Undergraduate Research in Earth Science Classes: Engaging Students in the First Two Years and Strategies to Involve Undergraduates in Research: Upper Division Courses, Independent Study, and REU's (co-sponsored by CUR).

This workshop derives from a number of workshops convened by the On the Cutting Edge program on Undergraduate Research as Teaching Practice. Key web modules that support this work are:

There is also an extensive literature on the "why" and "how" to design and implement undergraduate research. See this Reference LIst from Pedagogy in Action and advice from the CUR Quarterly from the Council on Undergraduate Research.

We'll use the Wiggins and McTighe "Backwards Design" approach as a template to help you design a research experience for your course.

Goals of the Workshop

The goals of this workshop are

  • Introduce underlying principles and "best practices" to design, develop, and implement an undergraduate research project in your class;
  • provide a step-by-step guide to identify key factors that should be considered in your undergraduate research plan.

Workshop Program


  • Name and institution
  • Course (level) and name of course you plan to introduce embedded research
  • (Very) brief description of the research topic

1. To start, why is it Important for undergraduate students to have research experiences? (Small group discussion)

1. What defines undergraduate research?

Some definitions of Undergraduate Research:

  • "Undergraduate research is a student-faculty collaboration to examine, create and share new knowledge or works in ways commensurate with practices in the discipline" (Hakim, 2000, p. 1).
  • The Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines undergraduate research to be any "inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline."

2. What "counts" as research?

What "counts" as research. Possibilities:

  • Replication of experiments where the results are known to Science; but new to students;
  • Collection of new data using standard instruments and methods; add to larger existing database;
  • Use of physical models, where students design experiments, produce output;
  • Use computer modeling to generate a results;
  • Query online geoscience databases;
  • Students document or characterize field sites or phenomena;
  • Students do new de novo research that adds to the corpus of scientific knowledge.

Discovery by students may actually be rediscovery.

Simulation? Replication? Or, must the activity produce new knowledge, understanding?

3. Why do undergraduate Research?

Benefits of Undergraduate Research

  • Develop specific research methods and skills
  • Benefits of experiential learning (long-term memory)
  • Affective gains: sense of ownership, responsibility, curiosity, ....
  • Build team work, networks
  • Self-efficacy; increase confidence in ability to do science
  • Students focus on career goals; workforce or graduate school
  • Recruitment and retention to the major (see U Michigan UROP program)
  • Contribute to campus and/or community life
  • Faculty research is strengthened; put the students to work on a project that supports your research!

2. Selecting the Right Project (Scoping)

Play to your assets. Capitalize on local research interests and problems, institutions research facilities and strengths, student interest, multi- and inter-disciplinary opportunities, topical opportunities. What do you want to get out of this?

Factors that Could be Considered in Selecting a Class Research Project

  • Pick a topic that will help your own research interests! (Put the students to work!)
  • Pick a topic that can help with pre-professional training; partner with a local industry or government agency!
  • Topical interests of high interest to the geosciences (excitement)!
  • Students' interests and abilities. (Don't set them up for failure).
  • Alignment with departmental mission/curriculum.
  • Congruent with other course activities, content, skills.
    • Reinforce concepts, content, skills already introduced
  • Facilities, equipment, instruments, software are available and work.
    • Support staff is in place for maintenance, operations, logistics...
  • Logistical considerations
    • Access to field sites
    • Scheduling of instruments....
  • Funding
  • Time
    • Required of students
    • Required of faculty/staff to supervise

3. Define Goals and Learning Outcomes

What do you want your students to learn? What do you want to accomplish?

There are a number of important goals you may have for your students in designing this research project. Depending on your student audience, geologic setting, level of instruction, availability of instrumentation or software, these goals may vary. What are the goals for your research activity? The goals should be a) student-centered, b) concrete (e.g., Students will be able to....; avoid words like understand, appreciate, value), and c) measurable (see the On the Cutting Edge Course Design module on Setting Goals.

Examples of Learning Goals

  • Students will be able to define a question and develop tests....
  • Increase awareness and connections between Earth and societal issues....
  • Students will work collaboratively...., or
  • Students will work with complex Earth data to...
  • Students will prepare a report (or poster) integrating and interpreting data....
  • Students will apply concepts learned in class to....
  • Students will use computational modeling to....

4. Assessing Student Learning Outcomes in a Research Project

Why do assessment?

  • Improve student learning and development through improving the program.
  • Provides students and faculty substantive feedback about student understanding, and program strengths, weaknesses and impact.
  • Accountability: find out whether you have achieved defined goals- for student learning and overall programmatic effectiveness and include the results in annual reports to sponsors and grant proposals.
  • Gather data on your program with an eye to doing education research on REU programs.
  • Effective assessments, embedded into program design, can result in students who are happier and who perform better, and can help guide faculty to create more effective, efficient and gratifying programs that have greater impact.

What's the difference between formative and summative assessment?

  • The goal of formative assessment is to gather feedback that can be used by the instructor and the students to guide improvements in the ongoing teaching and learning context. These are low stakes assessments for students and instructors.
  • The goal of summative assessment is to measure the level of success of proficiency that has been obtained at the end of an instructional unit (or REU program), by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. From Carnegie Mellon "Enhancing Teaching"

Basic Principles of Assessment

There are a few basic principles that will help you effectively develop your own assessment plans to best meet the needs of your project:

Assessment Principles:

  • Clearly define project goals and expected outcomes at the start.
  • A list of IRIS REU Outcomes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 71kB Sep18 13) and the IRIS Logic Model (Acrobat (PDF) 120kB Sep19 13) have been provided by Michael Hubenthal.
  • What is the purpose of the assessment? Who will use the results and in what way?
  • Identify the baseline data you will need to document change.
  • There is an arsenal of assessment techniques that are available; pick the right tools and metrics that will provide the information required to meet your needs.
  • Assessment is done throughout the course of a project for varying reasons: formative assessment is done to provide feedback for ongoing activities, and to inform any needed mid-course corrections; summative assessment is done to measure a project's overall success; longitudinal assessment tracks impacts beyond the duration or initial scope of the project.
  • The assessment plans should be integral to the development and management of the project, not just added on as an after-thought.
  • Develop partnerships with colleagues who have knowledge and expertise in assessment.

Assessment of student learning outcomes require an entirely different set of instruments and metrics than overall program assessment.

5. Some Design Principles

Consider aspects that can be embedded into your class research project to optimize learning, and create an overall positive experience for students:

Some Guiding Design Principles:

  • Address big challenges to learning in the geosciences: temporal thinking, spatial thinking and complex systems. Related learning goals might include topics such as interpretations of complex Earth phenomena from data that are incomplete, ambiguous and uncertain; to integrate numerous independent lines of evidence towards a coherent and internally consistent interpretation; to undertake comparison or correlation of geologic phenomena.
  • Develop an experiential learning exercise that emphasizes inquiry and discovery.
    • What is discovery for students is often rediscovery of what is already known in the geologic literature. But it is still important for students to go through the steps of constructing their own knowledge. Discovery exercises may require a certain amount of scaffolding, and "guided discovery" may be needed to help initiate students into the practices of geoscience.
  • Use constructivist activities where students (re)discover for themselves the fundamental principles and concepts of Earth science, and actively construct knowledge by means of interaction of the student with the environment
  • Design activities that transfer basic content knowledge from the classroom to the lab to field setting.
  • Design a problem-based learning exercise that results in outcomes that can be applied to answering a geological question or issue of societal importance.
  • Use the affective domain to your advantage by increasing students' motivation to learn, curiosity, or sense of awe and wonder about the world; cooperative and collaborative learning; optimizing mentor-student or peer-to-peer relations.
  • Metacognitive learning goals can be designed to help students "think as a geologist" and to be able to self-monitor (being aware of their own thinking) and self-regulate (e.g. make informed decisions) in the field. Lab or field instruction can readily use "talk-alouds" in the lab or on the outcrop to externalize what you are seeing, what you are doing, why you are collecting a particular sample or taking a strike and dip measurement at this place; this is a great way to help students become self-aware of what they should be thinking and doing in the field.
  • Butler (2009) recommends that these types of activities are particularly amenable for field instruction, but these may be extended to the laboratory as well:

    • setting student-led tasks
    • reinforcing scientific method through hypothesis-testing
    • developing integrative skills
    • problem solving, particularly through the interpretation of incomplete data-sets and managing uncertainty
    • dealing with real-life, real-time interdisciplinary problems
    • showing the limitations of observations / measurements in problem solving
    • developing self-reliance amongst students, taking personal responsibility for safety practices.

6. Structuring or Scaffolding the Research Exercise

A well-designed research experience will systematically lead students through the entire project, providing foundational information or experiences to start, and sequentially building students' abilities.

  • Help students see the "big picture", how their project fits into broader understanding of our science
  • Design project in manageable stages, so the overall prospect is not overwhelming
  • Provide demonstrations and worked examples
  • Build in check points to make sure that all students are on track. What are the anticipated problem points?
  • Prepare interventions to provide a safety net for students.
  • Make a timeline (be realistic). What is the right scale of research questions.
  • How will the research activities be manageable;
  • How to schedule so that everyone can get access to instruments, advice, scale support.

7. Preparing For a Class Research Project

Students and faculty alike have to be well-prepared to undertake a class research project. A lot of preparation has to go into planning logistics, ordering supplies, obtaining licenses and permissions.....Here are some tips:

Help Students Prepare to do Research

  • Will this be an independent project, or will students work in groups? If the latter, consider how you will form the groups, and how will these be managed (team leader? assignment of tasks?)
  • What knowledge base should the students have to successfully complete this project?
  • What technical skills will they need to do the project
  • "Novelty Space"
  • Issues of personal comfort and safety addressed
  • Worked examples; model output
  • Professional practice and standards clearly defined
  • Expectations clearly defined

Instructors need to be prepared to both supervise and do the research. Bob Dylan had it right: I"ll know my song well before I start singing..."

  • Do a "dry" run to make sure all components work.
  • Be able to trouble shoot (equipment....)
  • Do your homework; be well-versed in the literature, methods, etc.
  • Have a contingency plan; expect the unexpected;
  • Make sure all supplies are available, in sufficient quantities;
  • Accessibility; make sure all students have access to all essential components;
  • Time management (realistic estimate of how much time will be needed by students, faculty, staff).
  • Time line with clear check points to ensure successful completion.
  • Safety! Safety! Safety!
  • Model best professional practices.

  • Materials and supplies (you have enough, they work,....)
  • Instrumentation; available, instruments work, ....

  • Licenses (software, operator's licenses)
  • Access to field sites
  • Institutional Review Board

  • Support staff have full knowledge of the project, goals, timelines, expectations, .....

8. Mentoring

Mentoring is an important component of formative assessments of student performance. Mentoring entails much more than supervising or advising. It requires that mentors have an active interest in the success of students. Consider building the following topics into your research experience;

  • Introducing students to the "Community of Practice"; accepted practices, model behaviors
  • Provide pre-professional career advising; help students explore aspects of our science that they might want to pursue (or avoid).
  • Address ethics and values, and how these apply to the research enterprise.
  • Developing personal traits that prepare students for graduate school or the workforce: curiosity, persistence, ability to work in groups.
  • Providing support for students throughout the project, monitoring their progress, to ensure successful completion.....

"Sometimes the most valuable contribution a mentor can make is just time and attention. It is always surprising to talk to former mentees about their experiences and what they found valuable. Often, their comments focus on a few themes: (1) it helped to have someone believe in my potential, (2) it helped my confidence to know that I could talk or write to someone of your stature, (3) it helped to have you listen to some of my professional development plans and then hear your suggestions.

"When mentoring, don't forget that just your time and attention can have a very significant impact. The combination of the mentor's accessibility and approachability is critical and even small actions can be impactful. Examples may include having lunch with a student and establishing an open-door policy, or in a class setting learning students' names and making a point of requesting student feedback on course material during class time (Gall et al. 2003)."

9. Implementation Plan

You're all dressed up and ready to roll....

  • What are the project management requirements?
  • What is the timeline for this project?
  • What are the critical check points?
  • Are you within budget?
  • Are all responsibilities assigned?
  • Who checks for accountability, according to what standards?
  • What happens when things run amuck?

10. Examples

Numerous examples and case studies can be found in the SERC resource collections

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