Melding Research on the Navajo Volcanic Field into Undergraduate Curriculum to Promote Scientific Literacy

David Gonzales, Fort Lewis College

Mafic dike in the Navajo volcanic field exposed near Newcomb, New Mexico. Details

This module highlights the curricular design and outcomes of undergraduate research in the Department of Geosciences at Fort Lewis College (FLC), supported by an NSF-RUI project (award No. 0911290) on the Navajo volcanic field (NVF). A prime impact of this project was to support the education and career development of undergraduate students by further developing basic knowledge and skills in the context of authentic inquiry on petrologic-based research topics. Integrating research into the curriculum promoted scientific habits of mind by engaging students as "active agents" in discovery, and the creative development and testing of ideas. It also gave students a sense of ownership in the scientific process and knowledge construction. A small group of students from this course continued their research as senior research projects as part of the NSF project.



Junior- and senior-level undergraduate students.

Class size

12 undergraduate students

How the activity is situated in the course

The initial phase of this project was conducted in Igneous Petrology at FLC in 2010. Twelve students were enrolled in this course which allowed them to work as a team in collaboration with the PI, and engage in all aspects of research to further develop and hone their skills in scientific inquiry. Five students were recruited from the course to design, develop, and conduct long-term research projects on selected topics related to the genesis of magmas and volatiles related to NVF rocks.

A view of Beelzebub, a mafic plug, exposed in Todilto Park, New Mexico. Details

  • Do science and develop research habits!!
  • Engage undergraduate student in authentic research that involved the design and implementation of a research project, and the collection and analysis of data to test existing hypotheses on the generation and evolution of mantle magmas that created the NVF.
  • Promote skills such as observation, critical thinking, and data compilation, and synthesis.
  • Collaborate with professional geologists besides the instructor.
  • Have a longer-term learning connection with a mentor than in other research formats.
  • Contribute new information and disseminate the results into the broader geologic community.
  • Enhance the education and successful scientific careers of undergraduate students at Fort Lewis College by teaching them basic knowledge and skills in context of a petrologic-based research project.
  • Introduce students to more advanced topics in Igneous Petrology. This subdiscipline at the undergraduate level has historically played an important role in the education of geology students, serving as a bridge to other key courses, and offering students opportunities to develop important skills in inquiry, observation, and analysis.
  • Promote liberal arts mission by using collective knowledge in the process of science.


This course involved a small component of traditional lecture in which selected topics were discussed to provide students with a foundation to understand magmatic processes. This was complemented by a comprehensive review of the literature in which students read and discussed a spectrum of articles on Tertiary magmatism in the western United States and the NVF. Invited lectures by leading-scientists in geology provided opportunities for discussions and interaction with professional geologists. All of the students in the class engaged in the active collection of petrologic data in the field and laboratory sessions, and were introduced to the use of state-of-the art analytical tools (electron microprobe, LA ICP MS) as part of their experiences.

Five students were recruited from the course to design, develop, and conduct long-term research projects on selected petrologic topics in the NVF. This research allowed these students to engage in the challenging process of testing existing hypotheses on NVF magmatism, and developing new ideas and interpretations. The combined outcomes of these research projects provided a collection of original data which have made important contributions to our understanding of the history of the NVF. All student projects served to fulfill a mandatory senior-thesis research project and the students were required to attend professional meetings to present their results. One of the students received an award at the Cordilleran-Rocky Mountain GSA Meeting in Logan, Utah in 2011 for the best undergraduate presentation. Dissemination of the outcomes of student research into the broader geologic community allowed the students to interact as peers in their field of study.

Contributions to the NVF Database

  • chlorine, oxygen, and carbon isotope data
  • microanalytical geochemical data on mineral phases (apatite, oliviine, perovskite, phlogopite, pyroxene, sandine)
  • insight into volatile types and trends (fluorine, chlorine)
  • additional bulk-rock geochemical and radiogenic isotope data
  • extensive petrographic descriptions

Educational Outcomes

Undergraduate students involved in this research obtained and disseminated new data from NVF rocks that further tested ideas about magmatism associated with the field, and provided new insight into the genesis and history of mantle magmas and volatiles in the middle Cenozoic on the Colorado Plateau. At the same time they learned more about scientific inquiry, and further developed as professional geologists.

The insight and values that these future geoscientists gained from research experiences early in their education and careers was critical to their professional development. This process infused students with a greater understanding of science methods and activities. The integration of classroom studies with applied research has a positive impact on the scientific awareness of students which stands to impact future decision of society, and communities in which these students live.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations

  • This type of research format requires substantial funding and resource support (e.g., instrumentation, collaborative network).
  • A transition from classroom research into more in-depth research projects requires a great deal of time and energy from the instructor.
  • Students must engage in a different style of learning that involves active participation and investment in the outcomes.
  • This type of project required several years to develop which is greater than a research project created around a one-semester course.
  • The progress of this research was hindered at times because of our dependence on instrument facilities at other institutions. This created scheduling issues for faculty and students and delays in research progress.

Teaching Materials and Assessment

  • Post-course assessment questions (Excel 39kB Nov22 11) to determine student perceptions and impressions; administered through SALG.
  • Instructors observations of student performance and behavior.
  • Instructor evaluation of student written products and oral presentations for projects.
  • Institutional summative course evaluations.
  • In-class surveys and activities to assess students understanding of scientific inquiry. An example is a survey (Microsoft Word 47kB Nov5 11) used in the first week to determine the preconceptions of students about scientific inquiry which was modified from the survey published by Kurdziel and Libarkin (2002).
  • A pre- and post-course assessment survey (Microsoft Word 26kB Oct30 11) of student interests, skills, and outcomes related to the course.
  • 16-point summative survey (Microsoft Word 43kB Oct30 11) to assess student attitudes and learning outcomes.
  • 21-point qualitative summative survey (Microsoft Word 32kB Oct30 11) to assess positive and negative impressions about course, and impacts on students knowledge, interest, professional development.
  • Post-course tracking of student success and career paths.
  • Professional contributions by student and faculty.


  • Reference list (Acrobat (PDF) 230kB Nov22 11) compiled by students for this research project.