Inquiry and Discovery-based Projects Within Introductory Courses

Information compiled by Monica Bruckner, SERC

REU students investigating slaty cleavage development in a Precambrian turbidite sequence, 2010 Yellowstone REU project. Photo credit: David Mogk

Inquiry and discovery-based projects, including field studies and interactive laboratory activities, can engage introductory students, majors and non-majors alike. These activities appeal to the affective domain and develop students' metacognitive skills. Hands-on, inquiry-based projects in the field allow students to observe their environment and to apply their classroom knowledge to the real world. When combined with data collection, students are able to take this a step further and take ownership of the data they collect and learn how to analyze that data to make sense of Earth processes. When fieldwork is not an option, classroom-based inquiry and discovery-based projects in the laboratory or virtual learning environments can still help students to apply their knowledge from various disciplines to solve problems and to relate what they learn in class to real-world situations.

Benefits of Inquiry and Discovery-based Projects

There are many benefits tied to integrating inquiry and discovery-based projects into the classroom. These experiences tend to be interactive and engaging for students, engaging the affective domain, which generally increases students' motivation to learn, confidence in their ability to learn, and ultimately retention of knowledge and development of skills. In addition, here are several other benefits to using inquiry and discovery-based projects in the introductory-level classroom:
  • Students learn concepts more deeply than in lecture-based classes because they have more direct experience.
  • Students gain a better understanding of the processes of scientific inquiry because they do primary research.
  • Students learn field and lab skills that are difficult to incorporate into traditionally-scheduled classes.
  • Student resumes are filled with evidence of skills, report writing, publications and professional presentations.
  • Students make direct connections between understanding Earth systems and managing the actions of human society.

How to Incorporate Inquiry and Problem-based Learning into the Classroom

Measuring water displacement
Two students measure the density of different rock types by first measuring water displacement of the irregular pieces. Details
Whether you're designing a handful of activities or your entire course around integrating inquiry and discovery-based learning, these tips and considerations, compiled from the Undergraduate Research module, may aid in your success:
  • Identify your learning objectives and goals and design your activity around these. This will help solidify students' conception of why they are doing the work. Learn more about learning objectives.
  • Determine your project needs. This may include considering the time commitment you need to carry out the project, both in and out of class; what types of instruments you will need; travel considerations for off-campus field projects; and depending on the nature of the project, whether you need your department or college's permission to carry out the project.
  • Set expectations for both you and your students and provide proper scaffolding for the activity. Remember that intro students may not have all the background knowledge and skills required to complete the project without your help and that they may struggle with the process of science when things don't turn out as they intend or expect them to. Informing students about the process of science may help alleviate students' frustrations when things go unexpectedly. In addition, developing a rubric for assessment may aid in aligning your expectations with those of the students.
  • Consider how much and what type of support you will provide your students. Students learn a great deal from problem-solving on their own and through trial and error, but in some cases, it may be beneficial to provide students with guidance to alleviate their frustration when things don't go as expected or if they are struggling with the next steps.
  • Develop your assessment prior to the activity and make sure students understand how they will be assessed. Developing a rubric is one example of a straight-forward, organized way to do this.
  • Extend the experience. This can be done through a classroom discussion of what students learned through the project, whether it is knowledge gained or skills developed. Students could also develop their presentation skills by disseminating their findings to others via a department seminar, a presentation at a professional meeting, or if it is a service learning experience, students can disseminate their findings to the community through a newspaper article or by giving a presentation.

Teaching Methods

Several pedagogies can be employed to integrate inquiry and discovery-based projects in the classroom. Courses and projects can be designed around the pedagogy itself, or it can be used as a subset of the course, such as a culminating class project.

Service Learning

Service–learning energizes and engages your students to practice the concepts and skills you want them to learn by addressing problems that are important to your community. Their learning takes place in the context of the local region that many of you call home. Student retention can improve because of this community link. Students own their observations and data and can be more easily led to quantitative analysis. Students get a better idea of what life may be like as geoscientists when they graduate. For you it may be a chance to leave behind some well-worn labs and homework sets and try a new approach to teaching. You will become more of a mentor and facilitator as your students become more confident, independent learners. Working with community partners you will have a positive impact upon your community, one that you or your chair can describe to the administration.

Guided Discovery Problems

Students working on guided-discovery problems, like true scientists, sequentially uncover layers of scientific information one step at a time and learn new concepts as they do so. Through intriguing puzzles to solve, structured hands-on activities, carefully worded leading questions, crucial hints, and just-in-time presentations of information, guided discovery problems escort students step-by-step through the discovery process, giving them a tantalizing taste of the most delicious part of science.

Campus Based Learning

All campuses have links to climate through rainfall landing on the campus grounds. All campuses have links to surface water as water lands on impervious buildings and parking lots. People travel to the campus by automobile and bus, which add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Education at most institutions does not link to the local context, yet the actual buildings and grounds can be studied, analyzed and even manipulated for research and education. Campus-based projects can provide hands-on, real-world projects that link to service-learning and civic engagement programs. Campus-based learning can also be accomplished even without a field trip budget or transportation.

Experience-based Environmental Projects

Experience-based environmental learning is an opportunity to learn through one's own lifestyle and actions. In a sense, each student is their own laboratory. Experience-based environmental projects offer a way for students to apply classroom topics like energy use, global warming, water quality and land use to their own lives, and to realize that although these issues may be global or regional, they ultimately have roots at the individual level. Experience-based projects also provide an attractive alternative to traditional assignments and appeal to students with a wide range of learning styles and levels of intellectual sophistication. Many students welcome the challenge to use their own lives as an experiment.

Field Labs

Field labs are extended (more than one hour), structured, outdoors, scientific investigations aimed at observing, collecting and recording data. Field labs are related to, but distinct from, other interactive investigations carried out in the field, such as student and student-faculty field research, field trips, field lectures, etc. Field labs introduce students to complex natural systems, break down barriers among geoscience fields, encourage multiple observations, and introduce students to the geologic history and geography of the area near their campus.

Investigative Case-based Learning

Students structure their own learning using the "story" of the case as a problem space. Although the case defines the general area of geoscience under investigation, students generate questions based both on their interests and prior knowledge that relates to the topic of study. Investigative cases are useful for lifelong learning because they are open-ended and draw from a broad range of situations in which scientific reasoning can be applied. Investigative cases necessarily shift the focus of student learning beyond the facts to include using scientific knowledge to frame questions and to answer them.

Undergraduate Research

In an undergraduate research experience, students collaborate with faculty on actual research projects, learning about both a particular topic in a field and the research process in general. The advantages of undergraduate research to students include but extend far beyond developing research methods skills. Through the engaged learning that occurs, students develop in both cognitive and affective respects, strengthen personal and professional skills, and develop more focus to their career and graduate school aspirations. Evidence shows that undergraduate research can strengthen a faculty member's teaching and research, advance knowledge in a field, and improve retention. Undergraduate research can also offer meaningful contributions to the campus and community when it produces results and policy recommendations that leaders can reflect on in their decision-making.

Case Studies

See specific case studies that incorporate undergraduate research into the classroom, laboratory, and field at the introductory level.