Student-designed Authentic Research Projects in a Non-major Environmental Geology Course

Prajukti (juk) Bhattacharyya, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
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Initial Publication Date: August 8, 2014 | Reviewed: December 29, 2014


Student-designed, data-based authentic research projects can be useful tools for incorporating a dimension of authentic research in non-major science courses. Such an approach has been followed in a geoscience course for non-majors at UW Whitewater. Students worked in pairs and selected a research topic on a local environmental issue, wrote a research proposal, collected, analyzed and synthesized data, and presented their research in a public poster presentation session. They critiqued their peers' proposals and posters, and assessed their own learning. Student self-assessment reports indicated that they found such projects to be personally enriching. Students reported significant learning gains from participating in this project. Such an approach can be applicable in a variety of courses for promoting student engagement in science classrooms.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Three-credit, lecture-discussion based Environmental Geology course for non-science majors with no pre-requisites. Geography/Geology majors can enroll in this course as an elective.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

No skills and concepts are required before beginning the project.

How the activity is situated in the course

The project is worth 45% of the total course grade. The entire project is a sequence of activities spread throughout the semester. A week-by-week breakdown of project activities during a 16-week semester is shown as a table (attachment 1).

All projects were required to:
a) Be locally based, meaning students should be able to visit their study location(s) as and when necessary
b) Generate new knowledge beyond reading, reviewing and analyzing existing literature on the research topic


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Since the students were responsible to self-select their research topic(s), the content goals are variable. However, in general, I wanted students to learn about:
Benefits and challenges of recycling
Importance of water and/or energy conservation
Benefits and challenges of renewable energy initiatives
Importance of taking personal action

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Data collection, analyses and synthesis (this was the focus of the project)
Plot data on appropriate graphs, and interpret trends (if present) from graphs
Formulate appropriate personal action plans to address the specific environmental research question they picked at the beginning of the semester

Other skills goals for this activity

Work efficiently with one other person, and equally divide the workload
Write a research proposal with a partner following guidelines provided by me (see attachment 2 for proposal guidelines)
Review proposals of other students and provide constructive feedback
Prepare and present posters
Review posters of other students
Write a self-assessment report

Description and Teaching Materials

Project components throughout the semester (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Aug8 14)
Communicating with project partner (Microsoft Word 33kB Aug8 14)
Guidelines for writing project abstract and proposal (Microsoft Word 41kB Aug8 14)
Peer review checklist for proposal and poster review (Microsoft Word 39kB Aug8 14)
Grading scheme for poster presentation and self assessment (Microsoft Word 32kB Aug8 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity works best for small classes (20-24 students). I would also recommend that the instructor provide common themes for students, or otherwise there is a chance that the instructor might end up having to mentor 10-12 different research projects, and that is simply not feasible.
Also, I had to constantly remind students about due dates for each project component... even though it was clearly listed on the syllabus, they needed to be told that they had to work on it at least a week before the due date. Since two-or three students worked on the same project, that helped them to coordinate meeting times outside of class.
I allotted class time for working on poster making. It was helpful that our department had a computer lab and willing upper level students for assisting with making and printing posters.
Finally, this project was highly popular with students, and pretty much everyone claimed to have learned a lot. However, it was a HUGE time and energy commitment for me having to keep track of every aspect of the project for every student. Instructors with a 4X4 load, or those having more than 2 course preps per semester may want to avoid using this model.


Every part of the project (abstract, proposal, poster, self-assessment) was graded following the grading schemes provided as supporting materials

References and Resources