Geoscience education research project

Karen Kortz, Community College of Rhode Island
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Initial Publication Date: August 8, 2014 | Reviewed: December 29, 2014


Students complete a scientific research project including asking a question, developing methods, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting data, and communicating results. The research question begins "What do other students think about _____" and students fill in the blank with a topic that interests them from the class. Although it is geoscience education research, it involves students in the process of science while learning about a topic of their choosing, making it an effective learning tool for all students.

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This project was initially designed for an introductory geology class for non-majors. However, it can be adapted to apply to a variety of geoscience undergraduate courses (including courses for majors and courses for teachers). I used it in a class of ~30 students – it can definitely be used in smaller classes, but classes that are significantly larger may require some modifications (e.g. poster presentation instead of powerpoint presentation, possibly some help to give students feedback, group work instead of individual work).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

This project is a semester-long project resulting in a final presentation. There are checkpoint assignments throughout the semester to ensure students are on track.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal is to have students learn the process of science while learning a topic of their choosing, which will vary by student.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analysis of data
Synthesis of ideas
Evaluation of results
Generation of conclusions and recommendations
Critique of peer work

Other skills goals for this activity

Presentation (The activity is written to be an oral presentation, but it can be modified to be poster or written presentations as well)
Working in groups

Description and Teaching Materials

The supporting materials for this activity included are: 1) Directions (Microsoft Word 76kB Sep15 15), 2) Handouts of checkpoint activities (Microsoft Word 69kB Sep15 15) supporting the project, 3) Evaluation rubric (Microsoft Word 53kB Aug11 14). Supporting material to turn this into a poster presentation (directions and rubric) are given here.

Students are given the directions at the beginning of the semester. These detailed directions tell them the intermediate checkpoint deadlines as well as what they are expected to do at each step. Throughout the semester, they complete a scientific research project from start to finish, beginning with coming up with a research question and ending with presenting their results. The directions are written for students who do not have experience with doing these different components of scientific research.

There are four checkpoint deadlines throughout the semester where students are expected to complete a different step of the project. Activities are associated with each of these four steps. These activities are designed so students can give each other feedback on their progress, which helps to alleviate the burden on the professor. In addition, these checkpoint assignments require students to reflect on how their project is currently going, and it allows them to make changes, reflecting the often non-linear aspect of science.

An evaluation rubric is provided for the final powerpoint presentation. In addition, students evaluate and give feedback to each other on their final presentations, and that form is included as well. Students are not expected to produce publishable-quality results, but their results generally are interesting! This activity emphasizes the process of scientific research and not necessarily a publishable end product.

The key to this project is that students are doing research, and this process relates to the many fields within the geosciences. The detailed directions and level of results expected of students make it so all instructors can use this activity, not just ones who are knowledgeable about geoscience education.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Additional information about each of the checkpoint activities

  • Timing of Activities – The timing during the semester of the checkpoint activities can vary from the dates given in the Directions. The times given were chosen based on two considerations: 1) Making sure students had enough time between activities to complete the required work, and 2) Seeing which of my labs could be adjusted to have a little extra time for the activity. You may adjust the timing of the checkpoint activities to fit your schedule.
  • Research Question Activity– 30 minutes – Students work individually and then in groups looking at example research questions provided and then critiquing each other's questions. Regarding the example research questions, the ones that need improvement are (a) because is too vague and open to be a good question and (d) because it uses jargon that students are not familiar with (although this might be taken care of with a good questionnaire question). After students finished revising their research question, I collected the questions and wrote my own comments on them as well. The time involved for me to review and comment on the questions was about 2 hours for ~30 students.
  • Questionnaire Activity– 30 minutes – Students work in groups looking at example questionnaire questions provided, writing questionnaire questions to address a given research question, and then used the guidelines provided (cut the page in half) to critique each other's questionnaires. Regarding the example questionnaire questions, the ones that need improvement are (a) because is too vague and open to be a good question, (c) because it uses jargon that students are not familiar with, and possibly (e) because the numbers don't necessary give a good indication of student thoughts about time. After students finalized their questionnaire, I collected them and wrote my own comments on them as well. The time involved for me to review and comment on the questionnaires was about 2 hours for ~30 students.
  • Data Analysis and Interpretation Activity– 20 minutes – Students are given 18 student responses to a given research question (cut up the page with the table of responses), and they are asked to analyze the responses by dividing them into piles or themes. They are then asked to graph their results. After all students have created their themes, I had the groups share out with each other. There were similarities between the groups, but they were not exactly the same, which is okay. Students then examine each others' analyses and graphs or tables. I did not collect this activity or add my own comments.
  • Slides Activity– 20 minutes – I have a separate demonstration and mini-presentation earlier in the semester where I give students a handout and specific feedback on creating slides, so by the time students create slides for the project, they already have experience with creating effective slides. If you do not do this, you will need to give the students more guidance. I did not collect this activity or add my own comments.

Tips on good research questions

Within the directions, there is a list of ideas for research topics for students, and this list includes successful questions students have asked in the past along with other suggestions. In general, simple questions are better (an example of a question that was more complex that was more difficult for the student to analyze is: What do students think about how blocking rivers from reaching the ocean affects the rocks and beaches?). Also, questions that ask about facts tend to be less interesting (an example is: What do students think is the fastest dinosaur?). Finally, questions with a technical words often get un-interesting responses since students are more inclined to respond with "I don't know" (an example is: What do students think about continental drift?). Questions that ask about how something formed or why something happens are often good questions. As students are doing research on the scientific understanding of their research question, some will change their question, and this is okay -- there are lots of dead-ends and restarts in science!

Finding information

You may direct students to find information from a variety of sources, such as their textbook, Wikipedia, or scholarly articles, depending on your goals for the project and your class in general and the level of your student. If you would like your students to do background research on what has been previously learned about misconceptions on their topic (I don't do this, but it may be appropriate for some classes), then you can direct students to find this information as well, if it's available. Even if there is published research, the students' research will be unique, because they will be researching a different student population than what had been researched in a published study.


In order to continue the emphasis on the process of science, I recommend that some sort of follow-up reflection is included for students to respond to. Examples of questions to ask are: how the student personally benefited, how it was the same as or different from expectations, how their ideas of how science is done changed, how their attitudes towards science changed, how this project affected their knowledge and attitudes compared to a more traditional book or internet research project, etc.


  • Presentation format– The directions and guidelines here are given for a powerpoint presentation as a final product. However, it can easily be modified to be a poster presentation or a written paper, depending on the class size and the goals of the class (See EER presentation: Implementing the Geoscience Education Research Project as a Poster in Intro Courses for directions and rubric). Both of those would require different supports to ensure the students can effectively communicate their ideas. For students in my class who wanted to do an Honors Project, I had them write a scientific paper in addition to giving an oral presentation.
  • Data collection– The directions are for students to use a questionnaire with one question to collect their data. It was done this way to simplify the process for the students and instructor. Students may want to include more than one question on their questionnaire, and that is fine, as long as they know it's not required and they will have more data to analyze (although they will also likely have more interesting results). In addition, depending on the student body and goals of the class, student could conduct interviews to collect data, instead of or in addition to the questionnaire.
  • Relating research questions– Although one of the strengths of this activity is that students can pick a topic of their own choosing, instructors may have students work on related but different questions, so they have a larger data set allowing for a more in-depth interpretation.


I use the attached rubric to grade the final presentations. The level of achievement for lines in the rubric will depend on the student body and expectations of the instructor. I include a class discussion near the end of the project about the scientific process of Alvarez when learning about the extinction of the dinosaurs (see resources), and I have students relate their own scientific journeys to that of Alvarez. I also used a follow-up self reflection, asking students to relate what they did for the presentation to the process of science.

References and Resources

An example of an activity that introduces students to the scientific process (in this case it is about the extinction of the dinosaurs and asteroids) is: Introducing the Understanding Science Flowchart by D. Farkas, S. Hitomi, and J. Scotchmoor. It can be found at:

Karen M. Kortz & Katrien J. van der Hoeven Kraft (2016) Geoscience Education Research Project: Student Benefits and Effective Design of a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience, Journal of Geoscience Education, 64:1, 24-36, DOI: 10.5408/15-11.1

Katherine Ryker & Karen M. Kortz (2018) Implementing the Geoscience Education Research Project as a Poster in Intro Courses, Earth Educators Rendezvous, 2018.