Inquiry-based modeling in Earth Science

Tuesday 1:30pm-2:40pm
Share-a-thon Part of Tuesday


Beth Dushman, Howard Community College


I will present the modeling templates and datasets used for these activities, as well as some examples of student models.


Two activities are presented here, both using the Model-Based Inquiry method, in which students are introduced to a phenomenon, model an explanation, test those models with real scientific data, and share and revise their models.

In the first activity, students create initial explanations for increasing hurricane damage in the USA. They then use web-based tools to investigate how hurricanes form and how surface temperatures have changed over time, and apply their new insights to revising and refining their initial models. Throughout the process, students work together to discuss their data and models.

The second activity uses the same modeling foundation, but uses the K/Pg mass extinction as the starting phenomena. Students use diversity curves to identify the mass extinction, then model potential causes. They are then presented with data about the mass extinction, such as distribution and composition of the boundary clay layer, distribution and ages of craters and large igneous provinces. After evaluating the data, students create and share revised models.

The learning outcomes for these activities are for students to model relevant Earth processes, to interpret graphs and analyze data, to practice several components of the scientific method, and to communicate their ideas to peers.


Both activities are used as laboratory activities in community college introductory level classes (Earth and Space Science and Oceanography for the hurricane activity and Historical Geology for the mass extinction one). The target audience is non-majors who are usually taking these classes to fulfill a general education science requirement.

Why It Works

These activities are particularly effective because they allow students to build their understanding of an Earth phenomenon by developing and testing models using real data. This practice helps students build many important skills: confidence in working with data, designing solutions, communicating ideas, and revising initial hypotheses. Students have increased agency in their own work, and practice skills that require more critical thinking and better represent a realistic scientific process, compared to traditional cookbook lab activities.
These activities were developed through the ACCESS Paleo Professional Learning Community (PLC). The ACCESS Paleo project, a collaboration between UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology and community college instructors, created a PLC to provide training, support, and feedback on the Ambitious Science Teaching practices.