Inquiry-Focused Exercises Using Digital Technologies

published Feb 28, 2017 10:12am

Digital technologies, and particularly mobile technologies, have become an integrated part of the social framework of our society. A consequence of this social evolution is that our students view digital devices and communication as an integral part of their environment. Thus, it is advantageous for educators to incorporate digital technologies as important components of student learning, especially if they encourage student-centered inquiry through individual and group projects.

We want to clear the air on the nature of inquiry in education before discussing classroom integration of digital technologies. Regrettably, many associate inquiry with negative learning outcomes when viewed solely as a "free" discovery activity. However, we agree with Hmelo-Silver et al. (2007) that properly scaffolded and guided inquiry is characteristically scientific. When instructors structure inquiry learning to facilitate students' posing of questions, gathering and analyzing data, and constructing evidence-based explanations, they are engaging students in fundamental scientific practices (NRC, 2012).

Student-centered inquiry using digital technologies is an important theme in the NSF-funded Google Earth for Onsite and Distance Education (GEODE) project: Over the past few years, Dr. Whitmeyer and his GEODE project team have developed several inquiry-based exercises, targeting general education students as well as upper-level geoscience students. One example uses the Pangaea Breakup Virtual Field Experience ( for a guided inquiry exercise in a 100-plus students general education Physical Geology class. The Pangaea Breakup animation consists of a master KML file that runs in Google Earth, with which students can view the movement of continents from 200 Ma to present. Students have control of the animation, such that they can view the global positioning of continents at any point in time from any global viewpoint. The animation also provides data on Paleozoic mountain belts, faunal distributions, glaciation evidence, ocean floor ages, etc. to allow students to reconstruct the evidence for the theory of plate tectonics.

For the Physical Geology exercise, students bring their laptops to class, after having first downloaded and installed the Google Earth application. Though not all of the students in the 100-person class have laptops, enough students bring laptops to enable 3-4 person groups for the exercise. In class, students download the Pangaea Breakup KML file and load that into Google Earth. This requires enough bandwidth in the classroom for all of the laptops to load Google Earth and the KML file, but once loaded the animation runs mostly offline. Students are provided with an exercise handout that uses multiple choice questions to guide the students through various datasets relative to the development of the theory of Plate Tectonics. The key here is that the students are in control of the animation, allowing them to explore global tectonics with some guidance from the instructor and teaching assistants. In this way the instructor are providing the scaffolded guidance to facilitate inquiry.

There is an additional, more advanced exercise that uses the Pangaea Breakup animation to explore plate movement through analyses of the Hawaii and Yellowstone hot spot chains: The Pangaea Breakup animation includes individual volcano icons that have age data for each hot spot volcano in the chains. Students measure the present-day distance of the hot spot volcano from the respective modern source (Mauna Kea or Yellowstone), and then graph the ages and distances in Excel to determine the rates of plate movement for both the Pacific plate and the western part of the North American plate. Synthesis questions ask students to compare and contrast the movement rates and directions of the two plates.

Scaffolded and guided inquiry in the geoscience classroom should follow three basic principles (Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007). First, guided inquiry should involve opportunities for students to collaborate with others (e.g., instructors, teaching assistants, and knowledgeable peers). Second, such learning should center on epistemic practices, in this case using digital tools (e.g., Google Earth) to construct knowledge in the way that geoscientists do. Third, scaffolded and guided inquiry should assist students to self-direct their learning within a context and with clear broad goals, such as allowing students to control digital animations to facilitate exploration of the evolution of spatial patterns over time.

The Pangea Breakup Virtual Field Experience is a great example of how properly scaffolded, student-centered inquiry can engage students in authentic practices. Digital technologies and instructor guidance affords students the opportunity to engage in complex tasks that would otherwise be inaccessible (i.e., due to the remote nature and global scale of the field experience). Furthermore, using digital tools in this manner puts students squarely in the role of a contemporary geoscientist. Students can therefore deepen their understanding of both geoscience knowledge and how scientists actively construct knowledge, both of which are critical as each student becomes a well-informed citizen equipped to address regional and global socio-scientific problems.


Dordevic, M. and Whitmeyer, S.J. 2015. MaRGEE: Move and rotate Google Earth elements. Computers & Geosciences, v. 85, p. 1-9, doi: 10.1016/j.cageo.2015.09.04.

Hansen, T., Swanger II, W., Whitmeyer, S.J., and Dordevic, M. 2016. Using Google Earth to investigate plate tectonics and the breakup of Pangaea. GSA Abstracts with Programs, v.48, no.3.

Hmelo-Silver, C.E., Duncan, R.G. and Chinn, C.A. 2007. Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational psychologist, 42(2), pp.99-107.

NRC [National Research Council], 2012. A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press.

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