Learning to integrate geophysics into engineering projects using a comprehensive set of interactive, online, scenario-based resources

All resources were conceived and authored by Francis Jones, Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, University of British Columbia. Dr. D. Oldenburg supported the original field and research work that inspired these resources. BCcampus funded development of the learning objects themselves.
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This is a partially developed activity description. It is included in the collection because it contains ideas useful for teaching even though it is incomplete.


In this four part interactive learning scenario, students work on the geophysical aspects of a project aimed at determining whether groundwater has been contaminated downstream of a mine tailings impoundment dam. Students make decisions about the relationships between geotechnical goals and geophysical properties, they choose and plan appropriate surveys, corresponding geophysical information is interpreted, and then results are incorporated into geotechnical decisions.

All necessary real and simulated information is provided online using interactive figures, text and quiz-like activities to help students construct the understanding necessary for making well informed decisions. Higher level thinking (such as making judgments about design or cost-benefit options) is facilitated using "action mazes", which are interactive workflow or decision-making activities.

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Learning Goals

A geotechnical project is described that involves assessing the effectiveness and sustainability of a mine site tailings facility. Four specific tasks are to 1) determine the location and depth of a buried pipeline, 2) estimate the volume of buried waste material, 3) characterize bedrock topography, and 4) determine whether a ground water contaminant plume exists. Within this context students will use basic background knowledge about applied geophysics to ...
  1. Practice integrating geophysical concepts into this full scale geotechnical project.
  2. Set up the geophysical aspects of each task, including establishing clear objectives and identifying how geophysics will contribute to the given geotechnical project.
  3. Determine which physical properties will affect the geophysical work, and which are most relevant to the four specific goals of the geotechnical project.
  4. Make decisions about which geophysical techniques are most likely to be useful, and design the surveys.
  5. Analyze corresponding geophysical data sets.
  6. Use results to help resolve all four aspects of the project.

Context for Use

These activities can be either assigned and graded, or run entirely as online self-directed learning activities. They were primarily designed as a kind of capstone exercise for students in their last few weeks of a one-term course on introductory applied geophysics for geoscience majors (geology, geological engineering, environmental science, etc.) The first and second parts are useful on their own, while the third and fourth parts can be considered as more of a synthesis project, assigned to individuals, pairs or small groups.

Description and Teaching Materials

The four coupled exercises are part of a 30-item collection of "learning objects" about applied geophysics designed for independent, self-directed learning. They are supposed to be self-explanatory and they incorporate interactive figures and a wide range of quiz-like activities. The context for the exercises described here was inspired by a real scenario at a real mine site, but figures, data sets, photographs etc. have evolved into a largely synthetic scenario designed expressly for educational purposes. Materials are entirely online, within a self-contained sequence, and the mechanics of the exercise reflect the web hosted environment. No external materials are needed.

Exercise are found via the following URLs. Each page gives the option of going straight to the resource or downloading a zip file with all it's components.

  1. Mine tailings 1 – setup: See http://urls.bccampus.ca/xr. This module provides an initial experience in setting up the application of applied geophysics for a typical geoscience task. The key component is an action maze decision-making activity, supported with readings and quiz-style activities with built-in checking of responses.
  2. Mine tailings 2 - physical properties: See http://urls.bccampus.ca/q9. Students participate in considering physical properties that will affect geophysical work at the project site. The key component is an action maze decision-making activity, supported with readings and quiz-style activities with built-in checking of responses.
  3. Mine tailings 3 - estimate calcine volume: See http://urls.bccampus.ca/q8. Students learn as much as possible from the geophysical data about ONE of the tasks at this project site. The key component is an action maze decision-making activity, supported with readings and quiz-style activities with built-in checking of responses.
  4. Mine tailings 4 - synthesis of all data: See http://urls.bccampus.ca/sn. Students practice using several geophysical information types to address four geotechnical problems, rather than learning about details of an individual method. This is the way most engineers and geoscientists will use geophysical information in their professions.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The original intent was to develop a sophisticated self-directed and self-assessed online learning facility that focusses on higher order thinking and decision making rather than simply delivering basic content about a subject. This is an ambitious goal. In practice we have found that the resources are effective but that students benefit from guidance regarding objectives and expectations. The activity's complexity leaves some room for confusion among novices, and it is wise to get students started in a lab-setting with instructors or teaching assistants present during students' first encounter with the work.

Another reason to consider running these in a lab setting is that "decision making" is more complicated than simply "knowing" some facts, figures, or techniques. For example, we have found that students take considerable time building confidence and skills at relating geophysical work to geotechnical problems via considerations of physical properties. They may quickly learn how geophysical techniques work and how to interpret data, but transferring these basics to real settings, and using physical properties as the link, seems to be more challenging.

Also, students see photographs and ask "is this a real place?" The answer is that the problem was inspired by a real situation but data and maps etc. have been optimized for educational purposes rather than to reflect reality.


Assessment is a particularly challenging issue when dealing with online resources that were designed for self-directed learning. We feel that it is more important to help students "assess their own progress" than to facilitate "grading" or "marking". Therefore, these resources address assessment in two ways. First, much of the work involves using resources to support activities that involve selecting, ranking or optimizing choices. Each activity, including the "action maze" decision trees, provides instant feedback to students, thus supporting their own self-assessment of progress.

Both optimal and sub-optimal decisions elicit feedback to the student so that they can "fail safely", thus learning from all decisions they make. To support external assessment, the third part includes the option for NOT including solutions to exercises so work can be handed in for grading (using solutions provided), and the fourth part is treated as a project with a suggested grading scheme, rather than as a self-assessed activity.

References and Resources

Incorporating these exercises into a course simply involves pointing students to the URLs and clarifying the purposes and expectations of the assignment. No external resources are needed.

However, other resources in the complete AGLO package may also be of interest. For example: