Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2016

Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Illinois Valley Community College

Information for this profile was provided by Michael Phillips, Natural Sciences & Business.

Departmental/Institutional Context

I teach at a medium-size (appx 4000 fte students and 80 full-time faculty) community college in a rural area of north-central Illinois. I am the sole geology instructor (full-time) and we also have one full-time geography instructor.

I teach courses in oceanography, natural disasters, physical geology, environmental geology, and historical geology. All of the courses are stand-alone, general education courses taught at the freshman-sophomore level. Some of the courses (the three with "geology" in the title) also serve as introductory transfer courses for majors.

I am in the division of Natural Sciences and Business. The Dean of our division reports directly to the Vice-President for Academic Affairs who reports to the college President.

Research Program Description

Within some courses, my students complete small research projects. My goal is to give them some practical experience that they can use to apply techniques or knowledge in future courses or in their lives. The best examples are in two courses.

In environmental geology, I have a capstone project where students must research and write a report on the environmental geology of the area around their home, including the natural resources and the natural and human-induced hazards. The goal for non-majors is to provide a template of factors to consider when they are looking for a place to live and/or work. The goal for majors is to give them an example of a property assessment project they might perform professionally.

In natural disasters, students must research and write a report on a natural hazard and how it impacts a city or town. The report must include a description of the hazard and city, the history of the hazard in that area, a risk assessment, the consequences, the local plans for addressing the hazard, and a critique of those plans. The goal of the project for all students is to develop the skills to understand the hazards they are living with (or might live with) and to think critically about how to address those hazards.

I am in the process of developing a third research project where students will plan, collect, and report on data they collect in the field. The data will be sensory data (smells and sounds), will be analogous to (and may be indicative of) the movement of contaminants through the environment, and will help students consider the impact of environmental contamination.

Outcomes and Benefits

Students are able to practice the application of the knowledge and techniques we cover in class. Students are also able to develop an understanding of how professionals might apply the knowledge and skills and some may decide to major in geology.

I have not done a formal assessment of the efficacy of these projects. Anecdotal evidence indicates that they achieve the intended goals. Students express a greater understanding of their surrounds and some adjust their behavior accordingly. A few students have chosen to major in geology after taking the courses.

Challenges and Solutions

The primary challenge is getting the students to devote the attention and time and personal resources necessary to do an effective job. This is addressed by making the project personal (they assess the area around their home or place they might like to live) and by integrating the work in the course (the projects are capstone project and take the place of exams).

Keys to Success

  • Make the projects personally relevant.
  • Make the project a centerpiece of the course.


Environmental Geology of the Area where you Live (teaching activity)

Natural Hazards Term Project (teaching activity)

Geoscience Projects That Bring the Community into the Classroom (essay)

Soon to come: Mapping the Environment with Sensory Perception