Class Research Project: Visualizing Large-Scale Earth Processes and Abstract Concepts

This class research project is an original creation of James Ebert, State University of New York, College at Oneonta. It is based on the common teaching practice of modifying available materials.
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Initial Publication Date: May 2, 2007 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


In this class research project, students will:
  1. Conceptualize and develop at least one simple apparatus or model which will accurately model an abstract or large-scale Earth process.
  2. Further refine the apparatus to ensure that it is safe, easy to use, inexpensive, and constructed from materials that are readily available.
  3. Disseminate information regarding the developed apparatus to in-service teachers

Learn more about the course for which this activity was developed.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this project is to have pre-service Earth Science teachers bring the scientific method of research to bear on a pedagogical problem involving large-scale or abstract Earth processes.

Context for Use

This long-term research project is used in an upper level class for pre-service Earth Science teachers at a primarily undergraduate state college. Class size varies from 4-15. 4-8 weeks are devoted to the project, though most of the work takes place outside of scheduled class time. Students work in teams of 2-6. Completed projects are presented to the class and exceptional projects are presented in hands-on workshops at the state science teachers conference with pre-service teachers delivering professional development to in-service teachers.

Description and Teaching Materials

Pre-service teachers are introduced to the notion that many processes and concepts in Earth Science are either at a scale that is too large for students to grasp or are rather abstract and thus hard to grasp. They then choose a topic from the Assignment Handout and conduct original research to either develop an new model or improve an existing model. Successful projects have been shared in professional development workshops for in-service teachers.
Assignment Handout (Microsoft Word 32kB Apr13 07)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Because these are original research projects, it is very difficult to anticipate areas where students will either struggle or succeed spectacularly. Like your own research in your discipline, sometimes you just have to enjoy the ride!


Projects are assessed in terms of 1) how well they address the large-scale or abstract concept, 2) overall creativity, 3) reproducibility and cost. Excellent projects have been presented in hands-on, professional development workshops for in-service teachers.

References and Resources

See these two websites for examples of past projects:

Gilbert, S.W. and Ireton, S.W., 2003, Understanding Models in Earth and Space Science: National Science Teachers Association Press, 124p.

Ebert, J. R., Elliott, N.A., Hurteau, L.J., and Schulz, A.E., 2004, Modeling Convection: The Science Teacher, v. 71, n. 7, p. 48-50.

Ebert, J. R., 2006, Undergraduate Contributions to Professional Development in Earth and Space Science Education and the Mutual Benefits of Commingled Pre-service/In-service Programs: Geo. Soc. Am. Abstracts with Programs, v. 38, n. 7, p. 252.