Students Learn Geoscience by Researching the Perceptions of Classmates

Karen M. Kortz, Community College of Rhode Island

The geoscience education research project at Community College of Rhode Island allows students to participate fully in original research, from asking a research question to collecting and interpreting data and communicating their results, without requiring specialized equipment. This article describes this novel approach to undergraduate research and presents student reflections of their experiences. Full directions, handouts, and teaching tips are posted on the On the Cutting Edge website.

Because most college students take only one or two science classes, it is important that their experience meaningfully teaches them how science works. However, most students do not better understand the nature of science after taking a traditional science course (Abd-El-Khalick, 2006; Nadelson and Viskupic, 2010). The nature of science needs to be made explicit to them (Abd-El Khalick and Lederman, 2000), and a useful way to do this is for students to do scientific research and reflect on how their experience shows how science works.

This project begins with a research question: "What do other students think about _____?" Students fill in the blank with a geoscience topic that interests them. Although this project is based on geoscience education research, faculty do not need education research expertise to run this project. Students, who are usually not science majors, also enjoy the human component to the research, as illustrated by this student's comments: "[It] allowed us to see what other people thought about our topics and not just what the Internet and books say. This allowed us to have human insight."

One advantage of this project is that students participate in the entire scientific process from beginning to end and not just with pieces of it. Students do background research of the scientific perspective to their research question and develop methods (in this case, create a questionnaire) that help them answer their question. After collecting data using their questionnaire, they analyze it and make interpretations about their results. Finally, they discuss the implications of their findings and present their entire research project to the class.

Because many students are not familiar with the process of science, they tend to think of it as formulaic with no personal touch: "Before doing this project I thought that in order to do good quality scientific research we must follow the scientific process like a map, but in reality doing good scientific research involves more of working around problems we might encounter along the way."

Another student explained: "The research project introduced me to the idea of discussion of data. This is the most enjoyable and useful part of the scientific process, yet I was unaware of this step in the past."

Throughout the research project, I incorporate reflections on the nature of science. For example, when the scientific process of learning about the extinction of the dinosaurs and asteroids is discussed in class (Farkas et al., 2010), students relate their scientific journeys with that of Alvarez.

This project has the benefit of hooking students with a topic of personal interest. Students have explored wide-ranging topics such as what other students think about how mountains form, whether dinosaurs and humans lived together, and why geysers erupt. Because the topic is their choice, they are more invested in learning, and the results are more meaningful to them. As an illustration, one student wrote, "One of the reasons I enjoyed my project so much was because I really wanted to know the answer to my question."

I structure this project in my classes as a semester-long project capped by a presentation. However, this approach to geoscience research is flexible and can be scaled up or down. For example, I scale it up for students doing Honors projects with writing a scientific paper.

In order for students to experience giving constructive feedback as well as to lighten my workload, I have students peer-evaluate several checkpoint assignments. For example, students critique each other's questionnaires, using guidelines I provide. In this way, students get the benefit of peer review, and I get the benefit of lessening the workload for each milestone turned in. It is important to structure time for this feedback and for students to solve problems. Frequent deadlines have proven to be essential because students often do not realize the complexity of doing research—as shown by this student's comment: "There was quite a bit of a learning curve when it came to actually doing scientific research. I thought that the project as a whole would be more clean cut but it turned out to be far more complicated than I initially assumed."

The benefits of this project, and in essence, any undergraduate research is summed up by this student's reflection:

"This particular project teaches you to go out and collect data rather than sitting in front of a computer looking up info. It also helps you brainstorm and use your own creativity like a real scientist. When doing this, you are learning ... and using your own knowledge to put things together rather than just using info another scientist already put together."


Abd-El-Khalick, F. "Over and Over Again: College Students' Views of the Nature of Science." In Scientific Inquiry and Nature of Science: Implications for Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education, L.B. Flick and N.G. Lederman (eds.): 389–425. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Klumer Academic Publishers, 2006.

Abd-El Khalick, F., and N.G. Lederman. "Improving Science Teachers' Conceptions of Nature of Science: A Critical Review of the Literature." International Journal of Science Education 22, no. 7 (2000): 665-701.

Farkas, D., S. Hitomi, and J. Scotchmoor. Introducing the Understanding Science Flowchart, 2010. Retrieved February 2015 from

Nadelson, L.S., and K. Viskupic. "Perceptions of the Nature of Science by Geoscience Students Experiencing Two Different Courses of Study." Journal of Geoscience Education 58, no. 5 (2010): 275–285