Integrating Research Experience into Introductory Geoscience Courses

LAUREN SCOTT ( is a project manager at the Social & Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC), Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. KUSALI GAMAGE ( and LESLIE DAVIS ( are adjunct professors at Austin Community College, Austin, TX. KATERINA PETRONOTIS ( is an associate research scientist at International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), Texas A&M University, College Station, TX.

Since 2016, 158 students from Austin Community College (ACC) have participated in a day-long field activity at the Gulf Coast Core Repository (GCR) of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) at Texas A&M University (TAMU). TAMU operates the research drillship JOIDES Resolution for IODP, and the GCR houses >60 miles of sediment and rock cores retrieved from beneath the seafloor. This field activity, funded by the National Science Foundation with an Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Pathways into Geoscience (IUSE: GEOPATHS) grant, provides both science and non-science majors, including underrepresented minorities, an undergraduate research experience in their first two years of college.

Exposing students to research early in their college careers has many benefits. It promotes cognitive development (Lopatto, 2004); encourages effective development such as students' motivation, attitude, enthusiasm, appreciation, feelings, and values (Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia, 1964); and develops their sense of self (Bauer and Bennett, 2003). Moreover, research experience at the undergraduate level leads to greater retention of underrepresented students (Lopatto, 2004), and is recommended by the National Academy of Sciences (2011) as a way to increase transfer rates among underrepresented students to four-year colleges.

Our field activity is available to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) majors in an oceanography class and to non-science majors in a natural hazards class. For the first two years, the field activity was required for all students. More recently it was made optional for students in the natural hazards class, but was still well attended! In addition to visiting the GCR, students are expected to complete a pre-field activity, do a final presentation after the trip, and complete a retrospective post-survey. The survey measures student engagement in the geosciences and knowledge of geoscience and STEM careers. In offering this field activity, we find that students are encouraged to pursue science and research and that it can be easily integrated into an existing course curriculum. As noted by Cerveny (2015), experiences like our field activity at the GCR demonstrate to students the relevance of science and may increase their interest in pursuing a geoscience career.

Three weeks before going to the GCR, students are required to complete a pre-field activity on seafloor sediments. In groups of five or six, students work on inquiry-based exercises adopted from the JOIDES Resolution education and outreach website ( and the SERC website (, which guide them through a series of questions and ask that they make conclusions. As part of the pre-field activity, students use Google Earth to locate and access drill sites linked to their project. For example, students who worked on estimating sea floor spreading rates accessed data from Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 168, Juan de Fuca Ridge using Google Earth.

On the day of the field activity, students travel to the GCR to examine the ocean cores that they researched during their pre-field activity. While examining the cores, students describe sediments and rocks, identify lithologies and rock types, note microfossils, and create detailed sketches of the cores. In addition to viewing cores, students use microscopes to view the major groups of microfossils encountered in seafloor sediments. After examining the cores, students work with their group members from the pre-field activity to interpret the findings and revisit their original conclusions.

At the end of the field day, there is a panel discussion with IODP staff including research scientists, drilling engineers, laboratory technical staff, and publication and image specialists. Students have the opportunity to interact with the staff and learn about their careers. To encourage the pursuit of a four-year degree, we now invite a transfer advisor from TAMU to present the geosciences majors available and answer students' questions. While having an advisor was not part of the original project scope, students appreciate this opportunity and most of them are now requesting individual meetings with the advisor. Overall, we have received positive feedback from students regarding the GCR field activity. As one student commented in their retrospective post-survey, "I enjoyed the opportunity to see Geoscientists in their working environment. They all seemed to really love the work they do, and it was inspiring."

Once back in the classroom, each group collaborates on their presentations about the field activity. Students then give a 15-minute formal presentation followed by a 5-minute question and answer session. On the day of their presentation, students also turn in their pre-field work and the work they completed at the GCR. Student grades are based on all three components of the activity. To encourage students to work well in a group environment, 4 percent of the grade is dedicated to their overall attitude during the project.

This field activity successfully exposes students at ACC to the possibilities of a career in the geosciences. In 2017 and 2018, 92 of 115 students participating in the field activity completed the post-survey, for a response rate of 80 percent. Findings from the post-survey indicate that the program has been successful in cultivating student interest in science and research. Ninety-one percent (N=91) of students participating in the field activity agreed or strongly agreed that it was a good way to learn about the subject matter, Seventy-eight percent (N=90) agreed or strongly agreed that it had a positive effect on their interest in science, and 86 percent (N=90) agreed or strongly agreed that the field activity was a good way to learn about the process of scientific research. After the field activity, 38 percent (N=96) of students indicated it made a "great gain" in their understanding of the relevance of research to their coursework, Thirty percent (N=95) found that it made a "great gain" in their comfort in working collaboratively with others, and 28 percent (N=94) said that it made a "great gain" in their understanding of what everyday research is like. In written comments, students described the field activity as "inspiring," enlightening," and "a great learning opportunity."

The successful integration of the GCR field activity in course curriculum demonstrates that research is possible in introductory geoscience courses at two-year institutions, without a complete overhaul of an existing program. Other institutions can replicate the exercises used here or other core activities (e.g., available on by requesting cores from the GCR (

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1600177. Additional IODP/GCR support came from NSF grant 1326927.


Bauer, K. & Bennett, J., 2003, Alumni perceptions used to assess undergraduate research experiences: Journal of Higher Education, v. 74(2), p. 210-230.

Cerveny, N.V., 2015, Honing a healthy disregard for the impossible: Undergraduate research in the first-two years of college, NAGT: In the Trenches, V. 5(2).

Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S. & Masia, B.B., eds., 1964, Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook II: The affective domain: New York, McKay.

Lopatto, D., 2004, Survey of undergraduate research experiences (SURE): First findings: Cell Biology Education, v.3, p. 270-277.

The National Academy of Sciences, 2011, Expanding underrepresented minority participation: America's science and technology talent at the crossroads (accessed October 2019).


JOIDES Resolution website:

SERC website:

GEOPATHS Pre and Post Surveys: