Although we didn't recognize it at the time, this project actually began on a summer day in Yellowstone National Park. Our students, primarily inservice teachers, had completed a fairly rigorous program of online graduate science courses, and this was the culminating field experience in which students applied their knowledge. The instructors were pleased with student performance; students successfully analyzed rock compositions and predicted weather trends. Then, the informal conversation turned to climate change. We expected that our students would draw on their coursework, scientifically analyze arguments, and produce informed scientific opinions on the current topic of public interest.
Unfortunately, "science" exited our discussion. If we closed our eyes and stripped away voices, we could have testified that we were listening to recordings of popular, but controversial, talk-show hosts. Why would students who demonstrated that they could scientifically analyze new situations suddenly revert to rhetoric? How could we, as online instructors, facilitate scientific analysis of current issues and promote understanding of the nature of science? We hypothesized that an online community of learners, who accessed scientific media and discussed the issue with their peers, might exhibit greater scientific understanding of this public issue.
Science instruction in online classrooms
Online courses are not only popular, but as research has confirmed, they can also be effective (Johnson, 2002; King & Hildreth, 2001; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009; Tallent-Runnels, Thomas, Lan, & Copper, 2006). The effectiveness is partially dependent on delivery method: Different online strategies have resulted in different student performance (Annetta & Shymansky, 2006). Effective online learning environments engage students' critical thinking, promote student involvement, accommodate differences, and motivate students (Fish & Wickersham, 2009, Zsohar & Smith, 2008). Learning-centered design can facilitate learning through collaborative discovery (Dykman & Davis, 2008; Magnussen, 2008) leading to greater student satisfaction (Appana, 2008).
Some of the biggest challenges in online instruction are the development of effective communication and the establishment of a collaborative community of learners. Understandably, online environments pose different constraints for student collaboration and for student-instructor and student-student communication. Although the inclusion of "community" can include either local community connections and/or online learning communities (Clary & Wandersee, 2010), the discussion board is the "heart and soul" of the online environment (Boettcher, 2010). The discussion board, as the primary online communication tool, should be designed to motivate students, promote higher-order thinking, and foster collaboration.
Climate change and the nature of science
One of the current scientific topics being discussed and politicized is global warming, or climate change. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment report in 2007, humans' role in carbon dioxide production and changing climate has been at the forefront of governmental discussions and political debates. However, the source material of some news stories is uncertain, and it can be difficult to determine whether media reports are scientifically based. In 2009, the hacked emails in University of East Anglia's "Climategate" scandal brought climate scientists' respectability and impartiality to the public's attention. Not only were people questioning scientists' recommendations, but scientific methodology and ethics were questioned also. Claims of data manipulation were levied, but subsequent inquiries largely exonerated the scientists, who were encouraged to share their data with critics.
Climate change is a topic to which most people have been exposed, if only through news reports. Some researchers chose climate change as the platform on which to teach the nature of science (Khishfe & Lederman, 2006). However, even if students had previous instruction in scientific climate research and the nature of science, retention of scientific views may be incomplete (Akerson, Morrison, & McDuffie, 2006).
Given the nonscientific performance of our students in the field, we felt an educator's responsibility to address that scientific deficit. Our online geology course, Earth History, offered a unique platform to investigate the climate change issue …