A Two-Week Guided Inquiry Project for an Undergraduate Geomorphology Course

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Use of inquiry-based projects is an effective strategy for preparing undergraduates for independent research projects as seniors and later in their professional lives. Students used to a lecture-based format must, at first, be guided through the inquiry process so they better understand what resources are available for research and how to design and conduct a research project. In geomorphology, the question, "Why do some streams braid and others meander?", provides a focus that motivates students to learn, generates numerous hypotheses to test, lends itself to being studied through a variety of resources, and is of sufficient importance in the scientific community to warrant extended investigation within the context of a traditionally content-heavy course. Adaptation of numerous inquiry-based projects in several courses sequenced through a major, each with increasingly less guidance, can provide a way of linking a student's first inquiry experiences in introductory courses with the tools and skills necessary to complete an independent senior research project.

Keywords: inquiry, geomorphology, research resources, stream tables

INTRODUCTION

Inquiry-based learning is a centerpiece of national K-16 science education reform efforts (National Research Council, 1996). Increasingly, undergraduate geoscience courses, particularly at the introductory level, are attempting to integrate inquiry in the classroom so students will become more active participants in the learning process (e.g., Martin and Howell, 2001; Lueddecke et al., 2001). Inquiry-based learning provides students with the opportunity to experience the process of how scientific knowledge is acquired rather than simply learning the facts acquired through this process. An understanding of science process improves student problem solving abilities, a highly desirable skill in the environmental job market (Harbor, 2000).

Establishing inquiry as a goal and integrating brief inquiry experiences in introductory geoscience courses are laudable, but fall short of providing geoscience majors with the practice and skills necessary to conduct a complete research project from design to data collection, analysis, and presentation. The teaching of inquiry must occur throughout the undergraduate experience in order to prepare students for senior theses and capstone projects, graduate research, and later professional opportunities. Because many students do not choose geoscience as a major until after entering college, they are often unfamiliar with the resources available to address research questions and how to synthesize the findings from multi le resources into a concise report. Instructors must, at first, guide their students through inquiry experiences so they become familiar with the resources employed in a given discipline, gain confidence in using them, and acquire the background and skills to design a research project in a novel situation. However, integrating inquiry-based projects into traditional lecture-based upper-division geoscience courses is often a challenge because of: 1) the necessary time commitment required in shifting pedagogical styles, 2) the difficulty in choosing which content to forego in order to accommodate a more time consuming inquiry format, and 3) the lack of professor skill and background with alternative instructional strategies (Harris, 2001).

This paper presents the framework for a two-week guided inquiry project for an undergraduate geomorphology course that offers students the opportunity to use five resources common to geomorphological research: field studies, topographic maps, aerial photographs, scientific literature, and stream table experiments. Students utilize these resources within a structured framework while investigating the question, "Why do some streams braid and others meander?". The project provides students with a nearly complete research experience in a time frame short enough to permit its adaptation into existing course or curricular frameworks where specific content information cannot be readily sacrificed. …