Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Linking Physical Geography Education and Research through the Development of an Environmental Sensing Network and Project-Based Learning

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Linking Physical Geography Education and Research through the Development of an Environmental Sensing Network and Project-Based Learning

Article excerpt


Geographic education is more effective when students actively participate by developing hypotheses, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, and discussing results. We describe an innovative pedagogical approach, in which students learn physical geography concepts by analyzing environmental data collected in contrasting environments in Santa Barbara County, CA. The major components of this approach include a local network of micrometeorology stations (the Innovative Datasets for Environmental Analysis by Students (IDEAS network)), student field trips, a web portal ( and analysis tools which support student education and research. Examples of student work, graded rubrics, course evaluation scores, and instructor observations demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach. The most serious limitation is the high cost of equipment given the low number of students initially involved, a weakness that can be addressed through expanded use of this facility by other physical geography classes and institutions, facilitated by the IDEAS website, and increased enrollment in existing classes.


Effective geographic education includes active participation by students in the research process (Brey 2000; Carbone and Power 2005; Edelson 2001; Gautier and Solomon 2005; Hays et al. 2000). This approach translates the excitement we feel as scientists into the classroom, while providing tangible student experiences as a supplement to standard course materials. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) grant program supports many successful initiatives to improve undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Woltemade and Blewett 2002), but few of CCLI's successes have found their way into educational journals to stimulate further innovations. The CCLI program encourages institutions to "adapt and implement exemplary projects developed and tested at other institutions" (Woltemade and Blewett 2002). The development and implementation of the Innovative Datasets for Environmental Analysis by Students (IDEAS) project at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) Department of Geography represents such a CCLI project. IDEAS incorporates the deployment of micrometeorological stations along an environmental grathent in the Santa Barbara region, field campaigns in a variety of classes, and the subsequent exploration and analysis of data products via web, Matlab, and Excel interfaces.

In this paper, we highlight the specific pedagogical opportunities that deploying micrometeorological stations and utilizing the data in classrooms has afforded via a pilot course (G175: Environmental Data Analysis). We also describe the infrastructure and suite of tools developed to facilitate this process. The main research question addressed by this project was "How is undergraduate physical geography education and research improved through the use of a local environmental sensing network and project-based learning?". The instructional approach explicitly emphasized team formulation of research questions, data analysis, and oral presentation of results. We hypothesized that student learning would benefit from this instructional approach, because it purposefully incorporates the three learning domains specified in Bloom's Taxonomy: cognitive/ knowledge, affective/ attitude, and psychomotor/ skills (Bloom, 1956). The local environment serves as both the setting and inspiration for learning about environmental processes, gaining interest in the research process, and developing the skills to collect and analyze the data. We assess the success of the course using a variety of methods including student survey results, rubric evaluations, and course comparisons.


Expectations for physical geography students include understanding key concepts, learning to use relevant software, and applying refined problem-solving skills. …

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