Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Teaching Environmental Geochemistry: An Authentic Inquiry Approach

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Teaching Environmental Geochemistry: An Authentic Inquiry Approach

Article excerpt


A field-based environmental geochemistry course was developed at Western Michigan University for undergraduate geosciences and environmental studies students to (1) improve student understanding of complex environmental systems, specifically targeting lake systems; (2) facilitate student development of professional-level, field- and laboratory-based skills for lake water and sediment analysis; and (3) strengthen student teamwork and communication skills. In this course, students designed and completed a study of water quality in a local kettle lake. The instructor used short "question of the day" exercises, brief lectures, and in-class exercises to familiarize students with analytical and field techniques relevant to the posed problem. At the end of the semester, students presented their work in a public poster session and written report submitted to a local community association. The course was assessed using student work, a preinstruction experience survey, a postinstruction course evaluation, a pre- and postinstruction knowledge test, and a series of interviews with select students. Analysis of the full suite of assessment data suggests that students developed a significantly improved understanding of lake systems and the process of eutrophication and perceived that the course improved their analytical and interpersonal skills. However, lower-performing students (i.e., those with a lower grade point average) and students with weaker backgrounds in geochemistry tended to provide less sophisticated test responses and showed less ability to transfer knowledge gained in the course to other environmental systems. Overall, students reported a strong sense of satisfaction with the authentic inquiry and community-oriented nature of the course. Compared to students in the first year of the course, students in the second offering appeared to be somewhat less excited and engaged, which may reflect a perceived lack of novelty and new discovery about the field site and study question. Thus, to insure continued high levels of engagement of students in subsequent years, we recommend periodically shifting either the field site or the central research question addressed by the class. © 2012 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/11-273.1]

Key words: eutrophication, teaching biogeochemistry, biogeochemical cycles, limnology, authentic inquiry


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011), geosciences and hydrology employment opportunities will continue to expand at a faster rate than average for all occupations. Furthermore, geoscientists "must be inquisitive, able to think logically, and capable of complex analytical thinking, including spatial visualization, and the ability to infer conclusions from sparse data" (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011, "Other qualifications," para. 3). To prepare for these career opportunities, students need practical experience in designing field data collection and analysis protocols for complex, spatially and temporally heterogeneous environmental systems. However, traditional geochemistry courses that rely primarily on lectures and problem sets frequently employ decontextualized descriptions of data collection and analytical methods. Laboratorybased courses focused on analytical techniques do not typically consider the nuances involved in designing and carrying out field-based scientific investigations. Many students find the "cookbook" approach used in traditional, laboratory-based courses boring and disconnected from the natural world (e.g., Osborne and Collins, 2001).

In addition to gaining practical field and laboratory experience, students must learn to effectively communicate scientific results to peers and to the public to be adequately prepared for geoscience careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011), geoscientists entering the workforce need to be prepared to work in teams and must have excellent oral and written communication skills. …

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