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A Model for Inquiry-Based Experiential Learning

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The need for a well-educated, informed, and progressive society has become a critical issue when comparing the international community with the rather low academic results reported for K-12 students in the United States. National and international reports bear witness to these results with statistics that are troubling. Education can be formal such as what occurs in a classroom, laboratory, field investigations, on-the-job, or a result of life’s experiences. An informed and educated person is one who recognizes, respects, and values a world of diverse cultures, races, and religions. Learning is a combination of innate and formally taught skills that enable a person to acquire information (factual and conceptual) and knowledge (understanding) necessary for leading a productive life. Formal education and learning are not mutually exclusive. Learning begins when a person develops a sense of curiosity for the world. This is initiated by sensory observations, grows, and matures through a lifetime of experiences. Questions spawn, raw data is collected, assembled, organized, and when rendered useful, it becomes information. An analysis results in understanding, which by extension becomes knowledge. Knowledge aids in decision support, problem solving, and ultimately an enhanced appreciation for the affairs of the world. These steps from curiosity to questioning to a systematic process of inquiry should form the foundation for a lifetime pursuit of knowledge. Formal education should reinforce this process through a rich variety of learning experiences.

A unique range of tools is presented in this brief to supplement the traditional textbook-based classroom-learning environment. A step by step sequence of inquiry, project-based, experiential learning is illustrated with two examples that can be structured and applied to any region of the world. A wide range in the level of difficulty of materials developed will provide educators with the flexibility to develop learning activities that are challenging and unique in their approach through the development and use of highly sought after skills in spatial analysis. Visual image and map interpretation, field and data collection techniques, computer enhanced digital image processing of remotely sensed imagery, geographic information systems (GIS), and global positioning systems (GPS) are among important geospatial skills. These tools are applicable for general science, Earth science, geography, ecology/biology, environmental science, geology, physics, chemistry, and other related disciplines.

A model is presented for inquiry-based, experiential learning with example exploratory questions designed for small groups to full classroom-sized learning situations. The basic model includes:

1. Identify a research question(s) and form a single hypothesis or multiple working hypotheses.

2. Establish the basic structure (design) for the research.

3. Identify non-field collected data needed to address the hypothesis/hypotheses.

4. Identify pertinent field collected data needed to address the hypothesis/hypotheses.

5. Determine the tools and techniques needed to address the hypothesis/hypotheses.

6. Collect, integrate, process, interpret, and analyze pertinent data.

7. Conduct a final assessment and organize the results into a structured report (oral and/or written).

Goals and Objectives for an Introductory Level Learning Exercise

At this level the goal is to introduce students to the scientific method of inquiry through a structured set of steps from which they can begin to develop basic observation skills that lead to questions culminating in a hypothesis or multiple hypotheses. Specific objectives might include:

• Identify resources necessary to address research problems.

• Develop skills in resource acquisition through library and internet search engines.

• Develop basic laboratory skills in image and map interpretation.

• Develop positioning skills from maps and imagery as a means of locating oneself in the field.

• Identify features in the field, making comparisons to available maps and imagery, and formulating questions leading to research problems.

• Develop basic data gathering techniques in the field.

An example of basic questions that address a project: Identify water sources near agricultural and industrial regions:

• Is there a significant environmental impact to identified water bodies from living around a large city, agricultural community, or heavy industry?

• What impact does a highly populated region have on the air and water quality?

• What impact does living around a large number of people in a heavily industrialized region have upon the health of the population?

• Do chemicals enter into the ground water, ponds, lakes, or streams at a given location?

• Do these chemicals pass into the food chain?

• How would one establish factual data to confirm or refute a hypothesis that agricultural or industrial areas pollute water supplies?

An example of basic questions that address the project: Locate an optimal site for a water storage reservoir.

• Is there a need to develop a water storage reservoir?

• What purposes would justify building the reservoir?

• What physical and environmental factors must be considered?

• What political factors must be considered?

• What societal factors must be considered?

Hypotheses would next be developed that seek to provide basic answers for these questions.

Once a number of general problems have been identified, questions proposed, and hypotheses suggested, a research design can be created. Organizational questions identifying specific resource data such as maps, imagery, and written literature comprising background information are identified. The uniqueness of this approach to learning must be in the introduction and implementation of spatial analytical skills using traditional printed imagery (aerial photographs), digital satellite imagery, maps of varied thematic content, and an initial introduction to geographic information systems. It follows at a basic level these instruments employ an understanding for spatial associations of location, distance, and direction, size, shape, and pattern. The actual field and laboratory work might be more suitable to more advanced investigations. Some elementary data collection, a review of literature, image, and map interpretation techniques, and basic spatial associations are introduced and performed at an introductory level. The basic steps of scientific inquiry would be followed as a guide for proper research techniques.

Goals and Objectives for an Advanced Level Learning Exercise

At this level the goal is to more closely implement the scientific method through a rigorous investigation that builds upon the actual field and laboratory investigations, culminating in a formal written and oral presentation of the research findings. The projects mentioned in the Introductory Level discussion can be small groups (typically 2-3 students), or they may involve an entire class in which each member is responsible for a specific component in the research design. The projects can be set up as a capstone course, senior thesis, science fair project, or community partnership. Working with small groups will serve to illuminate team work comparable to that of what occurs in local, county, state, and federal agencies. Specific objectives might include:

• Students would be required to establish a relationship with an agency through interviews with working professionals.

• Identify specific personal in agencies that have the expertise to assist in obtaining data and information pertinent to a research issue.

• Develop advanced skills in data acquisition through Internet and traditional library searches.

• Develop higher level methods of inquiry, analytical data processing, thinking, and reasoning skills through the refinement of robust field and laboratory observation techniques, data collection, analysis, culminating in a well-structured written and oral summary of the work.

An example of advanced questions that address the two projects: 1. Identify water sources near agricultural and industrial regions. 2. Locate an optimal site for a water storage reservoir.

• How do the chemical (pollutants) enter into the water?

• How would a source area for pollutants be identified?

• What specific tests and measurements are required to obtain significant evidence that there is a pollution problem?

• What are the health risks of any identified pollutants?

• What is the geographic distribution of pollutants?

• What should be done to mitigate these issues?

• How much discharge from perennially flowing streams is necessary to fill a reservoir?

• What impact does the regional climate have on recharge rates and the time of replenishment of water loss due to evaporation and draw down?

• What is the surface area covered by a filled reservoir, and how is it determined?

• What impact will a reservoir have on the natural environment?

• What impact (economic and cultural issues) will a reservoir have on a population of people surrounding it?

More robust level hypotheses are developed that seek to provide answers for the questions that center around what would be harmful or beneficial to the development of a reservoir; or to begin to understand the impact on population, industry, and agricultural practices to air and water pollution.

Organizational questions identifying required maps, imagery, and the written literature specific to a particular question are addressed. More advanced analytical and data processing skills are developed at this level including: digital image processing of multispectral remotely sensed data, map interpretation, and terrain modeling using a computer driven geographic information system (GIS). Classification and image enhancement techniques and the use of a GIS enable highly sophisticated methods for analyzing multiple variables. This can be performed in a manner that enables investigators to visually understand the complex nature of the environment. Field data collection would also be necessary to provide measured evidence and to confirm image and map interpretations.

Spatial analytical processes (GIS) such as overlay analysis, creating buffer zones, cut and fill, Boolean (intersect, union, etc.) and mathematical operators, map algebra, and numerous additional spatial data queries can be performed to assess environmental problems. These include: finding distances, proximity, computing density, pattern recognition, summarizing zones, creating histograms, tabulating areas, neighborhood statistics, and reclassifying regions. The combined use of image processing and GIS are the foundation for understanding the interactive nature of natural and societal processes operating throughout the world, and their utility is employed in practically every natural resource agency and private corporation on the planet. The advantage of this approach to learning inculcates a competitive level of analytical processing and scientific competence necessary to understand the nature of human interactions with the natural environment, and how we function as an international society.

Applicable literature, aerial photographs, satellite imagery (multi-spectral and hyper-spectral), local and regional topographic maps, digital image processing software, and spatial modeling (GIS) software are available on line (Internet) free of change. Some basic supplies such as global positioning systems (GPS) receivers for determining accurate location, data loggers for measuring water pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and basic air and soil test kits could be purchased through a school budget or small educational grant. Specific sources for data and software are available from the advisory staff and scientists acting as a supporting cast for the schools and faculty.