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A Project-based Activity Leading to Experiential Learning

Interactive Spatial Analysis
Interactive Spatial Analysis
Danny M. Vaughn, Ph.D., CMS


Authors have long been interested and engaged in exploring the potential of student research as a way of learning science (specifically, Earth systems and interdisciplinary sciences) that uses geo-technique’s tools such as remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) for display and analysis of data. Four courses developed in Digital Earth Watch (DEW), a product of a NASA Research, Education, and Applications Solutions Network (REASoN), Grant # NNGO4GH14A, Measuring Vegetation Health ( are introduced in this essay as a basic example that can lead to more advanced research opportunities and experiential learning. Students who have successfully completed the courses, Exploring Spectral (Light) Interactions with Earth Features: Short Course (RS101), Exploring Spectral (Light) Interactions with Earth Features: Advanced Course (RS202), Earth and Environmental Changes from Volcanic Activity(VO101), and Earth and Environmental Changes from Volcanic Activity: Advanced Course (VO202), will be well equipped to address advanced experiential learning opportunities through internships with municipal, county, state, federal agencies, and private companies. Collaborative projects with agencies and companies may also spawn themes for science fairs, group colloquiums, community service, and ultimately employment. Completing both classification units in the advanced spectral module provides versatility and depth in conducting research projects. Many principles in applied Earth system’s science are introduced throughout the two volcanoes/temporal modules. When combined, the four courses ( provide a sound foundation necessary for more advanced learning experiences.

United States Educational Standing

One ranking of schools indicates the United States 49th out of 133 developed and developing countries in the quality of science and mathematics education. The United States was ranked 16th when compared to 17 peer countries in graduating scientists and engineers from colleges/universities. Science in grades K-12 in the United States has ranked well below many European and Asian countries for decades. Major agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have a history of supporting science education through the dissemination of learning materials and approaches to use those materials to reverse this medium to low ranking in science and mathematics. Major funding has been available to advance methods of learning, but success has been limited. A lack of major success in raising the quality of science and mathematics in K-12 education when compared with other nations is always subject to debate. It is clear however; that innovations in materials developed that enrich the interest and curiosity of science and mathematics is needed as part of a solution to elevate this countries standing as a leading competitor in a world educational community.

The authors of these modules have spent more than a decade acquiring and using greater than $1,500,000 of grants from NASA focusing on two major science and related discipline themes that can contribute to elevating the United States performance ranking in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Spectral Interaction and Volcanoes and Environmental Changes modules has focused on student-hands on involvement in display and interpretation of data acquired through remote sensing, and analyzed using modern geospatial techniques (e.g. remote sensing, geographic information systems) to address environmental and other issues in Earth systems science.

It has been our experience in evaluating grades 7-12 science courses that students have increased interest and improved performance in working with materials through hands-on modes, by using visual interpretation and computer-aided interpretation, particularly when specific questions or problems are being addressed. Addressing a properly developed science question promotes a structured method of problem solving to students, which usually requires application of methods/techniques while providing insights into an interdisciplinary system’s approach to learning. These modules address science learning as indicated, and in their own right advance science education by providing unique experiences in ways that engage student interest, which generally results in a higher level of learning.

These NASA funded modules address several science education needs, but they also prepare students to participate in our second and newer theme in science education materials development, which is developing instructional materials that focus conducting actual student research through experiential learning and project-based activities. Motivating student’s into research adds important new dimensions in science education by introducing opportunities to engage in actual issues in Earth system’s and related sciences. Experiential research with mentors actively engaged in professional day-to-day issues advances basic methods and techniques by actually engaging students in addressing questions and problems as part of learning science. A student research experience uses the materials provided in these modules as a starting point, but requires more advanced thinking, enhanced problem solving skills, use of the scientific method, and expanded use of techniques (both computer and visual) and instructional materials focusing on supporting hands-on work.

In a sense, research may be viewed as a type of game or competition where a student and teacher’s skills are matched against a research problem. There are no losers in this competition even if the research does not fully work out as anticipated since what is learned in conducting research provides experience in the scientific method of inquiry, which in itself authenticates a research effort even when a hypothesis is not accepted.

This set of modules operates within a hypothesis that the intensity for learning and the level of learning for students actually engaged in project-based, experiential research with all it challenges are significantly enhanced. It is also our hypothesis that widespread use of Digital Earth Watch, Learning Earth and Related Sciences through Student Hands-on Research can greatly contribute to student interest in science, and increase their level of learning through systematic processing and analytic thought.

Student Research Examples and Suggestions

Students that have worked through all the units of the Spectral Interactions Introduction and the Spectral Interactions Advanced courses will be reasonably prepared to engage in more advanced research projects. The two companion modules focus on volcanism with an example exploring land use/land cover changes associated with the eruption of Mount Saint Helen’s (time series from 1980-2005). Foundations of Earth surface and subsurface processes are explored through a basic introduction of internal and external energy exchanges. These two volcano/change detection modules provide insights into volcanic processes, post-volcanic eruption succession in vegetation recovery and land surface (terrain) changes, and the application of a variety of additional remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) techniques used to explore environmental changes following the historic 1980 eruptions.

The type of student research most easily supported throughout these units focuses on environmental and other Earth science-related topics that use readily available free data and spatial techniques (e.g. remote sensing using visual and/or computer interpretation) conducted within the structure of the scientific method. The content found within these four NASA-supported modules provides the insights and a fundamental knowledge base to initiate student research. Completion of more advanced level research will require additional elements specific to student-initiated projects, but a structure for analytic tools, data sources, and advice on how to proceed is also presented throughout these modules.

Student Research Prerequisites

Successful research results require the following skills at any level:

• An ability to observe, recognize, and formulate a research problem.

• Knowledge applying the Scientific Method as a broadly structured method of inquiry.

• An ability to acquire data to address a research project, and an ability to recognize what data is necessary and applicable to a particular research thesis.

• Some expertise in techniques needed to address a research problem.

• Some expertise in interpretation and analysis of data, and an ability to implement geospatial techniques to spatial imagery.

If one or more of the items identified above are missing, then any gaps in understanding and applying these skills must be fulfilled. Many of the key elements needed for a student to conduct research are available from the Internet. Some types of research projects may not be reasonable due high costs, limited budgets, data acquisition problems, inaccessible research sites, or too high a level of sophistication necessary to complete a project. Regardless, a large variety of potential research topics remain that can provide students with unique experiences that enhance their interest in science, knowledge of applied science, and problem-solving expertise. The knowledge and expertise indicated above may seem formidable for grades 7-12 teachers and students; however, the structure, materials, and suggestions for advanced work provided in the four NASA-sponsored modules and supporting essays provide a significant set of entry-level resources.

The following guidelines outline four basic elements needed to conduct research.

Scientific Method: The scientific method is a structured set of steps that provide a procedural blueprint for practically all research. It is a method of inquiry that consists of the following components:

1. Observations leading to identifying a problem.

2. Formulating a hypothesis to solve the problem.

3. Identifying materials, including data and instruments employed in resolving the hypothesis.

4. Establishing methods needed to experiment in ways that address a problem that include data collection and measuring variables necessary for further analysis, systematic observation, testing, organizing results, writing conclusions, and restructuring and retesting the original hypothesis, if needed.

A variety of discussions centered on the scientific method and it use is easily acquired using any of the common search engine found on the web and typing, Scientific Method. This should be the first assignment for students intending to engage in a research project. A good discussion is located as a hyperlink under, Topic 6, Unit VIII, Supporting Essays in Spatial Analysis, Science and the Scientific Method of Inquiry (

Data Acquisition for Research: All research projects require data (often free) to analyze which is accessible from the Internet or in hard copy from agency publications. For example, most of the data found in the materials developed in the four modules were acquired free. The Internet provided access to free Landsat data (imagery) and high resolution aerial photography. Local, state, and federal agencies provided hydrology, soils, land use, land cover, census, topographic, and other types of data in published hard copy and in digital format from sources found though an Internet search. Articles on all topics of research interest published through universities, various local, county, state, and federal agencies, and other scientists can be acquired in libraries as well as from Internet web sites. Never in the history of the world has so much information been available to anyone at no cost.

Students wanting to conduct research must become acquainted with acquiring data and methods through the Internet; however, not all data used in conducting research are available on the Internet or in published form. Some types of research must rely on original sources of data collection, or in many cases use both Internet and published data in combination with original data. Collecting original data such as measurements in the field can also be a major source of information for many types of research. Field collected data can include such variables as measuring tree diameter and canopy, sampling plants in plots, measuring tree height, measuring pH of water, measuring soil characteristics, etc. Inexpensive ways of collecting these types of data are also discussed using a search from any Internet engine.

Techniques Needed to Address a Research Project: Field and/or non-field acquired data need to be sorted, interpreted and analyzed as a critical step in focusing the components needed to address any research problem. A variety of techniques must be identified and considered, but the most appropriate must be selected for data interpretation and analysis with direct focus to a research hypothesis. In the four NASA modules students learn to visually interpret aerial photography and satellite imagery. Additional skills include learning to display and analyze remotely sensed digital imagery on a computer, interpreting topographic maps, digital elevation models, hydrology maps, and an introduction to other types of spatial data that can support student research. Many free software programs are available from the Internet that focus on image processing, geographic information systems (GIS), statistical analysis, and basic spatial modeling. More specialized equipment needed for some projects may be purchased for a modest cost (e.g. spectra-radiometer, small soil test kit, small water test kit, etc.) through department and school equipment budgets.

Interpretation and Analysis Using Collected Data: Once data appropriate to address a hypothesis or major problem have been identified and collected, and the methods/techniques needed to interpret and analyze data are identified, then the final step in research can begin. In the case study example (Wisconsin Lake Study Research Question Lesson), students apply MultiSpec image processing software ( to display free multi-spectral satellite images of the study area for visual interpretation, and learn to develop a cluster or unsupervised classification. Additional information such as aerial photos, published soil data, topographic maps, and census data are used throughout the courses. Chemicals from a school’s chemistry/biology department, or from pre-prepared test kits may be used to conduct many simple water, soil, and vegetation measurements in the field. Free statistics software can be downloaded from an Internet web site ( for use in student research.

Research Project: A Case Study

An example of a grades 7-12 student research project was structured, developed and presented at a NASA-funded Measuring Vegetation Health (MVH) workshop at Indiana State University (see Unit VII – Guidelines for Project-Based Experiential Learning, CASE STUDY: A Study of Water Quality in a Small Lake in Wisconsin). Teachers of biology, geography, Earth science, environmental science, chemistry, and physics were among the workshop participants. The goal of the workshop was to explore Earth system science research for potential use in classes implementing modern tools and techniques following the scientific method. One teacher participant was from northern Wisconsin whose school was located near a complex mixture of lakes, streams, forests, cropland, tourism, and forestry-based industry. A small study area was identified to establish a multi-disciplinary student research project to explore relationships between the water, chemical and physical properties of soil, land use and land cover features.

The scope, intensity of interpretation, and depth of analysis will depend on a projects level of difficulty, but even at an elementary level of difficulty, projects will go through all the steps required for scientific research; therefore, students and teachers will develop a better understanding for the position of science throughout the world, and how research is conducted. As a capstone project, a formal report including applicable images, classification output, maps, tables, charts, referenced literature, etc. should be assembled. An oral presentation should ensue. This project lends itself to a team, group, or class venture in keeping with the manner in which practicing scientists would participate.

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