LearnLink and Internet enhance teaching of geology
When Emory College geosciences students turn in their research papers, they
have to go a long way to receive feedback---all the way to Dakota State
University via the Internet.
At first glance, the collaborative Internet initiative between Emory and
Dakota State University (DSU) seems like just another clever way to use
technology, but participants have found that the cross-disciplinary learning
project has helped students to think critically and communicate clearly
while they learn valuable computer skills.
Project developers Anthony Martin, a lecturer in Emory's geosciences program,
and Philip Sandberg, a professor from the College of Natural Sciences at
DSU, presented a paper on the project at the annual meeting of the Geological
Society of America in Denver on Oct. 30.
The project is tailored for Martin's undergraduate historical geology course
for nonscience majors, and for Sandberg's earth science course for elementary
education majors. At the beginning of the term, Martin's students write
a research paper on an aspect of earth history, then send the paper to a
DSU student for peer review and editorial comment. In turn, the DSU students
develop lesson plans for elementary science students based on Emory students'
research papers, then return the plans for peer review by Emory students.
Sophomore Lee Coker, who did his research paper on Georgia's Brevard fault
line, said that working with the DSU students was like "having your
own writing center. It was unique and neat, being able to send our papers
to DSU. They needed our feedback as much as we needed theirs."
The cross-disciplinary aspect of the project enabled Martin's class, composed
mainly of freshmen, to experience peer review for the first time, while
the upper-level education students at DSU had the challenge of preparing
lesson plans on complex scientific topics for elementary students.
Emory sophomore Helen Grigg, who researched the geological history of the
Alps, said "I wasn't proficient at writing science papers when I started
the class. As it turns out, concepts that I thought I had explained well
in my paper were not understood by the DSU students working with me. I like
the way they helped me to translate the terms into simple language."
Until he and Sandberg started the collaborative Internet project last year,
Martin primarily used Project LearnLink, an Emory enhancement of a commercial
computer software package, as a bulletin board for his students. Now Martin's
class also uses LearnLink for discussion groups and to access extra background
reading material that he regularly downloads from the Web. "LearnLink
essentially gives students access to me 24 hours a day," said Martin.
"I can send messages if they miss class, answer questions regarding
readings, post quizzes and extra background reading, and organize ongoing
group discussions." LearnLink also helps Martin assess, from the questions
asked by students and extra reading materials they access, whether class
members have an understanding of and interest in the material. The fact
that a grade is attached to their use of LearnLink also is an incentive
for students to explore the system.
Because geology is a very visual science, Martin also posts images on LearnLink,
then asks students to tell him what they can determine from the photograph.
For example, when the Hubble telescope transmitted brilliant photographs
of star clusters to earth, Martin simply downloaded the images from the
Internet and sent them directly to his students' mailboxes. "We were
discussing the Big Bang theory in class that week, so being able to examine
the images immediately helped students to realize that science is a living,
growing field of knowledge," said Martin.
With so much information at their fingertips and so many assignments outside
the classroom, it would be logical to expect students to be overwhelmed.
But they tend to view the technology as helpful. "I had a lot of questions
when I was writing papers," said sophomore Helen Grigg. "Instead
of waiting for office hours, I just e-mailed my questions to Professor Martin
and received quick responses." Coker said he enjoyed the independent
study nature of LearnLink. "Class becomes part of your life, not just
something you do 50 minutes a day---it's like having a classroom in your
room." But it's not all work. One popular discussion group that took
place all semester last spring was geology in movies, for example, the stratification
of the rock formations in the cliffs that surrounded Thelma and Louise as
they took their final plunge.
From his observations, Martin said the group projects over the Internet
help students to overcome their shyness, particularly female students. "Sciences
are still male-dominated fields, and I think that females can feel intimidated.
LearnLink gives them a safe medium for expressing themselves and helps build
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