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 confidence."

--Nancy Seideman

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