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Developing Scientific Literacy in Introductory Laboratory Courses: A Model for Course Design and Assessment
Journal of Geoscience Education
  • Benjamin E Surpless, Trinity University
  • Bushey Michelle, Trinity University
  • Mark Halx
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Although science educators at all levels have focused on teaching students scientific literacy for nearly five decades, studies indicate that the average student remains far from scientifically literate. To address this issue at the local level, faculty at Trinity University, in San Antonio, Texas, significantly revised the curriculum of an existing introductory physical geology laboratory course. The course, which satisfies general education requirements at Trinity, was revised to provide students learning opportunities in a scientific process context as part of a new science literacy initiative. This effort was spurred by general dissatisfaction with the existing curricular structure of the course as well as a new interdisciplinary, National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded initiative to support the integration of research-grade instrumentation in curricula and undergraduate research across campus. The physical geology laboratory course revision was based on research that demonstrated the efficacy of learning through active participation, interpretation, iteration, and reflection, especially when knowledge and skills are gained within an explicit scientific process context. In addition to significantly revising laboratory activities, we added new activities within the course framework that involved the use of two new, NSF-funded instruments, including a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF) and an inductively coupled plasma–optical emissions spectrometer (ICP-OES), which we used to improve student understanding of qualitative and quantitative elemental analyses. Finally, we introduced the use of a new course reader that provided both background materials for each activity as well as a new focus on providing a scientific process context for students. To assess student learning, we used in-class observations, student–instructor discussions, pre- and postlearning questionnaires, prelaboratory quizzes, course activities completed during class time, modified postactivity reflection questions, practical examinations, and a final examination. We also included faculty, staff, and administrator perspectives to qualitatively assess the impact of course changes upon student learning. Our results imply that students achieved the primary learning goals we developed for this scientific literacy initiative, including: (1) improved understanding of the scientific process and the nature of science; (2) improved understanding of qualitative and quantitative elemental research methods; and (3) improved understanding of the applicability of scientific research to real-world problems. Importantly, our findings suggest that the integration of research-grade instrumentation into introductory coursework, in a scientific process context, is an effective way to promote scientific literacy as well as to provide opportunities for students to understand and apply the knowledge and skills necessary to perform scientific research. We believe that this example of a significant course redesign provides a model that can be transferred to other geosciences departments as well as to other scientific disciplines.

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Benjamin Surpless, Michelle Bushey, and Mark Halx (2014). Developing Scientific Literacy in Introductory Laboratory Courses: A Model for Course Design and Assessment. Journal of Geoscience Education: May 2014, Vol. 62, No. 2, pp. 244-263.