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Undergraduate Learning Through Investigation and Research: the Geology Program at Carleton College

December 15, 1999
By Shelby Boardman, Charles L. Denison Professor of Geology

Introduction and philosophy

Carleton College and its Geology Department are fundamentally concerned with optimizing undergraduate student learning in the context of a liberal arts setting. Indeed, this is the principal goal of Carleton as an institution of higher education. The geology faculty are convinced that achieving this goal requires us to pay less attention to what students know than to how they come to know and how they use knowledge. This fundamental element of our departmental philosophy has guided us in formulating a curriculum and a pedagogical structure that maximizes the direct involvement of students in their own education.

What are the main ingredients of this approach? Establishing a collaborative culture is perhaps the most important prerequisite to creating an environment in which students are willing to participate actively in their own learning. By this I mean a classroom and departmental ethos that nurtures participation and sharing and rewards intellectual curiosity. To this end we have tried to create as non-competitive an environment as possible. Students typically work in teams on lab and homework assignments and in-class exercises. Support is provided not only by faculty, but also by a large cadre of junior and senior majors who serve as teaching assistants in all of our introductory and core courses. These TAs do not formally teach classes or labs, but they help answer questions, and are available outside of scheduled meeting times for assistance. They play an important role in passing on the departmental culture to new students.

A second ingredient is to insure that much of the work students do is investigative and open-ended. Most labs, even at the introductory level, require students to gather real data, discuss them with their teammates, and prepare a report that involves synthesis, integration, and interpretation. In many cases data are shared among teams and additional information must be obtained from outside sources to complete the assignment. Students must make decisions about how much information is sufficient and how deeply to dig into supporting material.

Third, we place considerable importance on developing good communication skills. In addition to the interaction between students on the same team, most assignments require a written report and many include some sort of presentation, either as a poster session, oral report, or both. Writing and reporting are valuable not only as skills students can use throughout their lives, but they also are useful in building community among students through the sharing of knowledge and common experiences.

Background and history: the Carleton context

Before going further, I should say a few words about Carleton and our students. The College is a highly selective, national, residential, four-year liberal arts institution of about 1800 men and women located in a small town just south of the Minneapolis-St. Paul urban area. The sciences at Carleton are exceptionally strong, as indicated by several statistics including the large percentage of students majoring in science or mathematics (about a third of all graduates), our national leadership in the number of graduates receiving NSF Graduate Research Fellowships (50 in the past 7 years) and the number going on for the Ph.D. in a science field (more than 8 percent of all Carleton graduates).

The geology faculty has increased from three to five over the past 25 years in response to the growth in the number of majors. In recent years we have graduated between 20 and 35 majors per year and have averaged about 25 per year for the past two decades. During this period we also have maintained an approximate balance between the number of women and men majoring in geology. Our physical space was recently renovated and provides students with an excellent working environment. Some labs have restricted access due to the nature of the work or type of equipment, but most have a very open arrangement that promotes interaction and communication.

What do we mean by investigation and research?

Before describing examples of investigation and research done by our students, I should explain briefly what these terms mean to us. Investigation can encompass any class or lab activity in which the student or student team has a role in one or more of the following: defining the problem, setting up the procedure, gathering data, searching the literature for relevant information, discussing and interpreting the results, and writing/reporting on the findings. Such activities range from in-class exercises lasting only a few minutes, to projects comprising the bulk of an advanced seminar course. What is being investigated need not be original and the instructor may frame the exercise rather tightly, but the common theme in all levels of investigation is a significant element of active student participation and judgement in the process.

Student research, in the context of our program, typically contains all of the components listed above for investigation, but also includes substantial original and creative work on the part of the individual student or team. Most student research in our department is conducted to fulfill the College's Senior Integrative Exercise graduation requirement described below. In addition, some independent studies and some class projects in advanced seminar courses represent legitimate research.

Examples throughout the curriculum

Hands-on, investigative work begins with our introductory geology classes. Those taught in the fall and spring afford students the opportunity to do extensive field work and several faculty build the labs around field trips designed to teach students how to actually do field geology. Student teams prepare reports on the geology studied that week, gradually building from basic observation and description through measuring and interpreting geologic sections, to creating geologic maps. At the end of the term, students write individual reports on the geology of southeastern Minnesota based on their field work. The instructor encourages them to use general references, but not specific sources on the local geology. In other words, these reports are the students' own attempt to describe and interpret the actual geology of the area, based on their own work.

In sedimentary geology, one of our core courses for majors, the instructor has integrated the classroom and lab and focuses on the study and interpretation of three local formations. The class and lab periods are on Tuesdays and Thursdays and run almost back-to-back, allowing for great flexibility with respect to time spent indoors and in the field. Students prepare a significant report on each of the formations, using information from field work, class discussions and lectures, and reading from their text and primary sources. Although these projects generally are not original research, some of the problems and questions encountered along the way may lead to follow-up independent studies or Integrative Exercise research.

Mineralogy also has an integrated classroom-lab format. Demonstrations, discussions, short exercises, and lectures during class time provide the conceptual background students will need to undertake their lab projects. Students work in teams on one- or two-week lab projects that help them develop both analytical and problem-solving skills in such areas as x-ray crystallography, phase equilibria, and optical crystallography. Teams commonly are asked to share data with the entire class in order to obtain a data set large enough to make meaningful interpretations. In some projects, different teams undertake different exercises and present their results to their classmates. Two of the projects are mineral suites from unknown geological environments. The students not only identify the minerals using the techniques they have learned in earlier labs, but then follow up with a short literature search on the geology of that environment. Both the mineral identification and the geology summary are included in their reports.

Many of our upper level courses are thematic, investigative seminars, typically with fewer than a dozen students. The theme for a recent advanced geomorphology class was the characterization of the Spring Creek watershed, which encompasses part of the campus and a significant part of Northfield and the surrounding farmland to the east and south. This watershed is in transition from rural to urban and one goal of the class was to design a monitoring program for the watershed hydrology. The class also investigated bank erosion on College property that resulted from a 1998 storm and made a presentation to college officials that will result in a much lower cost to 'repair' eroding banks than had been anticipated.

The Senior Integrative Exercise (Comps)

By the time geology majors are seniors, they are ready to undertake a major independent, creative piece of work, the Senior Integrative Exercise, or "Comps." In most cases this amounts to a senior thesis. We try to prepare students for this capstone experience by gradually ramping up the investigative dimension of their work throughout the curriculum. At each level, students are asked to increase the degree of sophistication with which they attack geological questions. Projects become longer in duration, the primary literature takes on a progressively greater role, reports involve higher levels of integration and synthesis of information, and students assume more responsibility for the actual conduct of the class itself.

For most students the Comps process actually begins in the spring of the Junior year, when they select a topic and prepare for summer field research. This work may be conducted in a variety of ways. Students may work independently, under the guidance of a faculty advisor, they may team up with one or more students to undertake a larger project, as long as each person identifies a part of the whole that is his or her own. Some of these projects are supported by local, state or federal agencies. Several students each year work with alums who need field assistants for their own master's or doctoral theses. These students typically carve out a small research project of their own that is related to the larger project of the alum. Carleton faculty commonly include students in their own research as junior collaborators, allowing them to tackle an appropriately scaled problem that is in some way related to the faculty member's work.

Research continues during the school year, with laboratory work, library research, and writing. Drafts are reviewed by the faculty advisor and the final paper is submitted at the end of winter term. The faculty provides guidance along the way: each Comps proposal is read by at least two faculty members and there are group meetings during winter term to discuss writing and presentation. In addition each faculty advisor meets with his or her advisees individually and in groups while the on-campus work proceeds. In the spring students present the results of their research at formal seminars modeled after technical sessions at professional meetings such as the Geological Society of America Annual Meetings. Many student research projects are also accepted for presentation at such professional meetings and occasionally a student has a manuscript accepted for publication. All Comps papers are bound, catalogued, and placed in the Carleton Library.

Over the past dozen years Carleton has been fortunate to be a member of the W. M. Keck Geology Consortium. This group of twelve liberal arts college geology departments, with the generous support of Keck and other foundations, provides about 50 to 60 students per year an opportunity to undertake individual research projects. In a typical summer about six groups of 8-12 students and 3-4 faculty from the participating schools spend a month in the field investigating various geological problems. Each project focuses on a specific problem, but each student selects an individual topic for his or her research. The consortium holds a symposium every spring to provide a venue for students to present the results of their research. About five Carleton students per year do their Comps as part of a Keck project.

Critical elements for success

It should be clear from all that I have said that the Carleton Geology Department places great importance on giving our majors ample opportunity to actually function as scientists. But being able to do this is not easy. We have worked hard to insure that our curriculum brings students along gradually and prepares them for the challenges of the Comps exercise. Most come through the experience wonderfully, and after a brief time for recuperation and reflection, consider the Comps to be their most valuable undergraduate experience.

There are several ingredients that must be present for the investigation/research approach to student learning to succeed. Perhaps most important, students must be amenable to this open-ended approach. They must be tolerant of the frustrations that arise from trying to work intensely with others and with less than perfect data. A cooperative student culture that rewards intellectual curiosity and an eagerness to explore and discover are also necessary.

We have found that having an extensive network of alumni and friends of the department beyond Carleton is very helpful in connecting students with appropriate research projects. Many of our graduates were supported by other alums when they were students and now are eager to reciprocate. Faculty from departments with graduate programs find that giving our majors a chance to work with their research group or use analytical equipment not available at Carleton is not only a valuable service to the science, but also a wonderful opportunity to attract potential high quality graduate students. In some cases support is available through the NSF-REU Program, but our department also has sufficient resources to help defray many student expenses.

Pitfalls and limitations

The investigation/research approach we have adopted for our geology curriculum at Carleton may not fit many departments, but elements of it should be transferable. Faculty must have the time to advise undergraduate research, a commitment that can be significant. Many research projects require equipment and financial support that are not available at most schools, but this limitation can be offset at least partially through careful project design and access to necessary equipment at nearby universities.

Carleton students benefit from a low student/faculty ratio, but it should be possible for most schools to create group investigation labs even for fairly large classes. Our introductory geology classes that explore the geology of southeast Minnesota, for example, commonly have as many as 48 students and one instructor.

If a department is going to create research opportunities for undergraduate students, it is absolutely essential that the potential for student success be high. Whereas a good research experience may be valuable in many ways, a failed experience at the undergraduate level may damage a student's self esteem and turn the fledgling scientist away from further attempts to do research or other independent work. To minimize the possibility of failure and maximize the chances for success, faculty must provide appropriate guidance throughout the process, especially during the formulation of the proposal and the early stages of the actual research. Each student's needs are unique and the faculty member must steer a careful course between being too involved and directive and too distant.

One of the biggest potential hurdles to open-ended group lab activities encountered by other schools is scheduling. Many schools enroll significant numbers of part time students or students who must work half-time or more. Some courses must be offered in the evenings and extended field trips may not be feasible. In these cases lab assignments may need to be completed during the lab period. Asking students to get together outside of lab time to discuss their work, do extra library research, and compile a group report may not be possible. But with creative use of class and lab time it should be possible to incorporate some investigative components into the course.


Although we have not conducted a formal study to assess the effectiveness of the investigation/research approach, a variety of statistics strongly suggest that it is highly successful. Over the past quarter century, Carleton's Geology Department has graduated an average of about 24 majors a year with a faculty that has averaged about four. Roughly 15-20 percent of all students who take an introductory geology course go on to major. About 75 percent of our graduates eventually pursue an advanced degree. Our ability to attract equal numbers of women and men to the major seems to be closely linked to our departmental atmosphere, philosophy, and pedagogy. There is no difference in the proportion of women and men graduates who eventually earn the Ph.D., contrary to national trends. Roughly 25-30 percent of our graduates eventually go on to earn the Ph.D. or other terminal degree (e.g. MD, LLD), a greater number and proportion than from any other liberal arts college. An average of more than one graduate per year has received an NSF, Fulbright, or Watson Fellowship. Finally, alumni who have remained in the earth sciences and those who have pursued non-science careers report that the experience they had in the Geology Department served them very well in graduate school and beyond.


For more than 25 years the Geology Department at Carleton College has followed an investigation/research oriented approach to student learning. We believe that this method has been largely responsible for the ongoing success of our program, as indicated by our number of majors and the success of our graduates. Most science departments, if interested, should be able to incorporate at least some investigation/research elements into their curriculum as long as faculty take into account local realities and are willing to move away from content-driven courses.

Dr. Boardman prepared this article for the Proceedings of the annual meeting of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, in Minneapolis in November, 1999.