Enhancing Lectures with Interactive Data Explorations

Data Labs in the Classroom:

Teaching Tips from the Community

Dr. Meg Blome, OOI Data Lab Fellow 2020

photo of Meg Blome in a boat in an Alaskan fjordHello! My name is Meg Blome and I am a faculty member in the Geological Sciences Department at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. I teach an introductory Oceanography course to 50+ students who are mostly non-Geology majors taking their first college-level natural science course.

I also teach an accompanying, although optional, lab course where students have weekly assignments designed to take them out of the theoretical, diagrammatic textbook realm and into the real-world data environment.

However, only about half of the students in the lecture course take the lab, so I wanted to develop some exercises that could enhance lecture material and allow all students in the lecture class the opportunity to work with real-world data – without duplicating a lab assignment.

Using the OOI Data Labs provided such an opportunity. I used two tectonics-related Data Explorations to explore the frequency and causes of seafloor earthquakes: Plate Boundary Features and Seismic Features at a Seamount.

Learning Goals

My learning goals with this in-class activity were multifaceted. As a first-year professor in the Spring of 2019, I was genuinely curious what prior knowledge (and likely misconceptions) my students had regarding the intensity, depth, frequency, and causes of earthquakes. For this reason, I designed the student activity as a think-pair-share followed by a guided activity.

My learning goals for the students were two-fold:

  1. to have each student observe how certain oceanographic data are presented and the range of information that can be portrayed on a single map.
  2. to allow students over the course of the two activities to discover and then dispel on their own misconceptions regarding frequency and causes of earthquakes. (For this reason, some of the questions asked during the activity relate back to questions on the pre-assessment.)

The students began by individually completing a pre-assessment which included introductory questions on the topic. They were then asked to discuss their responses with a partner (a pre-COVID luxury!), and if willing, to share their initial thoughts with the class.

Following this, via a large projection screen, I navigated to the Plate Boundary Features Exploration.

screenshot of data interactive from Plate Boundary Features exploration

Screenshot of data interactive, Plate Boundary Features exploration

  • Despite teaching in a large lecture course, I wanted this to be a guided activity where I could nudge them along the way – and allow the students to give me direction based on where they thought we needed to explore.
  • We went through the questions as a class as I zoomed in and out on the map looking first at the scale, overall location, map keys, and timing.
  • By the end, the students were trying to interpret patterns and make speculations based on the data.

In the second part of the guided activity, we investigated a singular feature on the seafloor using the Seismic Features at a Seamount Exploration. The map view data were presented in the same manner as the first activity – bubble map with timeline. The questions were designed to have the students focus on earthquake causes using map patterns.

From the two activities, they could make comparisons between earthquakes caused by tectonic boundaries (linear earthquake distributions) versus magma movement below the surface (more circular distributions).

Student Experience and Results

First and foremost, I think the students enjoyed doing something other than lecture for a portion of the class period!

Addressing Misconceptions: The responses to the preliminary questions revealed that most students entered the class with a misconception regarding the frequency of earthquakes occurring globally, but overall students had a good, yet general, understanding of how earthquakes can occur and how they can be categorized by the amount of damage they cause. I expect much of their understanding comes from news sources after large events, which is why their estimates on earthquake frequency were very low.

The speculation questions in Activity 1 asked students to first estimate earthquake frequency per month in the small area off the NW coast of the US, then scale that number out to the entire globe, and divide by 30 to get a daily average number of earthquakes. Their responses were quite varied, but definitely showed that more earthquakes happen daily than they originally thought (and had written on the pre-assessment), which was pretty exciting. As we shared those calculation estimates, I remember seeing many students’ eyes open in shock – I am hoping it is something they will remember even after leaving the course!

Building Confidence: I noticed students were much more comfortable and ready to answer the questions on their own without much guidance by the time we got to the second activity. I think this was likely due to the fact that the data were presented in a similar manner to the first – they had seen it before and could make their own interpretations now. I think they were both surprised by and motivated by their new ability to interpret the data displayed. That confidence change was certainly inspiring to me!

Teaching Tips

Although this activity was completed in a medium-large in-person classroom, I think it could be used as is for any size class.

  • This activity could also be used without much adaptation for a synchronous online course.
  • For an asynchronous class or lab, it may need to be split into a “pre-assignment” and a second graded activity assignment, so you can be sure the preliminary questions are answered without prior knowledge of the subject. To mimic the think-pair-share aspect, you could use a discussion board through a learning management system and give a grade of “completed” or “not” for the initial inquiry.
  • The activity would need additional text or video explanations if it were to be delivered in a completely asynchronous virtual class or lab.

I recommend this activity for introductory oceanography, physical geography, or geology courses. As the primary focus of the activity is earthquakes on the seafloor, I also recommend completing this activity fairly early in the semester – prior to an in-depth lecture on plate tectonics.


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