Student research summaries can help guide activity development

Cover of the OOI Special Issue in Oceanography Magazine

Early on in our OOI Data Labs project planning, we had a big question:

Of all the data collected by the OOI, which datasets would really engage students?

The OOI has over a thousand instruments deployed across several Arrays, and all of those instruments are tasked with supporting a range of science questions, from the weather in the atmosphere to the seismic shakes of the seafloor. Somehow we had to narrow our focus, and find a way to identify datasets and research questions that students would be interested in learning about.

If you ask a science journalist (like Jonathan Corum) where they find their stories, you will often hear that they rely on published journal articles.  After all, if a paper has made it all the way through peer-review, it’s probably a significant story. In addition, it’s been vetted by several reviewers and authors, so many of the details and interesting tidbits have been described and are accepted as valid.

Back in 2019, there weren’t many papers written (and accepted) yet that included OOI datasets.  However, there was one key exception: Oceanography Magazine’s 2018 Special Issue on the Ocean Observatories Initiative.

The special issue’s introductory article provides a wonderful overview of the OOI, including a description of its design, instrumentation, and reason for being.  The rest of the issue features a number of stories on early research and some surprising results from its first years of operation.  However, while articles in Oceanography magazine are written for a “general” audience of Oceanographers, we found that they were often still difficult for undergraduates to understand.

Research Summaries by Students

So, to help us figure out where to start, we asked two undergraduate students to summarize some of the articles from their perspective.  In the summer of 2019, they provided us with this collection of OOI Special Issue Student Summaries.

Each of these summaries addresses the following questions:

  1. Why does this research matter?  That is, how might it be relevant to a typical undergrad student?
  2. What did the researchers find?  For example, what were the key results of the paper?
  3. And what are the larger implications of this work?  Or, to put it another way, why should students like you care about this?

As one might guess, just because a story is of interest to a typical Oceanographer – many of whom have had 5-10 years of academic training plus many more years in the field – doesn’t mean that it will be immediately understandable or relatable to a first or second year undergraduate.

This exercise helped us pinpoint a few articles and datasets that would be relevant and meaningful to students.  More importantly, it helped us focus our work on students.

Finding Datasets

At each of our Development workshops, we presented faculty with a copy of the Special Issue for ideas, and these example summaries for context.  This then led into a discussion where participants tried to identify datasets that were:

  1. Relevant to the course curriculum
  2. Possible of being explored with (available) OOI datasets
  3. Relevant and engaging for students

At times it seemed that these were mutually exclusive criteria, but such is the nature of data-based activity development.  In the end, the first two criteria were the hardest to satisfy within the context of the workshop, while also being essential for moving forward.

The third criteria is more subjective.  But if we want students to be engaged in our activities, we need to address it at some point.  Indeed, after identifying appropriate datasets, many faculty participants naturally turned to this question when writing their overall lesson plans.  And many faculty tried to identify a specific “hook” that would draw their student’s attention to the topic before diving in, just like a journalist would.

Focus on the Student

Our original goal was to turn these summaries into 1-pagers, that could be used to help faculty design their lessons, or as background reading for students doing the activity.  However, most of our development groups decided to work on different topics.

But based on this experience, here are some considerations I would recommend as we continue to work on developing data explorations in the future.

  1. The OOI has a lot of data available. However, not every dataset is relevant for lessons in undergraduate courses (especially introductory ones), nor is much of it of immediate interest to students, without support.
  2. Even articles like those in Oceanography, which are written towards a more general audience, have a lot of jargon or assumed knowledge in them, making them difficult for introductory undergraduates to understand.  If you ask students to refer to journal articles, they will likely need support in interpreting what they read.
  3. While finding viable datasets that are relevant to your curriculum is your a key priority, you will also need to make sure datasets will engage your students.  Start with the why (does it matter), find the hook, or otherwise make sure you have identified how it can be made relevant to your students, before writing up your full lesson plan.
  4. Include students in the process. The best way to make sure you are thinking about your students first, is to involve them in. Ask them to review articles (using the guidance above) and summarize them with their key takeaways into a 1-pager so you can understand what resonates with them.  Or have them play with datasets, or simply ask them to help identify related topics that matter to them and their peers. The key is to better understand where they are at, because as an educator, it’s probably been a while since the material was new to you.

In the end, while we can always hope that students will learn because we tell them things are important, if we can make datasets engaging, relevant and fun, it’s likely we’ll have a greater impact on their learning.  (Though figuring out how to test that is an exercise left to the reader 😉

By involving students in our development process, we found that they were able to help us vet various research topics and datasets.  We also gained a better understanding of the stories and research topics students might be interested in. 1-pagers like those our students developed could also be used to introduce future students to the topic as part of an activity, since they are written at their level.

So, if you are thinking about developing a new activity and wondering what datasets to include, we encourage you to consider asking your own students to help.  They could very well help you narrow the field to those research examples that, when turned into activities, will resonate most with your students.

Special thanks to Rutgers undergraduates, Devin Busono and Kasey Walsh, for putting in the hard work to get us started!