College Students Experience Oceanographic Data Collection and Analysis
Introductory science courses are often a mix of lectures and “paint-by-number” labs where students work through a series of steps to arrive at a predefined conclusion. From the standpoint of delivering content and information, this approach has merit. It does not, however, reflect the actual process of research, which involves questioning and making observations and hypotheses, and collecting and analyzing data.
For an Introduction to Oceanography course at Peninsula College, a small community college in Port Angeles, Washington, a goal was set to incorporate a healthy dose of inquiry-based data collection and analysis, ideally using research-grade instrumentation, in order to accomplish four objectives:
- Keep the class appealing for students in order to increase motivation and raise overall scores.
- Encourage students who seem particularly interested to consider careers in ocean science and technology.
- Expose those students who will move into ocean science or technology professions to some potentially useful technology and skills.
- Teach skills beneficial in nearly any profession through the group problem-solving associated with field data collection, combined with organizing and analyzing data in common software packages like Excel.
To meet these objectives, an activity was formulated for the class: design, build, deploy, and recover oceanographic “moorings,” each with an instrument “package” composed of data loggers designed to collect time-series of data.
Resources for purchasing equipment at community colleges are typically scarce, so the instructor took a creative and conservative approach to bringing these introductory-level students into contact with research-grade measurement equipment. As it happened, a small research project in Washington’s Strait of Juan de Fuca (Rubin, Miller et al., 2011) had recently begun utilizing HOBO Pendant® Temperature/Light data loggers from Onset, a Massachusetts-based company. That effort had clearly demonstrated for the community college that the data loggers were robust and reliable, and at $42 per logger, affordable.
With the help of a small grant from a local marine life center, Peninsula was able to obtain ten HOBO data loggers. The class then scraped together a few buoys, some line, tape, old plastic bottles, and rubber bands and, with tools assembled, got to work.
Divided into three groups, students built their moorings for use in shallow water (generally less than 20’) at a community pier and deployed the data loggers on the moorings to measure temperature and light at various depths. The sturdiness of the HOBOs allowed students almost complete latitude in designing mounts for their loggers – something that wouldn’t have been possible with more expensive or delicate instrumentation. The act of building the moorings became an engineering challenge that the Introduction to Oceanography students embraced, some being so enthusiastic as to share photos of their moorings with other classes.
The moorings were deployed for two weeks in October 2012 with the HOBOs set to log temperature and light data every 30 minutes. After the deployment, students recovered the moorings, disassembled and cleaned the components, and downloaded and organized the data using accompanying HOBOware® Pro graphing and analysis software. Finally, the last homework assignment for the class was an open-ended analysis of the collected data. Students were asked to come up with a simple question and hypothesis, and then explore relationships in the HOBO data to, in a basic way, “test” their hypothesis.
It was clear this activity met many of the course’s goals and objectives. Class interest was evidently piqued as students engaged together in the collection of oceanographic time-series data. It turned out these data also included a number of interesting patterns that lent themselves to reinforcing concepts covered in the class.
One student, for example, hypothesized there might be a relationship between tidal stage and water temperature, and then visually explored the relationship using data from a nearby NOAA tide station and water temperature data from HOBOs deployed at one of the moorings. To examine the potential confounding role of changes in air temperature, she also pulled in air temperature data from an environmental monitoring buoy about one kilometer away. Her investigation suggested the possibility that the phase convergence of the highest high tide of the day and the highest low of the day – conditions that produce an extra-long period of high water in the mixed semi-diurnal tidal environment – may promote extra warming of the water. The student’s investigation, although inconclusive, clearly had her grappling not only with data analysis in Excel, but also with the role played by tides, mixing, and atmospheric heat exchange in shaping the ocean environment.
A few elements of this Introduction to Oceanography course made it particularly suited to this learning activity, including ready access to marine waters and the generosity of local funders. Nevertheless, this activity is still highly transferable to other classrooms. For example, while collecting data in marine waters was the ideal scenario for this oceanography class, collecting data in a pond, lake, or even a campus fountain would still achieve the goals of having students wrestle with engineering challenges as a group, and collecting and analyzing data time-series.
This, combined with the low cost of the data loggers, means that this type of activity is accessible to many instructors and transferable to many other classrooms. Peninsula’s Introduction to Oceanography students certainly were positively affected by it. Surveys at the conclusion of the quarter indicated that 76% of the class viewed the data collection and analysis activity as the single most impactful and valuable of the course.
Feiro Marine Life Center (http://feiromarinelifecenter.org/) and the Natural Resources Program of the North Olympic Peninsula Skills Center (http://www.nopsc.org/naturalresources/) provided the initial grant funding for supplies for this activity.
Rubin, S., Miller, I.M., Elder, N., Reisenbichler, R.R. and Duda, J. 2011. Nearshore Biological Communities Prior to Removal of the Elwha Dams. In: Duda, J.J., Warrick, J.A., and Magirl, C.S., eds., 2011, Coastal habitats of the Elwha River, Washington— Biological and physical patterns and processes prior to dam removal: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5120, 264 p. http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5120/