Discovery Science (SCI 100)

Dr. Kathleen M. Browne, Department of Geological, Environmental, and Marine Sciences, Rider University

SENCER Model Course Logo

The Discovery Science course, paired with a liberal arts course, guides liberal arts students without a declared major to explore the intersection of disciplines around pressing issues in the world related to the natural sciences and develop a deeper understanding of the nature of the scientific endeavor. Using project-based, civic engagement and other active learning strategies, the course is organized around three projects each related to a different natural resource suffering from a variety of issues. Students consider the science and global to local level issues, conduct and report on class and independent research projects, generate new knowledge related to local projects and contribute to the implementation of solutions when opportunities arise.

Student Learning Objectives:
Students will…

  • understand essential scientific principles and concepts
  • understand the fundamentals of the scientific process (“scientific literacy”) and the value it can add to solving contemporary issues
  • communicate about the natural world, the scientific practice and variables relevant to addressing issues about natural resources in a meaningful way
  • begin to make informed and responsible conclusions and decisions through the critical study of data/evidence (quantitative literacy & scientific reasoning) regarding natural resources
  • identify opportunities for professionals in other disciplines to help address ocean-related issues
  • develop an appreciation for the complexities of the broader context around contemporary issues.

The following learning objectives for all the academic programs that the Geological, Environmental and Marine Science Dept. offers will be addressed as well.

  • Apply scientific and technical knowledge to specific tasks and problems.
  • Cultivate specific scientific and technical skills….
  • Develop increased capacity in the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, problem definition, and problem solving.
  • Develop enhanced numerical skills and computer literacy as part of an undergraduate program designed to deliver current and relevant knowledge of the discipline.
  • Communicate effectively … through oral, written, and graphical means, and to participate effectively … in individual and team-related activities.
  • Understand the importance of ethics in the practice of the profession.

Linking Science and Social Issues

Fisheries depletion; decrease in species and genetic diversity:
Taught through Marine and freshwater ecology; Seafood fraud; food safety and economic rights

Mineralogy; plate tectonics:
Taught through Mineral resource depletion; lack of re-use; wealth, power and conflict

Water chemistry; water resources; water cycle;
Taught through Water resource depletion and improper use

Harvesting techniques and technology
Taught through Pollution, ecosystem disruption, energy costs, inequitable access to resources, resource management, exploitation of resources

The Course

DSC 100 Syllabus

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Fishery Project

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Mine Project

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Science Practices Video Project

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Rubric for Science Practices

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Independent Project

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Independent Project Grades

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In this freshman-level science course, students study how science and non-science disciplines can contribute to solutions to contemporary issues while experiencing how the scientific process unfolds to make such contributions. To study the course theme, The Future of Natural Resources, students conduct three class projects related to local issues through readings, class activities, lectures, and research projects. Students learn fundamental concepts related to fisheries, mineral, and water researches. Non-science topics help students consider natural resource issues through a big picture, multi-discipline perspective from the readings (e.g. political, historical, economic, ethical factors), and through focused explorations about politics in the paired POL – 100 course. Students read and apply both popular literature and science-focused reports to develop an understanding of relevant issues on a large scale. They learn fundamental science concepts and principles through both “inquiry-based” (or NGSS science practices aligned) classroom work and just-in-time lectures. They hear from partnering practitioners in the field, some who are alumni from our institution, about how the issues are addressed and which non-science disciplines come into play to successfully address problems. From their explorations in numerous science disciplines in the course, they end their course work by completing an independent research project they select, and report on their semester-long performance of various science practices (as defined by the NGSS, Achieve, 2013) through their Science Practices “10 second” Video project.

Course Details regarding Active Learning and Civic Engagement

The approach for this course has been informed by multiple education theories and practices only some of which are mentioned here. Cusick (2001) and McCray et al. (2003) provided insight into developing more active learning experiences, or inquiry-based approaches. Ritchhart & Perkins (2000) provided guidance on creating mindful learning experiences that include authentic problems where the answer is not yet known and students, with the instructor as a guide, are given the opportunity to create new knowledge and figure it out problem. Reiser (2013) provided insight into coherent and phenomenon-focused learning. Michaels et al. (2008) argued that people would more likely choose to engage in civic issues that require knowledge of natural phenomena if/when they are more science literate. Fink (2009) showed that instruction that is “inquiry-based and focused on timely, complex and biologically relevant issues confronting society can result in students’ improved dispositions towards science”. Hoban (2015) explained the benefits of student-generated work using digital media. Finally, Larmer et al. (2015) provided very recent guidance on project-based learning. The combination of this literature, plus many other resources studied for other teaching and learning purposes, helped in the design of the following components of the course.

The topics for the course address numerous science disciplines: biology, earth science, chemistry and physics. The basic science relevant for each resource addressed comes directly from key points made in the readings to explain the origins, human exploitation, and possible solutions to our depletion of selected resources and are explored more deeply though classroom activities and lectures.

For the fisheries topic, students read about the impact of human activities to take advantage of the “perfect protein” on fish populations (The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World, Sharpless & Evans, 2013), learned some basic marine and fresh water ecology and water qaulity, studied and made sense of data available through various online resources, heard about regional examples of fisheries management projects from an alum in the NJ DEP Fish & Wildlife Division, and conducted a study of a local “fishery” (the fish population in the campus lake) to contribute to a larger study of a lake restoration effort. Staff from NJ DEP helped implement the project and, as a partner “client”, were provided a summary report compiled from student reports by a subset of the class; these students also presented their compilation at the university’s Independent Scholarship & Creative Activities Presentations.

For the minerals topic, student read about the impact of human activities to take advantage of key mineral resources (Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet, Bardi, 2014), learned some basic earth science, developed some basic mineral identification skills, studied and made sense of data available through their text and various online resources about the status of mineral resources, heard about the history and demise of a local mine, and conducted a study of a portion of the mine to determine if there is evidence that the mine would be worth re-opening (hypothetically only). The mine geologist from the Sterling Hill Mine Museum provided a tour of the surface level mine tunnels and explained how economics and politics influenced the creation, evolution, and eventual end to the local mining efforts. In their data analyses, students were guided to use some simple but nonetheless challenging mathematical thinking and calculations to estimate the percentage of ore-bearing minerals in the section of tunnel studied and draw a conclusion about whether the ore body would be worth mining today. In interpreting their results, the class considered the limitations of their work. A sub-set of students elected to improve the study as their independent projects by devising a creative, improved data collection method and surveyed adjacent sections of the tunnel, one for each student. The data from these second studies were compiled and a summary of results supplied to our partner “client” for their use in other educational programs offered at the Mine Museum.

For the water resources topic, students read about how our historically thoughtless exploitation of fresh water to not only serve a vital need of growing world populations but also satisfy a complex fascination with the compound all while climate change has altered access for many populations (The Big Thirst, Fishman, 2012). They learned some basic water science, developed some water quality monitoring skills, and studied and made sense of data available in their text and various online resources about the status of various water resources. They also heard about how New Jersey addresses its primary local water issue, storm water management, from a local environmental consultant (and alum), which happens to be different from the issues emphasized in The Big Thirst (Fishman, 2012). Finally, they conducted a study of a recent storm water management solution installed by a local organization. The results for this work revealed complexities that were discussed in class but a report was not required from the students; results however were shared with our local “client”. While this project was a bit more challenging to connect to their reading, The Big Thirst (Fishman, 2012), it provided a useful example of regional variations in natural resource issues. An alternate project will be created for the next course offering.

All three natural resources play very important roles in our lives and all are threatened for some similar reasons and others unique to each resource. The texts illustrate how no issue that involves the natural world can be solved by science alone; involvement by people from many different realms and perspectives is necessary to address current issues and prevent worsening conditions. But each author presents an optimistic view of the future if in fact experts in different disciplines work together to help humans rethink how they exploit the resources, everyone changes behavior somehow, and we collectively devise creative solutions to issues. The readings introduce a tremendous amount of basic science and non-science concepts which can be addressed in the classroom and supplemental reading resources. All three projects engaged the students in generating “new knowledge” and provided a service to local clients/partners. The combination of class activities offered multiple ways for students to make sense of various aspects of the science endeavor and communicate back their science literacy.

Finally, to help students develop a deeper understanding of the scientific endeavor, a topic that has proven difficult to make sense of by many learners (e.g. Nuhfer, 2011), students were charged with showing how well they performed science in the various projects and learning activities by submitting a Science Practices “10 second” video project. The students were introduced to the NGSS science practices, reflected on their use of them while learning about science concepts central to the course, photo-documented their performance of the practices through the semester, collaboratively drafted a rubric for evaluating their video project, and created a video compilation to show their understanding of each of the practices. These combined steps helped students make sense of the practices from a variety of perspectives, and was intended to engage students by using technologies they are rarely invited to use in a classroom. They also help students develop their digital literacy and communication skills (Hoban, 2015) while focusing on their own science literacy.

Evaluating Learning

Pre and post surveys were completed by students to investigate their science literacy learning (Science Literacy Concept Inventory, SCLI) and their self-reported learning gains from the course (Student Assessment of Learning Gains, SALG). Student reports were evaluated using rubrics. Results of pre/post surveys, challenges identified by evaluating student work (some summarized in project descriptions provided), and formative assessment during class inquiry/NGSS-aligned activities were used to revise course and project plans. In-class activities provided opportunities to give frequent and student-specific feedback. Summative evaluation of student knowledge was done via a test after each of the three modules in the course. Tests consisted of both essay and multiple choice questions; the latter were used primarily because students simply appreciate inclusion of this type of question even when they are designed to be “thinking” questions rather than recall questions. The students use Immediate Feedback Assessment Forms (IF-AT; that allow them to rethink a wrong choice immediately to improve their understanding and performance. Essays focus on making sense of data (a science practice addressed nearly every class), explaining issues considering both science and non-science perspectives, and the use of fundamental science concepts. Evaluation of student responses will be used to revise activities and test questions. The course evaluation completed to satisfy institution requirements is designed for students to anonymously evaluate the course using department-set questions, as well as complete a final reflection on their performance of some aspects of the course to encourage some metacognitive development.

Some Assessment Results
The 7 students who completed the end of course SALG survey reported:

  • good to great gains in understanding of the main science concepts and how studying the subject area helps people address real world issues
  • moderate to great gains in understanding how course ideas relate to ideas outside of the subject area
  • good to great gains in critically reading articles about issues raised in class, recognizing a sound argument and appropriate use of evidence*, developing a logical argument*, writing documents in discipline-appropriate style, preparing and giving oral presentations, enthusiasm for the subject, confidence that they understand the material, comfort level in working with complex ideas
  • moderate to great gains in identifying patterns in data, interest in discussing the subject area with friends or family, confidence that they can do this subject area, willingness to seek help from others, connecting key class ideas with other knowledge, using systematic reasoning in their approach to problems, using a critical approach to analyzing data and arguments in their daily life
  • a little to great gains in interest in taking or planning to take additional classes in the subject, applying what was learned in other situations
  • great grains in working effectively with others
  • found that both the instructional approach taken and how the class topics, activities, reading and assignments fit together to be much to a great help for their learning; the pace of the class was of moderate to great help
  • found to be of great help: the explanation provided at the beginning of the semester about how to learn or study materials; interacting with instructor during and outside of class; working with peers during and outside of class

Some selected comments:

“I now no longer see each topic as a separate thing but as parts to a whole. water resources tied into marine fisheries because water quality can also determine the health of the fish in that area. also mineral resources had a lot to do with water especially when processing the minerals but that water could runoff into streams or seep into ground water and then effect the fish.”

“I am more aware of some serious world issues explored within fisheries and water resources. I also gained knowledge in all 3 main areas of subject during this class (fisheries, minerals, and water resources). ”

“The amount of hands-on involvement helped to paint a four dimensional picture of the subjects an added a new perspective to the lessons which in a different class setting would have been lost. ”
“I understood how much these subjects affect our everyday lives.”

“The field trips we went on really made the ideas connect because I was able to see what we learned in a real life setting. Also by having readings that were more like books and not textbooks made it more enjoyable so the ideas stuck.”

“The class was taught so we could remember the information presented in class by utilizing hands on lab experiences and field work that really enforce the connections between real life situations and book information.”

“The way Dr. Browne tied in different disciplines to apply to each lesson helped those more difficult subjects to be more easily understood and only reinforced those that were meant as groundwork for those more difficult. ”

“Doing hands on activities really helped me understand concepts.”

“The class included note-taking, guest lectures, in-class experiments, as well as multiple trips that gave us a lot of interesting learning opportunities. I think all the different aspects of learning made the class a fun experience, aside from it being a 3 hour 8 am class, because it kept us excited and awake.”

“The field trips we … went on were related to exactly what we learned, and allowed me to easily remember the key ideas.”

How did the information received about the class help your learning?:

“It made me more aware of the local and national issues we are facing today.”

“It helped us know that what we were learning is relevant to the world around us and the other subjects we learned.”

“The fact that much of what we were doing was new or in primary stages encouraged me to do my work more diligently and with a keen eye toward innovation. ”

“The information and nots were great to follow along with my individual notes that would add in.”
“It was clear and allowed me to easily understand the material.”

Students showed gains in understanding the following areas assessed in the SCLI:

  • scientific knowledge is discovered, and some discoveries require an important history
  • science employs modeling* as a method for understanding the physical world
  • science explains physical phenomena based on testable information about the physical world

* NGSS science practice used frequently in class

Background and Context

This course was offered as part of a learning community pilot program designed to increase retention of students who enter Rider without a declared major (GLAS-general liberal arts students). In studying retention data, the creators of the pilot program found that GLAS students had a lower retention than students who declared majors for the start of their freshmen year. It was hypothesized that the GLAS students were less likely to find a “home” at the institution since they did not have a set of faculty or other students from a specific discipline that formed a learning community. The major goals of the Discovery Program:
1) to acculturate these students to habits of the mind and to set a tone for the pursuit of academic success, 2) to provide a set of pathways that these undeclared students may choose to follow as they explore their future, and 3) to develop, to the fullest extent possible, in these freshmen a personal compass that will guide them as they pursue their goals at Rider. This personal compass can emerge from a student’s discovery of his or her interests and passions which, in turn, foster aspirations and encourage the development of specific talents or capacities.”

To achieve these goals, new students who met academic requirements and volunteered to join the program took three linked courses: CMP – 120 Expository Writing, SCI – 100 Discovery Science, and one of POL – 100 Intro to American Politics, ART – 120 Art & Society, or SOC – 101 Sociological Imagination (each year the 3rd category course was reconsidered depending on number of students added to the program and instructor availability). For the science component of the program: A four-credit laboratory-based science course for non-majors in this program will be developed to create a more appropriate and effective environment for the development of students’ scientific literacy (and, to a degree, quantitative literacy). An inquiry-based approach to science, best delivered in a laboratory-based natural science course, will facilitate student learning of science content and the process of scientific discovery, reflecting, for example:

  • Experience – Laboratory field trips to examine and collect samples that would complement an environmental science classroom discussion of the real-world impact of pollution on water quality and aquatic habitats
  • Analysis – Genetic pedigree and genetic risk, leading into DNA analysis
  • Discussion – Topics such as the importance of diet or the effect of pesticides would be complemented by the laboratory discovery of ‘seeing’ the fat from food and chemically analyzing and visualizing pesticides”

Overall, discovering how rational and critical inquiry proceeds is central to both the laboratory science aspect and the Discovery Program as a whole. Other topics from which some key learning goals might be derived include:

  • Understanding the significance of contemporary issue(s), and how/why science can contribute to solution(s)
  • An understanding of relevant scientific “unifying principles”
  • Exploration of scientific issue(s) within social, political, historical and personal contexts
  • Use of evidence and relevant quantitative skills and reasoning to support conclusions
  • Students’ evaluation of their own prior beliefs and how scientific information and process may challenge them”

In addition to the linked courses, students participated in a pre-semester “Discovery Week” that included numerous field trips to explore connections across disciplines and group social and “bonding” activities. They also received supplemental formal academic advising from one of the Discovery course instructors.

Students in each of the four cohorts in the pilot favorably evaluated the program. Results from the pilot were reviewed and adjustments were made to simplify the program and continue. For fall 2015, a subset of undeclared students are placed in two linked courses (2 sections of SCI – 100 are paired with POL – 100 and HIS – 150 World History to 1500; total of 32 students in two sets of linked courses). Faculty teaching linked courses are coordinating to address similar themes and topics here appropriate. Course field trips will serve as the experiential components of the program, and activities for paired courses, and the two SCI 100 sections will be combined when possible and appropriate.

Related Resources

The fisheries project from the course has contributed to an ongoing research of the campus lake which began prior to a riparian buffer restoration in 2000. Two students from the class presented their work and results during the Rider University May 2015 Independent Scholarship & Creative Activities Presentations.

The NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife granted our permit application to stock fish in the campus lake after we presented an argument that the lake fish population was struggling using evidence from the students’ fishery project. The resultant release of 350 fish provided a service to the Rider community which was highlighted in the campus newspaper (included).

Results from the science practices video project were presented at the July 2015 NAGT Earth Educators Rendezvous (poster pdf included).

For the new version of the learning community program, an additional section of SCI 100 was added with a new instructor using the model presented here as a guide to create her course.

Introduction to Integrated Science Syllabus

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Achieve, Cusick, J (ed.), 2001, Practicing Science: The Investigative Approach in College Science Teaching, NSTA Press, Arlington, VA, 62 pp.

Fink, M. L., 2009, Preparing future teachers using a SENCER approach to positively affect dispositions toward science, Science Education & Civic Engagement: An International Journal,

Hoban, G., 2015, Researching science learning through student-generated digital media, in Student-Generated Digital Media in Science Education: Learning, Explaining and Communicating Content, G. Hoban, W. Nielsen, A. Shepherd (eds.), Routledge Publ., 274 pp.

Larmer, J., Mergendollar, J. & Boss, S., 2015, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction, ASCD, 240 pp.

McCray, RA, DeHaan, RL & Schuck, JA (eds.), 2003, Improving Undergraduate Instruction in Science, Technology, and Mathematics, National Academies Press, 164 pp.

Michaels, S, O’Connor, C & Resnick, LB, 2008, Deliberative discourse idealized and realized: accountable talk in the classroom and in civic life, Stud. Philos. Educ. 27: 283-297; DOI 10.1007/s11217-007-9071-1

Reiser, B. J., 2013, What professional development strategies are needed for successful implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards, International Research Symposium on Science Assessment Paper, 25 pp.

Ritchhart, R. & Perkins, D. N., 2000, Life in the Mindful Classroom: Nurturing the Disposition of Mindfulness, Journal of Social Issues, 56(1): 27-47.