Computers & Geosciences, Volume 26, Number 4, 2000

Another Node On the interNet

Stuart Birnbaum
Leslie Kanat
Alan Morris
Cambrian Systems, Inc.
6502 Bandera Road, Suite 206
San Antonio, TX 78238

John Butler
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77204

From The Associate Editor

There is a fair amount of experimentation going on in the application of technology to learning. When I attend national meetings these days I find myself spending more time at the vendor booths than I did in the past. This fall I watched a demonstration of GETIT at the Geological Society of America meetings in Denver, Colorado. Distribution via an interactive CD-ROM has an advantage as it does not require Internet access and it can be used for a group experience. I have asked the developers to describe their project in this month¹s column.

Geoscience Education Through Interactive Technology

Geoscience Education Through Interactive Technology (GETIT) is an interactive CD-ROM developed for middle school students that is also appropriate for introductory college level courses because it is based on real data, uses a constructivist approach to learning, is truly interactive, and is not scenario driven. True interactivity gives students opportunities to conduct research as real scientists while providing insights into the nature of science. Individual choices, available with truly interactive software, engage students and allow them to appreciate science and become enthusiastic about learning.

Many years of working with teacher enhancement projects, through NSF and state funded programs, instilled within us a desire to have direct impact on student learning. We felt this could best be achieved by developing a computer based curriculum appropriate for both learners and teachers. Students are technologically sophisticated and easily relate to information delivered via computer-based instruction. To engage and maintain student interest we recognized we had to compete with computer games, and therefore develop visually appealing and cognitively challenging activities. With this in mind, Cambrian Systems ( collaborated with the Geological Society of America ( and received funding from the National Science Foundation ( to develop GETIT (published by the Learning Team ( GETIT is currently in use in classrooms across the nation.

What is true interactivity? What sets GETIT apart from other computer based curriculum materials currently available is its truly interactive nature. So, what do we mean by true interactivity?

Most educational software employs a point-and-click approach to learning where clicking on text will bring up an animation, a picture, or other text. That type of interactivity limits students' choices, does not support individual learning styles, nor does it intellectually challenge students.

Experimental simulations require students to develop their own research strategy (for example, using a diamond anvil cell to melt rocks under varying conditions of pressure, temperature, and fluid content); choices are limited only by their own imagination and not by the software. Furthermore, because activities are based upon real data (including the natural variability of real data) students may obtain different answers while conducting the same experiment, although their conclusions should be similar. For example, by melting different samples of andesite (under similar conditions) they will find that there is not one correct melting temperature, but a range of acceptable melting temperatures. These are examples of true interactivity using real data. The use of real data facilitates the implementation of true interactivity by allowing students to access a large volume of data and make sense of the natural variability in real data sets.

True interactivity enables students to work as real scientists who propose hypotheses and work with complex data sets in an attempt to answer specific questions. GETIT provides students opportunities to work as real scientists. Accessing the Smithsonian Institution's Volcanoes of the World database (Simkin and Siebert, 1994), GETIT allows real research. For example, students may wish to determine the most active volcano in the world. They must first define what is meant by the phrase 'most active' (most frequently occurring, most recently erupted, most damaging, or the largest volcanic explosivity index). Students must understand their research objectives in order to make appropriate choices. Once again, they must think before they act. They might start with one definition of 'most active', but the data may create a state of cognitive dissonance that forces them to reevaluate their hypothesis and refine or redefine their hypothesis.

Another aspect of true interactivity, as implemented in GETIT, is the incorporation of an online notebook. Students have numerous opportunities to use this notebook to respond to open-ended questions. These questions require students to process information and explain in their own words the meaning of their work. Teachers may choose to use the student notes for assessment.

True interactivity, real data, and experimental simulations as used in GETIT activities provide opportunities to seamlessly integrate mathematics and physical science into the earth science context.

A Team Approach

Developing a curriculum as rich and complex as GETIT requires a team approach. The team consisted of Cambrian Systems (CSI), the Geological Society of America (GSA), a local design team, a national review team, a national test team, an evaluation team, a research team, an artistic team, and an advisory committee.

CSI is a group of geoscientists and science educators that have been involved in education and research over the past thirty years. CSI was responsible for content, pedagogical style, programming, and project management. The GSA provided oversight management of the project and facilitated the establishment of national pilot test teams through their network of earth science teachers.

Master teachers provided feedback regarding content and style as members of the local design team. The local design team worked closely with CSI during the development of activities and provided input from the initial storyboard through completion. The national review team reviewed completed activities and provided feedback regarding content, language usage, and technical difficulties. This reviewing component is critical to develop activities that are easy to use and are appropriate for the cognitive abilities of the students.

Ultimately, the efficacy of our approach can only be ascertained through measurement of student learning. The national test team consisted of teachers who used GETIT” in their classrooms. Students took pre-tests and post-tests, the results of which were analyzed by the evaluation team. The evaluation team was independent of the GETIT development process.

Although GETIT” employs data bases in the public domain, some activities required augmentation of existing databases and/or the development of new databases. Professional geoscientists were members of the research team and were responsible for this component of the GETIT” project. A critical component of GETIT required professional graphic artists and animators to develop a setting that is engaging and attractive to a visually sophisticated audience. Students do not like on-screen textbooks.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) required an advisory team. This team met twice each year to review progress and provide suggestions to improve GETIT. This team of nationally recognized educators provided a broad perspective of how GETIT could be used in the classroom.

Constraints on development

GETIT was developed over a five year period with years two through four being supported by the NSF. It is easy to underestimate the effort required to produce high quality, truly interactive, highly engaging, computer based curriculum materials. Bork (1997) suggests such materials cost $25,000 per classroom hour of content. Such costs may be prohibitive for many funding agencies. It is imperative that the professional community voice its concerns that inadequate funding often leads to inadequate curriculum.

The amount of time and effort that went into the development of this type of curriculum material can easily divert energies away from other scholarly activities. Some institutions may recognize such efforts as scholarly, while others might not.

GETIT represents the logical next step in the use of technology in the classroom. Rather than simply repackaging textbooks or providing an image catalog, it exploits the power of the computer to bring real data alive and place it in the hands of the student. To do this requires a large investment of time, money and effort. The reward is students who have an understanding of the importance of data and an intuitive understanding of the way science is practiced.

References Bork, A., 1997. The future of computers and learning. T.H.E. Journal, volume 24, p. 69-77. Simkin, T. and L. Siebert, 1994. Smithsonian Institution: Volcanoes of the World (Second Edition). Geoscience Press, Tucson, AZ, 349 pages.