Earth Science Research Project

Department of Geosciences
State University of New York Stony Brook

Getting Secondary School Earth Science Students Started in Research

Jennifer Keller
Department of Geosciences
SUNY Stony Brook


Many students, near the beginning of the school year, have to select topics with little knowledge about them. This makes it difficult for them to do the research, particularly background information, as they have limited knowledge of related topics. Students are also likely to be unfamiliar with the science resources in their public or school library. In addition, many students will have had little experience reading and taking notes at the same time. These are all aspects of student research that can prove frustrating for both student and instructor. We outline a strategy, based on Giese et al., 1992, for teaching students these aspects of research.

Topic Selection:

Students who start their research projects in the beginning of the school year will have little understanding of the subject. However, interest can be piqued by reading popular science articles and newspaper articles.

For example, the teacher decides the students will have a choice of twelve pre-determined topics. At the start of the year, in the process of starting discussion about research, the teacher could distribute packets of photocopied articles (-1-2 articles/topic) and allow students one or two weeks to peruse them.

Gifted and other students may want to pursue their own interests. The teacher will have to weigh several factors in allowing this, while also clearly letting the student know how much more work s/he will have to go into an independently developed project (particularly in comparison to the other students). The teacher will also have to weigh how much help s/he can give a student working on an independent project, particularly in comparison to those that are already more or less developed and which the teacher has familiarity. However, I imagine its best not to discourage students from doing their own projects.

After a few weeks of looking though the packet of articles and information related to the topics, students would select a topic. The teacher may want to have a class meeting where students officially announce their topics and spend about a minute stating why the topic interests them and what their next step will be.


Some teachers start the research projects later in the year, after students have some familiarity with the scope of the course. However, adolescents are fantastic samplers and often find something exciting for a few days, then move on to something else. Introducing the topics earlier may give students a chance to discover something in which they are really interested. Teachers have had successful student outcomes introducing the project early, as well as near the winter holidays. Starting projects should not be delayed until past mid-December, as students who do projects relating to the sun's motions will want to incorporate the solstice in their data.

Note Taking:

Develop note-taking skills in class first. Supervise students as they take notes on an article. It is important for students to understand and recognize the maln ideas, and not copy long passages verbatim. Show students how to use an index, bibliography, glossary, and headings in books to help narrow down what they need to read. In addition, show students how to record the bibliographic information correctly, in the form they will use for their final project (Sample included at end). This is not only so proper credit is given, but also so the student can find this information again easily.

Reinforce these skills with regular reading assignments. Giese et al. suggest having students take notes on two articles per week, with students handing in their notes every week for teacher comments. This may be an overwhelming amount of material for teachers to assess, in addition to items in the regular class routine, so teachers will have to work out their own system, perhaps with students handing in their notes on a rotating basis. Students who are working on research projects should be encouraged to read articles related to their topics for this assignment. Students should keep these notes in their project notebook.


Students need to know and become familiar with the library resources available at their school and local public library. The teacher should have the most relevant articles on non-circulating reserve in the school and public library.

School library:

A one-period visit to the school library, where the librarian shows students the science resources and indices, and how to use the science or other indices, could be very valuable to budding researchers. It would be important for students to understand that they should also search under related topics, not just their specific topic.

If the librarian cannot show these resources to the students, the instructor should determine the resources available and make a handout for the students. This may have to include systematic instructions for finding information in indices. Even if the librarian is not involved in showing students how to use the library, s/he should be aware of what students should be doing so that s/he can be prepared to help students in the correct context.

Public Library

Most likely, science teachers who have the option of going on field trips will not want to 'waste it' on a day at the local public library. Therefore, the instructor will have to meet with the reference librarian at the local library and determine the local science resources, indices, etc. S/he should make a handout for students as above. In addition, it would be ideal for the instructor to spend a few afternoons and evenings during the projects to meet students for research 'extra help' and show them around the library, or arrange for the librarian to do so.

Some students will find they need books and articles not available locally. They may need to go to the university, but many libraries have interlibrary loan procedures. The teacher should determine these and outline them for students.


Some students may need to use information only available in scientific journals, which are not commonly available in the public libraries. Teachers should have the most relevant articles from these journals on reserve in the school and public library (i.e., for in-library use only), but some students will still want to use the university libraries.

There are two main differences between these libraries and public ones. First, colleges and universities use the Library of Congress system, which is different from the Dewey Decimal system, used in school and public libraries. The teacher should make a handout corresponding to the broad subjects in the two systems. Second, reference librarians in universities are generally very busy due to cutbacks and understaffing. Students should not expect the same level of help they can obtain on the school or local library. They therefore should be prepared with information about how to do searches on the library system and how to locate materials before going to the university. The teacher may have to become a ear-pool organizer to arrange student transportation.


Although students should know how to do their own Internet searches, the teacher should determine relevant Internet sites for two reasons. Primarily as a resource for students, but also, unfortunately, to catch plagiarism.


A week or two after selecting their topics, students will hand in their research proposals. These proposals would include a working title, their hypothesis (stated as a question, if possible), background information (why is this project important?) and a materials and methods section, which should specifically describe the protocol. Although the materials and methods sections will likely be written in regular paragraphs for the final report, most students will find it helpful to put their methods in numbered list format in the proposal. Depending on the situation, these proposals may include requests for funding or special equipment, if fundraising has taken place to raise money for this purpose. Proposals may be 'peer reviewed' if time, or just teacher reviewed.

Students must understand that they may have to change the protocol they developed, and students who have gone far down an unproductive path should be given more time. [Although some debate if it more important for students to control their own projects and realize their mistakes for themselves, or that the project be done on a deadline schedule.]

Final Report

Students will present their work in scientific format, with a summary abstract, introduction with background information, material and methods, results, conclusions, and a bibliography. The report should be typewritten, and the bibliography should include at least five non-encyclopedic references. In addition, students will give an oral report that uses visuals, such as transparencies (each student should be given one or two transparencies for their talks).

Science Writing Style

After nine or ten years of Language Arts asking them to continually expand on ideas and encouraging verbose writing, many students will have trouble with the tight, minimalist style of scientific writing. Because of this, do not assign a minimum number of pages, but have the minimum be "enough to describe and present your project to another student at the same grade level not in your class". Projects should be self and peer reviewed after presentation, and students ideally should have the opportunity to act on these reviews.

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