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NEWSLETTER: VOL III, # 7, December 10, 1998

Interactive Learning on the Web: AOS 101

Steve A. Ackerman
Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Traditionally introductory geoscience courses are taught in a lecture format, often with a large number of students and a separate laboratory section. There are a number of advantages to this format; for example, the teacher can convey information to many students at once, engage and motivate students in discussions, and assess, through observation, the students' level of comprehension of a topic. There are, however, disadvantages to large lecture halls in that they can curb self-paced learning and individual instruction, and only a limited number of students can participate in discussions at one time. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that this traditional method of teaching can discourage students from pursuing a science career (Tobias, 1992) and may generate a negative attitude towards the sciences (National Science Foundation, 1987). The use of the World Wide Web, with its easy-to-use graphical interface, increasing popularity and accessibility, have the potential to offset these disadvantages by engaging students in learning through doing. With particular emphasis on exploiting the web's interactive nature, I developed a web-based introductory course on weather and climate to help achieve specific instructional goals.

The first step in adopting the web as a teaching tool is to decide where its use in the course is appropriate. To understand weather, students must be able to interpret weather maps. An effective way to learn this skill is through practice followed by immediate feedback. In our station model exercise, the student is presented with a computer generated surface station plot as plotted on weather maps. The student decodes the observations and submits them to the running Java program that indicates correct and incorrect answers. Once the student has gone through the exercise, he/she should have a good understanding of how to decode the surface station model. To provide continued practice and feedback opportunities, each hour of real-time weather data is processed into a decoding exercise, which provides a fresh example of the station model of the actual weather conditions.

Contouring data is another elementary step in weather analysis. The ability to analyze data accurately is critical to interpreting weather conditions and is an important skill in many related fields. As in the previously cited example, practice and feedback are crucial in the learning process and are the focus of this web exercise. The interactive exercises provide students with step-by-step drawing activities (executed over the web) and the opportunity to analyze weather and oceanography maps; and, using satellite imagery, allow them to learn about the structure of weather systems. This latter activity engages students in discovery using the satellite imagery we all see on television weather reports and illustrates how temperatures of a cloud and the ground affect the displayed image.  Students discover these relationships by changing the height (temperature) of the cloud and the ground temperature; and the corresponding view from the satellite is in "infrared," which shows temperature as shades of gray. The educational strategy of this activity is to help connect what students know from personal experience with new information about satellites and remote sensing weather conditions.

All of these exercises were designed to assist students in the learning process by exploiting the interactive nature of the web, and each module was tested extensively through student feedback and peer evaluations. Other, less interactive uses of the web in this introductory class, appear on the class web site.  As use of the World-Wide Web in courses continues to increase, the challenges remain in determining when it is appropriate to use it, and how to effectively incorporate the web into our course activities.

References

National Science Foundation, 1987: Undergraduate Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education - National Science Foundation. NSF Pub. No. NSB 86-100, Washington DC.

Tobias, S., 1992: Science Education reform - What's Wrong with the Process. Change, 24, 13-19.