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This project is a semester-long investigation in which students learn the field and laboratory skills required to do geochemical analyses and also how to how to ask interesting questions about their environment. On the first week, students are presented with a geochemical situation and asked to generate a research question. For example, my most recent class wanted to know if there was a hydrogeologic connection between a local pond and stream. Other, more generic questions include "how does the water chemistry vary with discharge, time, and climate" or "how does lithology influence water chemistry?" The research question does not need to be novel to make the project compelling, although students generally do not respond well when they feel that they are jumping through hoops. Using a local resource is advantageous because students become more invested in the project. Once a question has been asked, class discussion focuses on what information is needed to generate a hypothesis and then test it. This is typically done with the whole class, although it may be wise to break larger classes into groups. The remainder of the semester is spent teaching students the methods they need to know to continue their investigation. For example, with the stream-pond interaction, students collected samples through out space and time, performed acid-base and alkalinity titrations, and measured anion concentrations with IC and cation concentrations with AAS. Each of these activities is conducted in sequential lab periods. In addition, each student's collects his/her own data so that the results can be pooled and that class is introduced to statistical methods. After collection the data is analyzed and interpreted. Clearly, this is the most difficult part of the exercise, but also the most worthwhile. I like to demonstrate different ways that the students can look at the data (graphs, tables, correlations, etc.) and then provide one or two examples of possible interpretations. Students are left on their own to generate more interpretation of the data and to consider potential directions of future research. Each student writes a final report that contains an introduction, methods, results, interpretation, and conclusions. The class also does a group presentation in which each person is responsible for one segment. Through this process, students learn the skills that would gain in a traditional geochemistry lab and also gain research experience.
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