Information Technology Digest

September 9, 1996 (Vol. 5, No. 7)

Technology in Action

GS 265 -- Where the Internet Meets the Big Bang

by Susan Topol, ITD

Students in Professor Ben van der Pluijm's winter term Geological Sciences 265 class didn't just learn about the Big Bang and the Earth, they learned about the latest Internet technology as well.

GS 265, "How to Build a Habitable Planet," is designed to help non-science majors explore scientific subjects. The course description reveals that it offers an interesting overview of the world of geological science:

Formation of the universe, sun, and Earth, and societal interactions with our planet form the basis of this course that is primarily aimed at first-year students who wish to explore a scientific perspective to our physical world and examine humankind's role. Topics including the Big Bang, formation of stars and planets, the Earth's age and its structure, continents and oceans, ice ages, resources, and human impact will be discussed.

What the description doesn't reveal is van der Pluijm's innovative approach to the material.

Innovative Approach

"One of my goals was to make the students enjoy science and to interpret it using their own perspectives," explained van der Pluijm. One of the innovations he introduced was to make the Internet an important focus of the class for both performing research and for producing the final class assignment -- a World Wide Web page.

Web pages can include text, full-color graphics, animation, video, sounds, links to other resources, and more. Because of the richness and exciting potential of this medium, van der Pluijm decided to have students create a Web page as their final project instead of a traditional term paper.

"The Internet focus of the class helped students to use their creativity and give their own personal interpretation to the material," stressed van der Pluijm. "The Web pages allowed students to use images to make the text more alive and helped them learn how to write for a wider audience."

New Tools

Van der Pluijm wanted his students to gain experience using some new technologies, including Windows 95 and a pre-release copy of Netscape Navigator Gold 2.0. Although the majority of courses on campus use the Macintosh, van der Pluijm chose to use Windows instead. Why?

"I feel strongly that students should have more experience using Windows, because they are likely to encounter it in the workplace after graduating," explained van der Pluijm. "I also wanted to use the newest technology, and Windows 95 was new."

Different Skill Levels

The students brought differing computing skill levels to GS 265. While many had no prior experience with the Internet beyond e-mail, others were already comfortable in cyberspace. To bring everyone up to speed, GS 265 class lectures included instruction in using Netscape and other Internet tools.

Van der Pluijm found that using an integrated package, such as Netscape Navigator Gold, made it easier for students to learn. "Navigator Gold provides kind of a one-stop-shopping approach to creating home pages," said van der Pluijm. "Everything the students needed for creating, viewing, and posting their Web pages was there in one package."

A Windows 95 workstation, funded by the Geology Department, and additional equipment (including a scanner and a printer) were available for students to use. Each Friday, students would gather around the workstation for impromptu technology tutorials. Students used this opportunity to become more familiar with the hardware, the software, and various aspects of Web page design, as well as to explore Web resources.

GS 265 students were happy about using the Web. Student Amit Kalaria said, "It was exciting to find out we would be incorporating the World Wide Web into our class. It was really beneficial because we learned how to use the Web to search for information while at the same time make our own home page."

Student Daniel Goldstein agreed, "It gave me a chance to learn more about the Internet, so I looked at the course with enthusiasm."

Professor Ben van der Pluijm's students did their final projects on the Web, thus learning not only about geological science, but about publishing on the Internet.

Doing Research

Students also learned how to use the Internet as a research tool. Although the course used a textbook and followed a regular lecture format, students were not allowed to include either the textbook or lecture notes in the content of their home pages. Instead, students used Internet searching tools to find information resources.

To ensure that content and technology were balanced in the final projects, van der Pluijm had all the students submit a proposal containing just the text of their project at midterm. Once their proposals received approval, the students proceeded to create their Web pages.

A Team Effort

Working in pairs, the students not only created their own pages, but had the opportunity to read, comment on, and grade the other teams' work as well. By evaluating each other's work, students were able to learn far more material than they would have if they only focused on their own projects.

"It was helpful to work with a partner because it combined the importance of teamwork with learning," said Kalaria. "Also, since two heads are better than one, partners made it easier to overcome difficulties in designing a Web page."

What did the students think about using the Web in comparison to more traditional classroom methods? "A million times better!" said student Tina Chow. "You get a true sense of accomplishment. It is really rewarding when you can show your fellow classmates your work as well as showing off to your parents at home what you have worked on at school."

Added Kalaria, "It really is a lot better because it incorporates writing a paper and looking up materials with making a Web page. Plus, it allows others to see our findings."

"I found the usage of the Web to be the most interesting aspect of the class," said Goldstein. "It provided a suitable alternative to conventional research without lowering its quality."

Workplace Skills

Van der Pluijm also hoped that the Internet skills learned in his class might aid students in their future endeavors. This certainly proved to be true for GS 265 student Art Holland.

Said Holland, "At my current summer job I have been given the assignment of creating a company Web site, since I am the only one at the establishment with any experience with creating, editing, or using Web sites."

Chow also concurred: "Having such publishing skills is definitely an asset that you can use to your advantage in the workplace. Today, companies are looking for people who are computer literate, and having Internet knowledge is definitely a double plus. It helped me in landing an awesome internship at an investment firm."

Two Courses in One

Van der Pluijm admitted that the class was intensive from a teaching perspective and credits the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching for providing a faculty grant that allowed him to put in the extra time required to develop the class. Van der Pluijm concluded, "It was a lot of work, almost like teaching a software class and a science class at the same time."

That extra work paid off, though. "Students were enthusiastic, well-engaged, and attendance was at 90% for the class," said van der Pluijm with satisfaction.

Copyright 1996 by the Regents of the University of Michigan