Term Project

 

Throughout this course we will continue to explore the question “How do we know what we know about the natural world?”  One of the primary methods that scientists use to learn things about nature is experimentation.  For you term project, you will work in groups to design and carry out an experiment related to the stretch of Emigration Creek that runs through the Westminster College campus.  Completing this project will require a series of discrete steps.

 

Step 1:  Narrowing your focus

While it may seem small, Emigration Creek provides a variety of ecological systems to look at.  The first step in determining how you will carry out your project is to decide which of these systems you would like to explore.  Divide yourselves into groups of (about) 4 students.  Each group should choose one of the following four systems on which to concentrate.  Since each group will be designing and executing a unique experiment, it’s fine to have more than one group on a system.

 

  • The physical environment
  • Terrestrial plants
  • Terrestrial invertebrates
  • Aquatic invertebrates

 

 

Step 2:  Designing the experiment

When people think of experimentation, they typically think of test tubes and bell jars.  In ecology, experimentation typically has less to do with manipulating a system and more to do with comparing differences that already exist in nature.  Are you more likely to find a particular species in warm water or cold?  How does stream flow velocity affect the diversity of organisms living in a particular area?  Your instructors will provide suggestions, as well as examples, in order to help you with your design.  The following criteria, however, are going to be crucial to any experimental design.

 

  • You should have a single, focused question that you are trying to answer
  • Your experiment should be able to answer that question while limiting potential confounding factors.  That is, your results should allow you to answer your question with confidence.
  • If anyone doubts the results of your experiment, they should be able to repeat it.

 

A few weeks into the semester, each group will turn in a short (1-2 page) summary of their intended project that includes the following content:

 

  • What question do you hope to answer?
  • How are you going to answer your question (i.e. what is your experimental design)?
  • Do you have any expectations about what the results will be?
  • What potential problems do you see in executing your experiment?

 

Step 3:  Collecting Data

Over the course of the term, you will be given ample time to complete your experiment in class.  As you do so, you should keep careful notes as to precisely what you do and what results you obtain.  Remember, a key aspect of good science is that it is repeatable.  If you do not keep careful track of what you have done, you will not be able to explain it accurately to others.  Once you have collected your data, you can begin to look for patterns in your data that help you to answer the question you originally asked. 

 

About a month before the end of class, each group will hand in a short (1-2 page) synopsis of their findings along with a description of their method and their raw data.  You should just be able to tear the yellow pages out of your notebook and hand the data in that way.  Your instructors will return this preliminary report to you as quickly as possible with suggestions on how you might improve your project.  These might include

 

  • Additional data you may want to collect
  • Better ways to organize your data
  • Alternative conclusions you may want to consider and how to test them

 

Step 4: Presenting your conclusions

Of course, scientific research is no good unless you share your results.  At the end of the term, each group is going to share the results of their work in two formats.

 

  • An oral presentation in front of the class using PowerPoint
  • A more formal written presentation to be turned in on the last day of class
  • In addition to showcasing the work you have done over the course of the semester, your written project should include appropriate background research.  Proper format for citing your background research can be located here.

 

For more information on these aspects of the project, see the following pages:

 

Written Project Grading

 

Oral Presentation Grading