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Saving Rivertown: Using Computer Simulations in an Earth Science Engineering Design Project for Pre-service Teachers

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Curriculum Exchange

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1355.1 - 26.1355.3



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Paper Authors


David Mitchell California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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David Mitchell is an Associate Professor in the Physics department, and an affiliated faculty in the Liberal Studies department, at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Originally from the Seattle area, Dr. Mitchell is an astronomer working on the detection of extrasolar planets orbiting giant stars. He teaches introductory and advanced astronomy courses when not preparing future elementary teachers.

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John M. Keller California Polytechnic State University

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John Keller is a planetary scientist with an emphasis in astronomy education and K-12 science teacher preparation. He co-directs the Cal Poly Center for Excellence in STEM Education and is an Associate Professor in Physics.

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Victor M Castillo Jr California Polytechnic State University

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On Professional Research and Teaching Leave from Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

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Saving Rivertown: Using Computer Simulations in an Earth Science Engineering Design Project for Pre-Service Teachers (Curriculum Exchange)In preparation for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a team of teachers, scienceeducators, science professors, and engineering professors at a comprehensive polytechnicuniversity are collaboratively developing engineering modules for pre-service teachers in theLiberal Studies major. These engineering modules are designed to expose future teachers to thefield of engineering and to serve as examples of hands-on activities that could later be used intheir K-12 classrooms. The associated pedagogy of open-ended design challenges in meaningfulcontext and the iterative engineering design cycle are also part of the curriculum. Hands-onengineering design activities are to be integrated into the existing 3-course science sequence forLiberal Studies majors over the course of their first year. These activities have students usingmodels, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and designingsolutions to specific problems.The third course in the science sequence is an Earth science course. The engineering module,Saving Rivertown, is broken into four activities, each taking 45-60 minutes of time, spread outover the course of 10 weeks. The first activity has students use stream tables to investigate theerosion of a streambed and the associated geologic features it creates. Students makeobservations that are discussed as a class. This is the only activity that uses an actual streamtable.The remaining three engineering activities are done as simulations using NetLogo. NetLogo is afree, downloadable program that models environments. Students use several pre-made models.The first computer-based erosion simulation is a virtual stream table, very similar to the actualstream tables students used in the first activity. Students can adjust some parameters for themodel such as table slope, soil properties, and water flow rate. They then make observations ofthe resulting erosion patterns, and discuss similarities and differences to the real stream table.Students also reflect on the utility of a computational model.The second computer-based activity introduces students to Rivertown, a fictional town within theNetLogo simulation, in a flood plain next to a river. The river can overflow its banks, which willflood the town’s fields, homes, and businesses, unless the students can create a diversion plan tokeep the water out of sensitive areas and routed around the town. Students are able to digtrenches and make mounds within the simulation. During class, students take their first attemptsat saving Rivertown, testing ideas and redesigning their diversion plan within the computationalmodel. After becoming familiar with the scenario, and brainstorming ideas, students completethe project at home. They must create a diversion plan, make the digs and mounds, raise theriver to the appropriate flooding level, and see how well their diversion plan worked. They mustthen go back and do a redesign, attempting to keep the sensitive parts of Rivertown completelydry, using the fewest resources possible (digs and mounds).The final part of this engineering project is for student groups to present their Rivertown projects,including all failed and successful designs, to the class. Students look for common andinnovative solutions, and discuss challenged associated with the project.Activity handouts will be shared at the Curriculum Exchange, and the simulations will be shown,along with student project results.

Mitchell, D., & Keller, J. M., & Castillo, V. M. (2015, June), Saving Rivertown: Using Computer Simulations in an Earth Science Engineering Design Project for Pre-service Teachers Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24692

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