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NSF-funded GeoCode project demonstrates educational impact of coding and using large, real-world datasets

Tags: geocode , GPS/GNSS

Hundreds of permanent GPS stations dot the western United States, continuously collecting data to measure Earth’s movement. However, you don’t have to be a professional scientist to explore and work with these extensive datasets—students can too. The NSF-funded GeoCode project (Award #1841928) designed curriculum modules for middle and high school students that allow them to explore real-world data and build coding skills in an authentic scientific experience.

The GeoCode project was led by the Concord Consortium, partnered with EarthScope Consortium and the University of South Florida, with the goal of integrating computational thinking and science practices in the study of geohazards for middle and high school students. The project recently concluded its five years of funding and developed two modules, a seismic hazards and a volcanic hazards module, that are available for public use. In a report on the project’s impact, some of the key findings from the GeoCode project were that students recognized how coding can support them in their scientific investigations and that the greatest advantage of the modules was the use of large, real-world datasets.

Dr. Shelley Olds, an Instructional Designer with EarthScope Consortium, worked on the development of the GeoCode modules, including the Assessing Seismic Hazards and Risks with Code module, in which students use GPS ground motion data from the GAGE Facility, earthquake data, and scientific models to create real world simulations to explore the connection between ground deformation, earthquakes, and the risk impact from earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault. The students use code blocks to program scientific visualizations of GPS data similar to the way that working scientists do.

GeoCoder visualization workspace from the seismic hazards module where students use code blocks to visualize GPS velocity vectors (left) and seismic strain rate (right) along the San Andreas Fault.
GeoCoder visualization workspace from the seismic hazards module where students use code blocks to visualize GPS velocity vectors (left) and seismic strain rate (right) along the San Andreas Fault. Images: Concord Consortium.

“Middle and high schoolers have never been able to work with GPS data at this level before,” said Olds. “They previously worked with one or two GPS stations at a time, and it takes a lot of work to come up with the velocity vectors, but now students can manipulate a whole dataset to analyze and interpret the deformation caused by strain and identify the regions with highest hazards, something they haven’t been able to easily do.”

The module pulls data from the hundreds of GAGE Facility Network of the Americas GPS stations that continuously monitor the western U.S., allowing students to visualize and explore large-scale trends in land deformation along the plate boundary.

The seismic module began field testing in classrooms in 2021 and was released to the public in 2023. Thus far, over 900 students have completed the module. 

“Secondary students are using coding in their Earth science classes! This is really exciting to demonstrate that coding is a useful skill in the geosciences in a pre-college environment”, Olds expressed. “Our evaluations show that students experimented more, spent more time interpreting their visualizations, and had more comprehensive explanations.”   

One teacher noted in the Concord Consortium GeoCode report that “using real data and visualizing GPS stations especially in California made this real and tangible for our students.” 

Another teacher said, “I believe that these modules did provide a great deal of understanding of how and why earthquakes occur in regions near seismic activity. The connection with the real-time available data provided authentic inquiry and the realization that this type of Earth process is constantly occurring around the world and indicates an active earth.”

The use of large, real-world datasets helps bring the authentic geoscience experience of analysis and visualization of scientific data into the classroom, providing students with a deeper understanding of geohazard science and opening up potential career paths. By learning coding and actively exploring real-world data, middle and high school-aged students build skills and are exposed to key concepts used in careers in the geosciences and data science.