Geoscience Education Research Group

a group hiking up a glacier

In the School of Earth & Environment, we are focused on two main geoscience education objectives: a) investigating better ways to teach, learn and communicate Earth Science information and b) to develop new and innovative classroom activities/resources to enhance the teaching of geoscience (years 5-13) in New Zealand schools.  We also offer students the opportunity to actively research and test new methods for learning and communicating through collaborations with the University of Canterbury’s Academic Development Group, the Human Interface Technology Lab, the College of Education and local Secondary Schools in Canterbury. Our schools programme not only provides background support to High School teachers (via UC’s Science Outreach Programme) but at the same time is involved with the design and delivery of curriculum-based initiatives that both empower teachers of science and engage their pupils.

Outreach - Schools and Community

Geoscience is a multidisciplinary subject with physicists, chemists and biologists for example, contributing to its progress.  The range of topics covered by geoscience is broad and the associated research focuses on: a) better understanding the origins and evolution of planet Earth and b) answers to questions surrounding increased demands on Earth’s resources, environmental change and natural hazards.  The fact we study volcanoes, earthquakes, dinosaurs, valuable minerals, climate change, meteorites, oceans and other planets, means we are in a unique position with respect to initiatives relating to the teaching of science in schools and, engagements with the broader community that provide information about specific events (e.g.  earthquakes) or significant, new scientific achievements.

UC Science Outreach Programme

The school also maintains strong linkages with the University of Canterbury’s Science Outreach Programme, each year our staff contribute to a number of initiatives organised by UC Science Outreach.  These include general school visits to UC, topic-specific laboratory sessions, interactive plays, field-trip support and school visits by our staff and post-graduate students. The emphasis of this component of Earth & Environment's Outreach effort is to improve the delivery of Level 9-13 Science especially and to increase the awareness of the relevance of science.

Contributors: Erik BrogtBen Kennedy, Jacqueline DohaneyThomas WilsonAlison JolleyBilly O’Steen
Participating Staff: Kate PedleyDarren Gravley, Samuel HamptonTravis Horton, Heather Purdie, Tim Stahl and Tim Davies

Our group performs fundamental and applied research on the teaching and learning of geoscience and geohazards. This research focuses on traditional and innovative geoscience learning activities.

Research Directives

Main goal: Improving tertiary geoscience education practices

  • Developing measures to assess teaching best practices and student performance
  • Developing interactive and cutting edge curricula
  • Improving science communication in graduates
  • Improving science communication best practices (for professionals and to the public)


  • Geoscience Curriculum Development
  • Geohazards and Risk Education
  • Science Communication & Field Skills Research
  • Improving Traditional Learning with Interactive Techniques in the Classroom


Our research unit is highly collaborative, and has made links to many NZ and international researchers and organisations:

DEVORA & Jan Lindsay at University of Auckland, 
Emma Hudson-DoyleDavid Johnston and Carol Stewart from the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University
GNS Science; Alison Jolley and Graham Leonard

We develop research-informed, learner-centred, and interactive curriculum materials for the classroom, laboratory, virtual, and simulated environments:

Development of a 3D Immersive Field Videogame

The GeoThermal World Videogame (Jacqueline Dohaney, Ben Kennedy, Erik Brogt and Hazel Bradshaw from HITLab NZ)

  • 3D, immersive videogame which teachs undergraduates basic field skills in a geothermal context. (video and publication)
  • Use in lab context, but can be used for students who cannot access the field.

Interactive Experimental Volcanology Labs

Ben Kennedy runs a collection of hands-on, interactive physical and experimental volcanology labs which are sourced from extant geoscience education and experimental volcanology literature:

Trash Can Volcano Lab (a.k.a., Liquid Nitrogen Bomb) 
Students fill a trash can with liquid nitrogen and different sizes of ballistics. This experiment illustrates the different input parameters which control explosivity and ballistic dispersal. Original research published by Karen Harpp, Alison Koleszar and Dennis Geist (see publication and video)

Mentos and Coke Explosions 
Students add mentos candy to a bottle of diet coke simulating a CO2 eruptive plume. Experiments can be run under differing input variables (type of candy, type of beverage and shape of the vent) to understand the height and duration of explosive eruptions. Original research by Wright, Rust, and Cashman (see publication and video)

Lava Fudge Experiment Lab
Students make chocolate fudge with differing temperatures and weight % sucrose to simulate differing levels of viscosity in aa and pahoehoe lavas. Original research by Alison Rust, Cathy Cashman and Wright (see publication)

M&M Magma Chamber Labs
Students build layers in a magma chamber by calculating the number of major elements (M&M’s) needed to form common minerals and following typical fractional crystallization pattern. Original research by Karl Wirth (see publication)

Teaching Independent Research & Synthetic Thinking Skills in Earth Systems Science

  • Travis Horton is running a Semester long teaching strategy which aims to develop students' abilities to understand geoscience as a system and use synthetic (i.e., holistic) thinking skills. 
  • Students are asked to perform authentic research; modelling complex research questions in small groups

Group Work in Mineralogy & Petrology Labs

  • Jacqueline Dohaney and Ben Kennedy teach evidence-based research to design and implement group work curricula in mineralogy and petrology labs.
  • Research was carried out in collaboration with UBC and the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (see publication).

Successful Curriculum Development and Evaluation of Group Work in an Introductory Mineralogy Laboratory

The Canterbury earthquakes have generated massive public interest in the geosciences, geohazards, and the communication of these disciplines. Our research group has worked to develop curricula that train undergraduates, postgraduates and professionals how to work together to communicate effectively and mitigate the impacts that disasters have on communities. What is the chance of it happening?  And what will the impact be?  These are two fundamental questions a geohazards and risk scientist will be asked.  But geohazards and risk assessment often has to be made using data which has large uncertainties associated with it and from multiple disciplines (e.g., physical science, social science, engineering, etc.).  How this material should be presented to stakeholder to optimise their decisions making is the focus of research Current research focus on the most effective way to communicate research to stakeholders.


Communicating Complex Hazard and Risk Assessments – Curricula Development

ContributorsThomas Wilson, Erik Brogt, Samuel HamptonTim Davies and Mark Quigley

Communicating geohazards, risk and disaster science to non-experts can be a challenging and daunting prospect for hazard scientists, engineers and emergency managers. The Hazard and Disaster Management programme at UC trains students to communicate complex research and geohazards issues using strategies and tools used in real world emergency management and disaster risk reduction.

  • Media conferences where HAZM students are tasked to prepare for and present in front of the media on a challenging and highly uncertain geohazard issue, such as a volcano which has become restless and may erupt soon.  The media (media studies and journalism students, which include some real journalists) question and attempt to extract a sensationalist news story.
  • Students are trained to write 'policy briefs' for government ministers.  Senior Policy Analysts and Advisors from government ministries in Wellington (New Zealand seat of Government) lead these interactive sessions, sharing their hard won lessons. 
  • Throughout all classes there is a focus on working together in a team under a difficult deadline to produce the necessary information to inform a hazard or disaster relation issue for a decision maker.

Tongariro & Auckland Volcanic Hazards Simulations

Contributors: Jacqueline Dohaney, Erik Brogt, Ben KennedyThomas WilsonDarren Gravley, and Jan Lindsay (Auckland University)

  • Development of highly challenging and engaging geology training simulations for 3rd-4th year undergraduates and postgraduates.
  • Simulations require students to synthesize complex data sets and provide real-time advice in order to minimize impacts from major geologic events.
  • Tests students practical and transferable skills. Specifically: communication and teamwork skills
  • New customized simulations are in development using Avalance TTX™ software (Dohaney in collaboration with UCR3; Publication)

Lecture-based Capstone Collaborative Hazards Exercises

Contributors: Alison Jolley, Thomas Wilson, Erik Brogt, Ben Kennedy

  • Five 1-hour group exercises were developed for GEOL113 (Environmental Geohazards) to teach first-stage students the basics of earthquakes, volcanoes, land slides, tsunami, geohazards and society.
  • Exercises are end of module, capstone activities
  • Groups of students work together to apply the concepts learned in lectures

Exercise Te Ripahapa

Contributors: Tom Robinson, Thomas Wilson and Tim Davies

  • Exercise Te Ripahapa is an authentic emergency management simulation which can be used to teach professionals the impacts of a large scale (Alpine Fault earthquake)
  • The simulaton highlights the impacts on people, lifelines and the landscape due to such a large event.

In today’s academic and professional workplace, geologists need to master field and transferable skills (i.e., skills that are used in diverse and every day settings).  Our research group studies the best way to teach (and measure) these skills.

Some important geoscience transferable skills include:

Field Skills – observations, note-taking, interpretation, synthesis
“Soft skills” – teamwork, communication, decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving

Science Communication Skills Research; “Improving Science Communication Skills”

Contributors: Erik Brogt, Jacqueline Dohaney, Thomas Wilson and Ben Kennedy
Funded byAko Aoteoroa

  • Current research is aimed at developing scenario-based curricula which specifically targets students communication skills.
  • Development of measures and methods to assess science communication.
  • Collaborative project with emergency management and science communication researchers across NZ.

Field Skills Research

Contributors: Jacqueline Dohaney and Ben Kennedy)

  • Research aimed at understanding how geologists teach and learn basic field skills such as observations and note-taking.
  • Development of best practices of observations and note-taking in geology.
  • We are also looking at digital note-taking research (Jacqueline Dohaney in collaboration with Lawrence Malinconico, Lafayette College).

Experiential Capstone Field Trips

  • On-going development and assessment of the Frontiers Abroad field programme (Darren Gravley, Sam Hampton)
  • 6-week field trips which incorporate interactive, holistic and capstone teaching techniques
  • Cutting edge, independent semester long undergraduate research projects.

Implementing the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative in the New Zealand tertiary

Collaborators: Zoe Jordens, Rosie Bradshaw, Maggie Hartnett, Gemma Cartwright and Natalie Burr (from Massey University)

  • Use of clickers, and other interactive technology in the classroom to transform traditional (passive) lectures to make them more interactive and engaging.
  • Link to report
  • Link to AKO’s page

Funded by Ako Aotearoa.

context (Ben KennedyErik BrogtAlison JolleyBilly O’Steen, Eva Hartung and Annie Soutter)

Key contacts

Ben Kennedy

Tertiary Geoscience Education Research
Physical Volcanology
Beatrice Tinsley Rm 213
Internal Phone: 94437

Kate Pedley

Lecturer -Teaching and Administration
Beatrice Tinsley Rm 310
Internal Phone: 94378

Postal Address

Geoscience Education Research Group
School of Earth & Environment
University of Canterbury
Private Bag 4800
Christchurch 8140
New Zealand


Significant contributions to our research have come from Ako Aotearoa (National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence), Mighty River Power Ltd, and from the Univerisity of Canterbury’s “Teaching Development Grants”.