New Teaching Tool to Increase Understanding of Gas Hydrates and the Deep Biosphere

When Janelle Sikorski began teaching oceanography to a group of non-science majors at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, she realized that most of the students weren’t aware of the myriad ways that humans and the ocean interact, apart from issues of ocean pollution. Studies suggest that most college students share this lack of awareness of the Earth’s largest geologic feature.

To help address this gap, Sikorski worked with Brandon Briggs, a member of DCO’s Deep Life Community, (both now at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, USA), to develop a course module that teaches students about the formation and distribution of gas hydrates, which are stable, ice-like deposits of methane and water that form in seafloor sediments. They published their module in a recent paper in the Journal of Geoscience Education.

Sikorski and Briggs chose to focus on gas hydrates because they have significant implications for climate change, global energy policies, and the economy. Additionally, many introductory oceanography textbooks lack information on gas hydrates, so the topic gave them the opportunity to incorporate cutting edge research into the classroom.

“I started thinking, I need to work on ocean literacy with this group,” said Sikorski. “I wanted to use an authentic scientific data set so the students could have a chance to see what that data look like and how it’s collected, to really bring the science to life.”

The resulting module addresses concepts such as how and why gas hydrates form, the contributions of methane-producing microbes, and how carbon isotopes in sediments can help students predict the methane’s source. Students also perform lab activities using information on cell abundance in ocean sediments and the location of known gas hydrate deposits. Briggs used existing date to create layers that could be superimposed over Google Earth, a free virtual globe program.

A screenshot of the module, showing cell abundance in marine sediments, superimposed over Google Earth to reveal high and low areas of microbes on the seafloor. Image courtesy of Brandon Briggs and Janelle Sikorski

“Google Earth has been a great way to depict where everything is on a globe,” said Briggs. “Students can move around and zoom in to certain places and get information. It was a novel way to engage with them.”

Sikorski taught the module either as an in-class activity or as a homework assignment in different semesters, and received positive reviews from the students.

“Regardless of how they completed the module, the differences between their pre- and post-quizzes showed that they were learning,” said Sikorski.

Currently, educators can access the module through the Journal of Geoscience Education, but the authors plan to make the resource freely available online through Briggs’ research website.

A screenshot of the module, which shows how students can locate gas hydrates all over the world and access information on each deposit. Image courtesy of Brandon Briggs, Janelle Sikorski and the Journal of Geoscience Education; data modified from Thomas D. Lorenson, USGS.

Researchers received funding from a Major Teaching Grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at Miami University.

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