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Promoting interdisciplinary learning in environmental hydrology using a CD-ROM

Yvette Oliver, Lyn Abbott, Keith Smettem
Soil Science and Plant Nutrition
Elizabeth Santhanam
Evaluation of Teaching Unit, Organisational and Staff Development Services
The University of Western Australia


Hydrology is taught as an introductory unit in the Faculties of Science and Agriculture at The University of Western Australia (UWA). There has been considerable increased interest in hydrological issues in the community, particularly with raised awareness of issues related to nutrient contamination of waterways and dryland salinity of the agricultural region of Western Australia.

It is necessary to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to teaching environmental hydrology particularly when management options are sought. Although the 'core' of knowledge of hydrology is process based physical science, there is a requirement to interface this with an understanding of biological systems that are responsive to the hydrologic cycle. An integrated perspective brings greater understanding of complex hydrological issues in a management context. It is critical to interface knowledge about hydrological and biological processes if environmental management is to be successful. To achieve this, the introductory hydrology unit has been revised to include inter-discipline links, a Subject Learning Plan approach and multimedia teaching with the assistance of a CD-ROM.

To provide the necessary interdisciplinary hydrological approach, links with experts from within UWA as well as from outside the University were established. The aim was to link hydrology teaching into field management of a threatened landscape, providing an excellent example of the interrelationship among hydrology, soil, plant and animal sciences in an environment with competing requirements for land use.

A Subject Learning Plan is a framework for helping students to get the most out of a subject or unit (Boyle and Trevitt, 1997). It allows students to plan better approaches to learning and provides support for their participation in the learning process. The outcomes are higher quality learning and greater motivation by students. This approach was investigated in parallel with the development of the CD-ROM.

A multimedia format can provide an opportunity to expand the student learning environment by offering additional material (Lockwood and Daniel, 1998). A self contained courseware package, such as a multimedia CD-ROM, shifts the onus of learning more directly onto the students (Trevitt, 1995). The success of a multimedia CD-ROM may depend on (i) engagement - the ability to captivate and create learner interest, (ii) access - ability to provide ready and simple access to information, (iii) clarification- ability to provide alternative explanations or examples and (iv) process - ability to provide practical opportunities for skill development (Trevitt, 1995).

Use of the collated database on the CD-ROM was expected to facilitate an interdisciplinary approach by reducing time required for students to become familiar with diverse sources of information. The CD-ROM was also expected to increase the time students had to apply information and approaches from different disciplines in a range of assignment tasks.

Expected outcome of this project was to increase the capacity of students to solve hydrological problems by identifying management options and the practicality of their implementation for existing threaten and potentially threatened environments. The inter-disciplinary component of the proposed teaching in hydrology requires higher order assessment and therefore a major assignment with complementary field excursion and tutorials was designed to capture this expected learning outcome (Biggs and Collis, 1989, Boulton-Lewis, 1995).


The Hydrology CD was developed in a web based format, created in the program Dreamweaver. It did not contain sounds or video, but this web format/program provides the capacity for use of these features in future revisions of the CD-ROM. The World Wide Web is familiar to most students and use of this format was expected to be 'student friendly'.

The CD was divided into five sections:

  1. Introduction - course outline, lecture times, references and details of unit assessment.
  2. The hydrological cycle - basic hydrological information
  3. Issues in hydrology - more detailed hydrological information
  4. Case studies - detailed hydrological studies which link to the hydrological cycle and important issues in hydrology
  5. Internet links - additional hydrology Internet links (links were also included within the other sections of the CD-ROM)
The layout of the CD-ROM was designed so that each main section could be entered from a side tool bar, and the sub-sections navigated from a top toolbar. The content included maps, course notes, figures, photographs, website addresses, reports and extracts from scientific articles, magazines and newspapers. The Hydrology CD was given to students to use on their home computer and was also located on the university server for access from within the university.

Assessment of the outcomes of the study was conducted via questionnaires distributed to the students at the commencement and final week of the unit and by criteria used for marking the major assignment. The initial questionnaires included 15 questions related to existing knowledge of hydrological issues and questions about their Subject Learning Plans. In the final week, the same questionnaire with the 15 questions on hydrological background was used and a questionnaire about the use of the Hydrology CD was included. An inter-disciplinary assignment was assessed according to how well students integrated their detailed knowledge of hydrology into an environmental management plan.


Thirty eight students were enrolled in the unit Hydrology 250/300 in 2000. A majority of students had access to the Hydrology CD via home computers (78%), but 93% also viewed it on the web within the university (Figure 1). Although the majority of the students liked the CD-ROM and found it easy to navigate, only 68% preferred the CD-ROM to handout notes.

The Hydrology CD was mostly frequently used by students for study and assignment preparation. Only 7% of students viewed the information prior to lectures (Figure 1). The external web links to other Internet hydrological web sites were used to varying extents. Frequent use was made of this facility by 25% of the students and 26% sometimes accessed the Internet links.

Positive comments received from the students about the Hydrology CD included:

"interesting concise format, comprehensive without distracting information".

"encourages use of CD which is better as it shows relationships between systems better than any lecture notes could because of the interactive nature".

"environmentally friendly not handing out notes."

Negative comments included:
"Would have been easier to follow if the topics were under lecture headings so you understood exactly what you were meant to have gained."

"Hard to pick parts that are most important on the CD as it has too much information."

"CD should be altogether before we use it."

Figure 1

Figure 1: Estimate of use of the Hydrology CD by students as
assessed at the completion of the teaching period.

Compared to the start of the teaching period, there was considerable increase in student perception of their knowledge of hydrological issues at the end of the teaching period (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Student perception of their knowledge of hydrological issues prior to and at the end of the teaching program, expressed as percentage of students who recorded a yes/no response to 15 questions about various aspects of hydrology.

An evaluation of the extent to which students integrated detailed knowledge of hydrology into their environmental management plan demonstrated that one quarter of students were highly successful in doing this (Table 1). This information was collected when the assignments were marked. Most students (60%) applied hydrological information at a more superficial level.

Table 1: Assessment of the extent to which students integrated detailed knowledge of hydrology into their environmental management plan, submitted a clear report, understood the concepts and identified key information required for successful implementation of the plan.

% of class with range of marks
< 5960 - 6970 - 7980 - 89> 90
Integration of knowledge a
Clarity b
Understanding c 4.716.341.927.99.3
Inclusion of key knowledge d 7.016.337.214.025.6
  1. degree to which hydrological information was integrated into the management plan in an appropriate way
  2. clarity of presentation of management plan and focus on main issues
  3. depth of understanding of the complexity of the issues
  4. identification of information required or already available for successful implementation of the management plan

Discussion and conclusion

The feedback from students in response to questionnaires and analysis of the four criteria used to assess the major assignment demonstrated that this project was successful in teaching complex issues in environmental hydrology. The major factor contributing to this success was the availability of the Hydrology CD.

The development of the Hydrology CD was a time consuming task. It was created in a format that can be continually updated. Students provided informal as well as formal feedback on the content, format and usefulness of the CD-ROM and suggestions for improvement will be incorporated into the 2001 version. The CD-ROM provided a platform for improving the introductory curriculum on hydrology. It emphasised an integrated approach to teaching environmental issues that are associated with hydrological phenomena. The capacity to provide extensive information to students in a highly accessible form (ie. their own CD-ROM) was far more useful than placing the equivalent information in the Reserve Collection in the university library. The quantity of information also far exceeded that which would be considered appropriate to hand out to students in printed material.

Implementation of the program will continue in 2001, with increased emphasis on facilitating ease of use of the Hydrology CD by students. More detailed analysis of limitations in student use of the CD-ROM is also required. There is a need to integrate the use of the CD-ROM more closely with that of the Student Learning Plans. The combined use of both teaching and learning tools has great potential to ensure students to develop their capacity to think and act at the high level of complexity required for analysis of important environmental problems.


We are grateful to Dr Annette George and Dr Brenton Knott for contributing to the development of the improved curriculum in the introductory hydrology unit. Professor Siva Sivapalan (Centre for Water Research, UWA), Tennille Winter (undergraduate student in Land and Water Management, UWA) and Rachel Poulter (PhD student in hydrology, UWA) and students enrolled in the unit Hydrology 250.300 during 2000 provided valuable feedback on the CD-ROM. We also thank Dr Linda Moore (Water and Rivers Commission, WA) for contributing important information for use in the environmental management plan.


Biggs, J. M. and Collis, K. F. (1989). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO Taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.

Boulton-Lewis, G. M. (1995). The SOLO Taxonomy as a means of shaping and assessing learning in higher education. Higher Education Research and Development, 14, 143-154.

Boyle, P. and Trevitt, C. (1997). Enhancing the quality of student learning through the use of Subject Learning Plans. Higher Education Research and Development, 16, 293-308.

Lockwood, P. V. and Daniel, H. (1998). What does interactive multimedia offer as a tool for teaching tertiary science? In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/l/lockwood.html [verified 13 Dec 2000]

Trevitt, A. C. F. (1995). Interactive multimedia in university teaching and learning: Pointers to help promote discussion of design criteria. Computers in University Biological Education Virtual Conference, Jan 30-Feb 10. CITI Liverpool. UK. http://www.liv.ac.uk/ctibiol/CUBE95/CUBE.html [verified 13 Dec 2000]

Authors: Yvette Oliver, Lyn Abbott, Keith Smettem
Soil Science and Plant Nutrition
The University of Western Australia

Elizabeth Santhanam
Evaluation of Teaching Unit
Organisational and Staff Development Services
The University of Western Australia

Please cite as: Oliver, Y., Abbott, L. K., Smettem, K. R. J. and Santhanam, E. (2001). Promoting interdisciplinary learning in environmental hydrology using a CD-ROM. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/oliver.html

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