What is a Legacy Cycle?

Water Exploration uses a project-based learning approach to help students build a deep understanding about water science and critical water-related issues.  All learning activities and resources are packaged into three modules, or Legacy Cycles.  The Earth Science Literacy Principles provide the organizing framework for the lessons and activities in each Water Exploration Legacy Cycle.  The three Legacy Cycles are Water BasicsWater-Earth Dynamics, and People Need Water.

Discover how the Legacy Cycle works

  • Challenge is an activity that imitates the way scientists approach and solve problems.
  • Generate Ideas allows students to explore, within a group setting, their initial thoughts and ideas about the challenge at hand.
  • Gather Multiple Perspectives gives students an opportunity to listen to experts in the field, describe their own hypotheses and ideas about the same problem.
  • Research & Revise allows students to test their own hypotheses concerning a challenge; for example, through advanced computer based simulations, students are able to vary parameters of a model and study the effects that these changes have on model performance.
  • Test Your Mettle provides a means of formative assessment, allowing students to reflect on what they have learned thus far, and to identify any weaknesses or misconceptions they still may have.
  • Go Public encourages students to share their thoughts and ideas with their peers and provides a summative assessment.

Background for Educators

A Legacy Cycle is a way of organizing lessons and activities in extended inquiry projects that make use of computer technology, Internet resources, and social networking to engage students in a variety of activities that imitate the way scientists approach and solve problems—reading articles, brainstorming with colleagues, designing and carrying out experiments to test hypotheses, conducting campaigns to collect measurements and make observations, interpreting data, and publishing their findings.  The three challenges that comprise each Legacy Cycle are nested and should be worked sequentially in order to enhance student learning.

Each Legacy Cycle challenge encompasses six stages, or categories of activities, through which students progress in order:

  1. Challenge
  2. Generate Ideas
  3. Multiple Perspectives
  4. Research and Revise
  5. Test Your Mettle
  6. Go Public

At any time, students may look ahead to see what's next, or go back to review information or revise work based on new learning.

The “Challenge” presents the task that serves to organize and drive activities; it also establishes the expected outcomes that will serve to satisfy the challenge.  Having this information in advance motivates students to become fully engaged in the learning process and helps them to discern which information/activities are relevant to the task at hand.

Next, students move to the “Generate Ideas” stage, which requires them to consider a set of “essential questions” designed to elicit their prior knowledge about the most important concepts that are fundamental to the challenge.

The next stage, “Multiple Perspectives” introduces students to resources they can use to answer the questions posed in the previous stage.  In Water Exploration, experts’ views are presented as online links to audio/video clips (presentations and/or interviews), scholarly and news articles, and films (short documentaries).  Once they have answered the questions, students communicate their current knowledge on the topic to the teacher and classmates.  This stage presents the opportunity for students to raise any questions that they may have and for the teacher to identify gaps in the students’ knowledge.  Access to experts and scholarly materials is the part of the scientific discovery that is most often lacking in a classroom, where the teacher is usually the only “expert” in sight (Abernathy, 2008).  “Multiple Perspectives” also helps to reinforce that real scientists visit the literature and consult with colleagues before they begin a project in earnest.

The “Research and Revise” section is the next stage; it most closely resembles a traditional classroom, with students being assigned a set of vocabulary words to define, focused labs and/or field investigations, homework assignments, and reading.  Although teachers may have lab manuals and textbooks that serve as excellent classroom resources, in this stage we direct them to current, data-driven, tested online resources appropriate to the challenge.

After completing this stage, students advance to “Test Your Mettle" to take online quizzes and/or carry out other formative assessment exercises.  The purpose is twofold.  First, assessment allows teachers to identify misconceptions and gaps in students’ knowledge that must be addressed in order for the challenge to be properly met.  Assessment helps individual students, or students working together as members of a team, to identify their own need for further learning.  The Legacy Cycle structure permits students to revisit the different stages as often as is desired to correct errors or review information.  While this opportunity to revise may be a new experience for many students, it mimics the approach taken by real scientists, who check and recheck their thinking as their research progresses before publishing their results (Abernathy, 2008).

The “Go Public” stage affords students the chance to present their learning to the teacher and the rest of the class as a project and is their version of publishing.


Abernathy, E., 2008, Barbados fossil corals sea level legacy cycle activity: Austin, Master's thesis, The University of Texas at Austin.

Abernathy, E. and Ellins, K., 2009, Fossil corals and climate change — A legacy cycle, accessed May 7, 2010.

Schwartz, D. L., Brophy, S., Lin, X., and Bransford, J. D., 1999, Software for managing complex learning — Examples from an educational psychology course: Educational Technology Research and Development, v. 47 no. 2, p. 39 to 59.

VaNTH ERC, Partners in Education and Research, accessed May 7, 2010.