Date of Award


Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)




Kirk A. Maasch

Second Committee Member

Stephen A. Norton

Third Committee Member

John Thompson


This investigation explored the understanding of phase changes of water in the atmosphere among college undergraduates. The study began with a series of interviews with six earth science students at the University of Maine, during which questions were posed regarding the formation and composition of clouds. An analysis of interview results indicated that many students had difficulty with the correct identification of water in its different states, and were unable to identify the sources of moisture in certain cases of cloud formation. Multiple-choice surveys were developed from the interview results, and distributed as pre/post tests to different sections of an introductory geology class at the University. Identical surveys were also given as pre-assessments to participants in "Sea Semester", a prominent scientific field study program at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Statistical testing of scores indicated a uniformly low level of initial literacy in the focus topic, among all samples. At the University of Maine, post-test scores indicated that students who received inquiry-based thought problems as a supplement to lecture instruction experienced a scoring advantage of approximately six percentile points. The results of this study show a measurable increase in effect where inquiry-based tools are employed in teaching atmospheric concepts, and further development and testing of such materials is recommended. Furthermore, the strong cognitive ties noted between atmospheric processes and the fundamental principles of phase change suggest that an integrated educational approach to these topics might lead to more durable and accurate understanding on the part of students.