Transforming Spatial Reasoning Skills in the Upper-Level Undergraduate Geoscience Classroom Through Curricular Materials Informed by Cognitive Science Research

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 11:20 AM
Carol J Ormand1,2, Thomas F. Shipley3, Barbara L Dutrow4, Laurel B Goodwin2, Thomas A Hickson5, Basil Tikoff2, Kinnari Atit6, Kristin Michod Gagnier3 and Ilyse Resnick3, (1)Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, Northfield, MN, United States, (2)Univ Wisconsin - Madison, Madison, WI, United States, (3)Temple University, Psychology, Philadelphia, PA, United States, (4)Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, United States, (5)University of St. Thomas, Geology, St. Paul, MN, United States, (6)Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, United States
Spatial visualization is an essential skill in the STEM disciplines, including the geosciences. Undergraduate students, including geoscience majors in upper-level courses, bring a wide range of spatial skill levels to the classroom. Students with weak spatial skills may be unable to understand fundamental concepts and to solve geological problems with a spatial component. However, spatial thinking skills are malleable. As a group of geoscience faculty members and cognitive psychologists, we have developed a set of curricular materials for Mineralogy, Sedimentology & Stratigraphy, and Structural Geology courses. These materials are designed to improve students’ spatial skills, and in particular to improve students’ abilities to reason about spatially complex 3D geological concepts and problems. Teaching spatial thinking in the context of discipline-based exercises has the potential to transform undergraduate STEM education by removing one significant barrier to success in the STEM disciplines.

The curricular materials we have developed are based on several promising teaching strategies that have emerged from cognitive science research on spatial thinking. These strategies include predictive sketching, making visual comparisons, gesturing, and the use of analogy. We have conducted a three-year study of the efficacy of these materials in strengthening the spatial skills of students in upper-level geoscience courses at three universities. Our methodology relies on a pre- and post-test study design, with several tests of spatial thinking skills administered at the beginning and end of each semester. In 2011-2012, we used a “business as usual” approach to gather baseline data, measuring how much students’ spatial thinking skills improved in response to the existing curricula. In the two subsequent years we have incorporated our new curricular materials, which can be found on the project website: http://serc.carleton.edu/spatialworkbook/activities.html

Structural Geology students exposed to the new curricular materials are better able to solve some spatially challenging structural geological problems than students from the baseline year. We are continuing to analyze data from the Mineralogy and Sedimentology/Stratigraphy courses and will have completed the analysis by AGU.