Teaching Spatial Thinking in Undergraduate Geology Courses Using Tools and Strategies from Cognitive Science Research

Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Carol J Ormand1,2, Thomas F. Shipley3, Barbara L Dutrow4, Laurel B Goodwin1, Thomas A Hickson5, Basil Tikoff6, Kinnari Atit7, Kristin Michod Gagnier7 and Ilyse Resnick8, (1)Univ Wisconsin - Madison, Madison, WI, United States, (2)Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College, Northfield, MN, United States, (3)Temple University, Psychology, Philadelphia, PA, United States, (4)Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, United States, (5)University of St Thomas, St. Paul, MN, United States, (6)Univ Wisconsin, Madison, WI, United States, (7)Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, United States, (8)University of Delaware, School of Education, Newark, DE, United States
Spatial visualization is an essential skill in the STEM disciplines, including the geological sciences. 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 struggle to understand fundamental concepts and to solve geological problems with a spatial component. However, spatial thinking skills are malleable. Using strategies that have emerged from cognitive science research, we developed a set of curricular materials that improve undergraduate geology majors’ abilities to reason about 3D concepts and to solve spatially complex geological problems.

Cognitive science research on spatial thinking demonstrates that predictive sketching, making visual comparisons, gesturing, and the use of analogy can be used to develop students’ spatial thinking skills. We conducted a three-year study of the efficacy of these strategies in strengthening the spatial skills of students in core geology courses at three universities. Our methodology is a quasi-experimental quantitative design, utilizing pre- and post-tests of spatial thinking skills, assessments of spatial problem-solving skills, and a control group comprised of students not exposed to our new curricular materials. Students taught using the new curricular materials show improvement in spatial thinking skills. Further analysis of our data, to be completed prior to AGU, will answer additional questions about the relationship between spatial skills and academic performance, spatial skills and gender, spatial skills and confidence, and the impact of our curricular materials on students who are struggling academically.

Teaching spatial thinking in the context of discipline-based exercises has the potential to transform undergraduate education in the geological sciences by removing one significant barrier to success.