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Research on Learning in the Geosciences: Contexts, Goals and Opportunities

David Mogk, Earth Sciences, Montana State University - Bozeman

Originally prepared for a workshop on Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences, sponsored by NSF and the Johnson Foundation, Racine WI, July 8-10, 2002

Some Contexts

What are the geosciences? Broadly defined, the geosciences encompass disciplines that study the solid earth (e.g. rocks and their structures), surficial deposits (e.g. soils, surface waters), the atmosphere, and the oceans; related disciplines are also included such as near-space physics, planetology, paleontology and physical geography. In detail, each sub-discipline in the geosciences has developed its own knowledge base, methodologies, philosophies and approaches to problem solving, and cultural attributes that inform the conduct of science in these varied domains, and by extension, educational practice in these subjects. At the same time, in the study of our planet we often apply "first principles" of science shared with sister disciplines in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics to understand the natural world around us—so our work is often inter- or multidisciplinary in its scope.

In recent years there has been a growing movement towards research and education using an Earth system approach (AGU 1997). Connections between different components of the Earth system are being emphasized, interesting research results are being realized at the interfaces between diverse sub-disciplines, and new hybrid disciplines are emerging, e.g. geomicrobiology. Earth system studies increasingly focus on the processes that connect the components of the Earth system: e.g. the transfer of mass and energy through complicated pathways and reservoirs, feedback mechanisms, the physical and biological evolution of systems. Time is an essential component of understanding the Earth system—the concepts of "deep geological time", rates, and fluxes. There is also an increasing awareness of the importance of understanding the linkages between the physical world and the life forms it nurtures (e.g. coupled biogechemical cycling) and with humanity (e.g. dynamics of coupled natural and human systems).

The Earth system is dynamic, heterogeneous, complex and often chaotic. And this presents a number of challenges to learning about a system that is naturally ambiguous, uncertain, and largely unpredictable. The Earth system operates on spatial scales ranging from atomic to planetary, and over time scales that may be considered instantaneous and catastrophic to inexorable over the eons. Earth system processes typically operate beyond every-day human experience, and we consequently rely on other ways of observing the Earth such as remote sensing (e.g. via satellite imaging) or by making inference based on indirect observations of things we can't see directly (e.g. seismic records and tomography). The geologic record is incomplete, and we are left with a detective's mystery trying to fill in the missing pieces. It is very difficult for geoscientists to conduct controlled experiments: we don't have a separate world that can be used as a control for comparison, and given the complexity of natural systems it is difficult to construct comprehensive physical or computational models. Nonetheless, we do find it useful to use simulations or visualizations to model, represent and interpret these complex systems.

The geosciences obviously encompass a wide variety of fields of study, and there are consequently many factors that influence what we teach, how we teach, and whether or not students can or will learn. Here are some observations for context:

Goals for Learning in the Geosciences

Goals for learning must be established in the context of the diverse attributes of the geosciences as outlined above, and in the knowledge that we must reach diverse audiences for different purposes. There are some broad domains where learning goals can be established, appropriate to each subject or audience. The challenge is to translate these broad goals into specific practice across the many interests in geoscience education.

An Invitation to Collaborate

The Earth is a wonderful natural laboratory, and geoscience classes provide great laboratories for research on learning. During the past decade the NSF has sponsored a series of workshops that have helped to build a vibrant community of geoscience educators. The professional societies (e.g. American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, National Association of Geoscience Teachers, American Meteorological Society, American Geological Institute) have contributed in many ways to support geoscience education through theme sessions, committee work, and publications. The Earth and Planetary Sciences are recognized as an important component of the K-12 National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), and geoscience courses are among the most popular on college campuses.

We recognize the significant advances that have been made in cognitive psychology (e.g. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, NRC, 1999) and in research on learning in our sister STEM disciplines. There are ample opportunities to adapt or adopt these lessons to the geosciences. At the same time, the geosciences have special interests and needs related to research on learning that are intrinsic to their subject matter, methodologies and audiences. Important outcomes of this workshop will be:

We anticipate that the proceedings of this workshop will be the first step towards long and productive collaborations with all interested contributors.


American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989, Project 2061 Science for All Americans, 269 pp.

American Geophysical Union, 1997, Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education, Innovation and Change Using an Earth System Approach. F. Ireton, C. Manduca, D. Mogk (eds).

National Research Council, 1996, National Science Education Standards, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

National Research Council, 1999, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

National Science Foundation, 2000, NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000 Understanding and Predicting Earth's Environment and Habitability, NSF 00-27.

Supporting Attachments

Research on Learning in the Geosciences: Contexts, Goals and Opportunities (Acrobat (PDF) 104kB Jun26 12)

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