Kim Kastens

Education Development Center

Materials Contributed through SERC-hosted Projects

Project Leader on this Project

Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences part of Research on Learning:Synthesis Study
This project synthesizes existing knowledge and articulates unanswered questions in critical areas of research on cognition and learning relevant to the Geosciences.

Activities (2)

Concept Test: Mid-Ocean Ridges part of Cutting Edge:Visualization:Examples
Single item multiple choice questions, based on mid-ocean ridge bathymetric data, suitable for using in the middle of a lecture to assess students' learning of basic plate tectonic concepts.

Mentally Visualizing Large Geologic Structures from Field Observations: A Behavioral Study part of Cutting Edge:Structural Geology:Activities
Artificial outcrops made of plywood that together would form a large geologic structure, part of which is eroded or covered by dirt and vegetation, are constructed on campus. One structure is an elongate basin, and another is an anticline. After walking around the outcrops, students are asked to choose among an array of scale models of possible geologic structures the one that they think best represents the buried structure. Then they orient the model so that it is aligned with the actual structure in the real world. -

Essays (73)

Too Fast to Measure part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I'm thrilled to report that the book that grew out of the Synthesis project, the parent project of this blog, is now out: Earth & Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences, Geological Society of America Special Publication 486, edited by Cathy Manduca and myself. It's available from the Geological Society of America bookstore However, having shared my thrill at holding the book in my hands, I have to admit that there are some ideas in the book that I have already outgrown during the months that the book has been in production.

"Some Students Will..." part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Recently my "Teaching & Learning Concepts In Earth Sciences" students and I renovated one of my old data-using lab activities, from the days when I used to teach "Planet Earth" to non-science majors. The old version of the activity led students step-by-step through a series of manipulations of an on-line global data base, using a professional data visualization tool. The old directions provided a lot of scaffolding for how to make data displays of ocean salinity in and around the Mediterranean Sea, but little support for how to extract insights about earth processes from those displays. The new version assumes that students are already pretty adept at getting computer apps to do what they want, and refocuses the scaffolding on how to think like a geoscientist, how to think about the meaning of the data.

A more nuanced view of Concept-driven versus Data-driven visualizations part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In several previous posts, I explored how Clark & Weibe's (2000) idea of data-driven versus concept-driven visualizations plays out in geosciences and how this distinction could be important as we help students learn to learn from visualizations. This semester, in my course on "Teaching & Learning Concepts in Earth Sciences," students found and documented visualizations that afford insights via spatial thinking about a topic they are working on for a semester long project. Applying the idea of data-driven versus concept-driven visualizations to this image collection surfaced several additional nuances to the categorization schema.

Turning Nature Into Categories part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Two years ago in this space, I wrote about "Turning Nature into Numbers," humanity's accomplishment of developing instruments and methodologies that can turn the fleeting qualitative impressions that we have of our surroundings into quantitative values–numbers–which can be readily stored, shared, transmitted and compared. Numbers are great, but it seems to me that for developing an opinion or making a decision, humans often want categories rather than numbers.

Older but Wiser part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In a recent post, I wrote about "Case Based Reasoning," a powerful form of learning in which a person compares and contrasts multiple instances of something and extracts a common pattern or thread of insight. Without using that term, Ault (1998) described a very similar process for how geologists extract insight from nature, using the example of deep sea fans. Each fan is a little different from the others, and the essence of deep-sea-fan-ness lies in the aspects they have in common. This reasoning process is found throughout geosciences. For example, Marie Tharp's discovery of the rift valley of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge came about as she slogged through thousands of kilometers of echo sounder profiles and extracted the common schema of a rift-shaped feature reminiscent of the East African Rift Valley.


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Rocks as Models part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I was leading an Earth Science teacher professional development workshop recently, and the subject turned to models: physical models, computer models, data models, mathematical models, graphical models, etc. Afterwards, one of the teachers said to me "Well, it seems like EVERYTHING we use in teaching Earth Science is a model." And I said, "Well, it's not THAT extreme. Rocks aren't models....."

Bad Diagrams part of Earth and Mind:Posts
All in all, I'm a fan of the New York State Earth Science Regents course and of the accompanying Earth Science Regents exam. New York state enrolls more students in high school level Earth Science than any other state, and confronting the common exam has helped to build a community of practice among New York State Earth Science teachers that is the envy of Earth Science teachers in other states. I especially like the emphasis on building and assessing representational competence–the ability to understand and make inferences from diagrams, maps, profiles, block diagrams, graphs and other visual representations. However, I have to say that the most recent Earth Science Regents exam (August 20ll) had two really terrible diagrams, so bad that I think they are more likely to sow confusion than illuminate earth processes.

Questions we don't think to ask part of Earth and Mind:Posts
The most interesting thing I learned over Thanksgiving arrived during a pre-dinner walk along a rural Massachusetts road heavily impacted by the Halloween storm. Many tree limbs were shattered, fallen to the ground or dangling from their parent trees. My cousin's daughter's friend Mike pointed out that the broken limbs still had their leaves, browned and stiff but still connected, while the healthy trees had lost all their leaves. The rest of us looked more carefully, and sure enough, his observation was correct, tree after tree.

Faculty Professional Development by means of Case Based Reasoning part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I've now been to five workshops in the "On the Cutting Edge" series of professional development workshops for college geoscience faculty (this one, and this, and this, and this, and this). I've been amazed and somewhat bemused at how well they work. People show up, they contribute genuinely good teaching ideas, they ask seriously probing questions of the expert speakers, new ideas get generated through small group discussion, and then people go home and actually make use of ideas from the workshop in their teaching practice. I'm not the only person who really likes these workshops: as of about a year and half ago, 1400 geoscience faculty from more than 450 geoscience departments had participated in Cutting Edge workshops (Manduca, et al, 2010). In contrast, many of my colleagues concerned with the quality of science education in other disciplines moan and groan about how hard it is to get college faculty to pay attention to research on learning or to change their teaching practice. So how–by what mechanism–does the Cutting Edge approach work? Here's an idea.

Seeking Kosmos part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I've been working on a set of concept maps showing major domains of geoscientific thinking as part of the Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences. One tendril of the "Temporal Thinking in Geosciences" concept map branches off to depict "Historical sciences." As described in an earlier post on temporal thinking, these are fields of science or scholarship that pay careful attention to the timing and sequence of events, and use timing and sequence to provide constraints on causality. Our concept map shows nodes for Cosmology, Geology & Paleontology, Archeology, History, and Developmental Psychology.

But should we call them "lies"? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Two interesting things have transpired since my previous blog post, "Telling Lies to Children." First, Dana discovered a fabulous cartoon, the exactly speaks to the topic of the post. Wonderously, the cartoon is published under a creative commons license, so I can reproduce it here for you:

"Telling Lies to Children" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
(Co-author Dana is Kim's 15-old daughter, a veteran of the New York State Earth Science Regents course, now taking integrated biology and chemistry. She is also an avid reader, currently working her way through the 42 Discworld books of Sir Terry Pratchett.) In The Science of Discworld, Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen make the case that education necessarily involves telling "lies to children." We realize that telling lies to children is a pretty common part of traditional parenting (Santa Claus, stork, etc.), but in school! in the citadel of learning and truth! How can this be?

Embedded Energy versus Embedded Cognition part of Earth and Mind:Posts
"Embedded energy" refers to the energy that was used to create an object–including mining or growing or catching the raw materials, manufacturing and assembling the pieces, transporting the raw materials and finished product, and installing the object in its place of use. A spoon, to take a simple example, required energy to mine the ore, to smelt the ore to make the metal, to shape the metal into spoon shape, plus more energy to transport ore to the smelter, metal to the factory, spoon to the store. Embedded energy is contrasted with the energy required to power or use the product during its lifetime. There is a somewhat parallel concept, which refers to the knowledge and thinking that was required to design and perfect the object.

You Map It; You Own It part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In honor of World Oceans Day, Google Earth has updated their coverage of seafloor bathymetry, using data from the Global Multi-Resolution Topographic (GMRT) Synthesis. The GMRT folks work upstairs from me and I love beautiful maps, so I went to check out the site. The perky voice of Google's narrator on the highlights video lures the viewer in: "Let's begin by visiting the Lamont seamounts." The screen view plunges dramatically down through the sea surface, and brings us to a line of three seamounts off the coast of Mexico. To my eye, these weren't just any old three seamounts. I know these seamounts well. Actually, I discovered them.

Data-Driven versus Concept-Driven Animations part of Earth and Mind:Posts
One of my early Earth & Mind posts explored how Clark & Wiebe's (2000) idea of "concept-driven visualizations" and "data-driven visualizations" would play out in geosciences. A concept-driven visualization is generated from a concept or theory in the mind of a scientist or scientific illustrator. Although the concept was originally constructed from observations of the earth, the visualization itself is not directly tied to a specific empirical data set. In contrast, a data-driven visualization uses empirical data to formulate the visualization. There is a direct digital chain of custody from the data set to the visualization. I now realize that a similar distinction can be drawn among scientific animations. We can think of "concept-driven animations," and "data-driven animations."

In which I encounter a "Merchant Of Doubt" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In the course of my work with science and environmental journalism students, I had repeatedly heard of efforts by various people and organizations to stir up doubt about the scientific evidence concerning prominent medical and environmental issues. Thus it was with great interest that I opened a new book, Merchants of Doubt, by Namoi Oreskes and Erik Conway. The book promised to tell me "How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Warming," with chapters on acid rain, the ozone hole, second hand tobacco smoke, global warming, and DDT. A short way into the book, my interest took a sharp turn towards the personal. One of the four protagonists of the story turned out to be Dr. William Nierenberg, who had been the Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography during the years that I studied there for my PhD. Nierenberg starred in two chapters: on acid rain and global climate change.

Does "form follows function" apply in geosciences? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
"Form Follows Function." I've run across this idea a number of times, and it has tickled the spatial thinking part of my attention span. Cups, bowls, bathtubs, and spoons share a fundamental attribute–their concave upwards shape. This shape or "form" follows inevitably from the requirements of holding a liquid in the presence of gravity. Bird wings and airplane wings share a cross-sectional shape, flatter on the bottom and more rounded on the top, to perform the function of lifting the wing as it moves through the air. I'd always considered "form follows function" to be a poor fit to most objects I care about as a geoscientist.

Learning to Learn from Data part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Scientists learn from data. Learning to learn from data is obviously an essential aspect of the education of a future scientist. These days, however, many other kinds of people also learn from data–including business people, investors, education leaders, and people who care about pollution, disease, or the quality of their local schools. My daily newspaper is rich in data-based graphs and maps–and so is the newsletter from my local library. These days, learning to learn from data is a necessary part of everyone's education. However, learning to learn from data is not a typical part of everyone's education. This post explores what might be required to construct a thorough learning progression for learning from Earth Science data, beginning where a good elementary school leaves off and carrying on through to what an upper level college course or adult job might demand.

GSA goes Metacognitive part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Looking around the website of the Geological Society of America, I found myself on the page announcing the Society's upcoming 125th anniversary celebration. In bold print, the Society congratulates itself for: "ADVANCES IN GEOSCIENCES: Our science, our societal impact, and our unique thought processes."

Should we call on non-volunteering students? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Before the beginning of this semester's "Frontiers of Science" course, the folks in charge of Columbia's Core Curriculum put on a one-day professional development session for instructors new to the course. Among the suggestions for leading a successful seminar was that we should call on non-volunteering students. This suggestion took me aback. It did not align with my prior practice teaching either undergraduates or graduate students at Columbia. And it certainly did not align with my own experience as a university student.

Multiple lines of reasoning in support of one claim part of Earth and Mind:Posts
One of the attributes of most K-12 classroom science inquiries is that the reasoning that leads from data to interpretation is simple and straightforward. From this experience, students develop the habit of mind of expecting that a data set in science class will lead by a single linear robust chain of reasoning to a claim or "answer," like this: Earth Science, in my experience, tends not to work this way. Instead, many of the most bold and important claims in Earth Science have been built from many different forms of data and observations.

Astronomers' Tricks with Light part of Earth and Mind:Posts
This semester I am teaching a section of Frontiers of Science, the science course in Columbia University's famous Core Curriculum. Under the auspices of the core curriculum, generation upon generation of Columbia undergraduates have studied great accomplishments of human creativity in literature, art, music and philosophy. Beginning seven years ago, the powers that be decided that science is also a great accomplishment of humanity, and added the "Frontiers" course. This semesters' version spans four disciplines: Brain & Behavior (Neuroscience), Astronomy, Earth Science, and Biodiversity. The topics are intended to encompass material that most students would not have studied in high school, so that every student finds something interesting and challenging in the course. A side effect of this course design is that no single faculty member knows all or even most of the material. The College has tried hard to establish a supportive community of practice among the nineteen seminar leaders, and sharing ideas across disciplines has been one of the more rewarding aspects of teaching the course. The metamessage that is supposed to be accumulating across the four topics is "Scientific Habits of Mind," how scientists think and learn. The course materials never use the term "Epistemology," but that is in large part what this course is about–how scientists know what they know. I've been using the Claims/Evidence/Reasoning mantra that I picked up from the IQWST curriculum developers to articulate the elements that students need to incorporate into a scientific explanation. I have been stunned to realize how different is the nature of evidence and reasoning in the four disciplines we are teaching.

Does Memory Integrate over Time? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Warning: This post is mostly not about Geosciences. But it is an idea that grew in my mind as I worked on the previous post about temporal thinking in geosciences, so you're going to hear about it anyhow, dear reader. There is one idea about evolution at the very end. I have the sense that my memory integrates over time. Here's what I mean

Temporal Reasoning in Geosciences part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Claim, Evidence, Reasoning. One school of thought in science education places great emphasis on fostering students' ability to articulate a claimabout an aspect of the world, back up that claim with evidence, and construct a coherent line of reasoning to show that the evidence does indeed support the claim. In geology, the evidence often has to do with the timing, or sequence, or rates, of events in the past. Dozens of geologist-lifetimes have been invested in figuring out to constrain what happened at what time in earth history. And then thousands of geologist-lifetimes have been invested in using these techniques to attach dates to bits of rock or mud. Geology students spend entire courses learning to think about dates, times, and ages, via fossils, via magnetic signature of rocks and mud, via stable isotope ratios, via unstable isotope ratios, via geometry of cross-cutting relationships. So what is the big deal about dates and ages? Why spend so much time and effort on these factoids?

Projective Spatial Concept part of Earth and Mind:Posts
One of the claims that geoscience educators make when defending our field as part of a liberal arts education is that students will have a better understanding of the Earth around them; they will see landscapes and earth processes differently, more profoundly, more insightfully. My own foray into cognitive science seems to be having the same effect on me: on my various trips this summer, I caught myself looking at landscapes differently. But this was a different "different." On a flight from Salt Lake City to Portland Oregon, I woke up from a nap and looked out the window to see a flat terrain speckled with discrete dark patches (click photo to enlarge). The patches had irregular edges and varied in size.

Collapsing mountains and embodied cognition part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Earlier this year, I wrote in this very space: ...many Earth processes of global significance... have [the] effect of redistributing energy away from localities of high energy concentration towards localities of lower energy concentration. The net effect is a more dispersed spatial distribution of energy....Weathering and erosion have the net effect of breaking up over-concentrations of gravitational potential energy (aka mountains) and dispersing that energy in the form of kinetic energy of sediment particles down the mountainside and across the lowlands to the sea. I believed what I wrote, one hundred percent–in an intellectual sense, that is. Then I went to Alaska, to the Kenai Penninsula and the Aleutians–and now I really believe it.

J. Harlen Bretz, Spatial Thinker part of Earth and Mind:Posts
When my daughter Holly was little, she wanted me to tell her stories. I found it difficult to make up stories from scratch. Eventually, inspired by a book called The Tale of Chip the Teacup, we found a work-around. I would tell familiar stories from the point of view of an unexpected character: Beauty and the Beast from the point of view of the Beast; Snow White from the point of view of Grumpy, and so on. I found this sufficiently doable, and Holly found the stories sufficiently original. At the recent Spatial Cognition 2010 conference, I found myself in an similar position, telling the familiar story of the geological history of the Pacific Northwest from the point of view of spatial cognition.

Seagoing Science Revisited part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I'm writing from the Coast Guard research icebreaker Healy, offshore from the Aleutians, where I am at sea with my husband Dale and daughter Dana. Dale spends four to five months a year aboard this ship, making the complex suite of science instrumentation work for science cruises in the Arctic. But I've never been on this ship, and Dana has never been on any research vessel. The Coast Guard sometimes allows family members to ride the ship during transit legs, and so Dana and I are aboard for the three day run from Seward, Alaska, to Dutch Harbor. I feel a bit like Rip van Winkle, having gone to sleep and awoken 17 years later to find that some things have changed in seagoing science and others have stayed the same. I last sailed in 1993, as Chief Scientist aboard the R/V Ewing at the Vema Fracture Zone.

Engineering & Technology for All? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In my most recent post, I asked whether modern education was providing adequate on-ramps into science-related careers for young people whose talents lie in making things, building things, and fixing things. In this context, it is interesting to take a look at the recently released "Framework for Science Education" from the Board on Science Education of National Academies. This new framework organizes disciplinary content into four domains. Three are familiar from the 1996 standards: Physical Sciences, Earth & Space Sciences, and Life Sciences. But the fourth domain is new: "Engineering & Technology."

John Diebold: Implementor Extraordinaire part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Geosciences lost a true original when John Diebold died on July 1, 2010. John's pathway into and through science was convoluted. He was a local boy, from Nyack, who "ran away to sea" on an early Lamont-Doherty research vessel. For decades, he was the practical brains behind the seismic system on Lamont's world-ranging research vessels, most recently the R/V Marcus Langesth. He sailed on three Lamont ships, plus 16 other research vessels, including a staggering 26 legs as Chief or Co-Chief Scientist. Interspersed among various hands-on roles at sea and around the Lamont Machine Shop, he patched together an academic record, first a bachelor's degree, then a PhD. He managed to span the breadth of seagoing science, from the greasiest on-deck repair job, through design of software to turn data into insights, to interpretation of earth processes from novel observations. In the context of Earth & Mind, John's death has gotten me to thinking about how many different talents are needed to push back the frontiers of knowledge in geosciences...and to wondering whether we are recruiting and fostering the necessary range of talents in the next generation.

Kim's First Lesson on Learning Goals part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Last week, my daughter Dana took the Algebra Regents Exam, her first encounter with the Regents system. New York State has had state-set exams for high school academic subjects since my mother was in high school, and they are generally accepted rather matter-of-factly here, with little of the flap that seems to have accompanied the advent of state curricula and state testing elsewhere in the country. Dana's right of passage got me thinking about my own encounter with the Algebra Regents, in June 1968, at Hamilton High School. Our teacher taught us methodically and conscientiously throughout the school year, and then spent about two weeks reviewing for the Regents. The last day of class, out of the blue, he announced that he was going to teach us one more thing, something that he hadn't taught us during the year.

New Jersey Increases Coverage of Human/Environment Interactions in Education Standards part of Earth and Mind:Posts
A few years ago, Margie Turrin and I plunged up to our eyebrows into the gory details of the science education standards for 49 U.S. states. We were trying get a handle on how the country was answering the perplexing question "To what extent should human/environment interactions be included in science education?" We coded and tallied instances in which teachers were being told to teach about ways in which the environment impacts humans (e.g. natural hazards or ecosystem services) or humans impact the environment (e.g. pollution.) We wrote two papers from the resulting data, saying in short that there was no consensus on this question, that there was more emphasis on humans impacting the environment than the environment impacting humanity, more emphasis on impacts caused by collective entities (e.g. "society," "industry," "agriculture") than by individuals, and that fragments of human/environment education were strewn across the curriculum in disciplines as disparate as health, character education, tech ed, and geography, as well as science. Although our lab is in New York, the New Jersey state line is just 100m or so away, and many New Jersey teachers come to our education programs. So when New Jersey undertook a massive revision of their science standards, we couldn't resist taking a look. We found much to admire in the new standards:

The second law of thermodynamics as a unifying theme of geosciences part of Earth and Mind:Posts
This post was triggered by an insight in Dave Mogk's Efficiency post: "A hurricane is an extremely efficient natural process that redistributes the thermal energy built up in tropical oceans by rapidly transferring this energy to colder, northerly latitudes." It turns out that many Earth processes of global significance, in both solid and fluid earth, have this same effect of redistributing energy away from localities of high energy concentration towards localities of lower energy concentration. The net effect is a more dispersed spatial distribution of energy.

Visual Meme in Water Cycle Diagrams part of Earth and Mind:Posts
(This post is adapted from a talk I gave on "Teaching Complex Earth Systems Using Visualization" at the Cutting Edge workshop on "Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geociences." My powerpoint and those of the other speakers can be downloaded from the online program.) In a previous post, Universal versus Conditional Truths, I made the case that concept-driven visualizations in earth sciences can lead students and other viewers to underappreciate how much variation there is in the earth system. The scientists and illustrators who create such diagrams must make many decisions about what to include and how to depict those feature that they do include. Of necessity they typically leave out more options than they include. Today I would like to explore the possibility that the entire community of people who create concept-driven visualizations are collectively under-representing the range of possibilities in the earth system.

Using Logic Diagrams to Organize Knowledge and Pinpoint Ignorance part of Earth and Mind:Posts
(adapted from essay and talk prepared for the Cutting Edge Workshop on "Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences," Carleton College, April 18-20, 2010.) Introduction One of the hardest aspects of learning about complex Earth Systems is organizing fragments of knowledge into some kind of coherent framework. I teach students who want to be science journalists or environmental journalists. These students are looking towards a career in which they will frequently have to jump right into the deep end and come quickly up to speed on complicated new ideas. I am always on the lookout for techniques that will help them construct understandings quickly and accurately, techniques that will continue to work for them when they no longer have me and their other professors to scaffold their learning, techniques that will help them to become effective self-directed learners. One of the most powerful techniques that I have come up with is a type of concept map I call a logic diagram.

Using Logic Diagrams to Organize One's Knowledge and Pinpoint One's Ignorance Concerning Complex Earth Systems part of Cutting Edge:Complex Systems:Workshop 2010:Participant Essays
Kim Kastens (kastens@ldeo.columbia.edu) April 6, 2010 Introduction One of the hardest aspects of learning about complex Earth Systems is organizing fragments of knowledge into some kind of coherent framework. I ...

Reflections from the Front Lines of Interdisciplinarity part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I recently spoke on a panel about "Interdisciplinary Research" at a conference of education researchers. I was recruited to provide an eye-witness account from the point of view of someone who does interdisciplinary research, to be followed by three speakers who research interdisciplinarity. I found this to be an interesting assignment, requiring new thinking on my part. Here's what I came up with:

Challenges Inherent in Teaching Geosciences part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Several inherent attributes of ocean, atmosphere and solid earth sciences contribute to making these disciplines challenging to teach and learn at the K-14 level. These include the large spatial scale of important processes, the consequent reliance on models and representations rather than actual target phenomena in hands-on activities, the centrality of systems thinking and emergent phenomena, and the importance of non-experimental modes of inquiry. None of these difficulties is unique to geosciences, and none is insurmountable, but they do require purposeful attention from educators, curriculum and program designers, and evaluators.

"Sequestration" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I recently blogged about the confusion spawned by the term "negative feedback loop," which has a meaning in popular culture that in some cases can mean exactly the opposite of its meaning in Earth Systems. Continuing to notice how language influences thought, I now offer in awestruck admiration a counterexample of a technical term where the popular meaning and the scientific meaning pull together in glorious harmony. That term would be "carbon sequestration," defined as the processes by which carbon dioxide is either removed from the atmosphere or diverted from emission sources and stored in the ocean, vegetation, soils, or geological formations.

Congratulations to "On the Cutting Edge" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Please join me in congratulating Earth & Mind co-editors Cathy Manduca and Dave Mogk, Earth & Mind computer engineer Sean Fox, plus Barb Tewksbury, Heather Macdonald, Ellen Iverson, Karin Kirk, John McDaris, Carol Ormand, and Monica Bruckner, upon their receipt of the "Science Prize for Online Resources in Education." This prize is given by Science magazine, "to encourage innovation and excellence in education, as well as to encourage the use of high quality on-line resources by students, teachers and the public." The group won for their work in developing the "On the Cutting Edge" website, as documented in an essay entitled "On the Cutting Edge: Teaching Help for Geoscience Faculty."

Haiti as a Metaphor part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I've now put up two blog posts occasioned by the January 12 earthquake Haiti and its aftermath, here and here. Both were upbeat and cheerful, which is to say that neither was an accurate depiction of my actual reaction which was something more between frustration and despair. I used the Haiti earthquake as the opening day topic in a seminar I teach for students who wish to be science or environmental journalists. In preparation, I read widely in the media coverage of the earthquake, dipped into the geoscience literature about the region, and attended the "record reading" held by the seismologists at my lab. My feeling coming out of all of this was that the Haiti earthquake can be read as a metaphor for the rest of humanity and its relationship with the Earth.

"...Only the Good Ones..." part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Funny story about a kid picking apples turns into a parable about the essence of authentic assessment.

Seismologists Gather for "Discourse Over Materials" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Every Friday afternoon, for as long as anyone can remember, the seismologists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have gathered for a lively session of discourse over materials. "Discourse over materials" is a phrase coined by scholars who use ethnographic techniques to study the behavior of scientists and science students as though they (we) were a recently-contacted tribe with mysterious customs and folkways. "Discourse," in this context, lies somewhere in the triangle bounded by "conversation," "discussion," and "argument." "Over materials" refers to the situation where a knot of people gathers around some physical object or representation, which serves as focal point, statement of the problem, source of evidence, and visual aid in the discussion. This form of discourse includes lots of gestures and pointing, and some bouts of "muddle talk." Meaning-making emerges in some complicated way through the interplay among the materials, the spoken words, and gestures (Roth & Welzel, 2001; Ochs et al, 1996.) The seismologists don't call what they are doing "discourse over materials"; they call it "record reading."

Going Negative on "Negative Feedback" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In the first paper coming out from the Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences, we made the bold assertion that: "For understanding the Earth as a complex system, the concept of feedback loops is key... In [geoscience] education, feedback loops function as a "threshold concept," a concept difficult to learn but transformative once mastered. Because feedback loops underpin a stable Earth system, fostering a working knowledge of this concept throughout the decision-making populace could increase civilization's capacity to cope with 21st- century challenges. In spite of its importance, the feedback loop concept is arguably the most under-researched topic in the entire domain of geoscience thinking and learning." Kastens, Manduca, et al, 2009 Even in the absence of new research on this topic, I am ready to stake my reputation on a simple intervention that I am convinced can greatly improve students' and the public's understanding of the concept of feedback loops.

But so Much is Going on at the Same Time part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Students come to us from other science classes with experience in thinking about one thing at a time. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the scientific method, they have often been taught, is to isolate out and control one parameter at a time, to set up experiments in which there is one manipulated variable or perhaps two. Then they show up in Earth Science class, and we want them to think about interactions among many processes and phenomena, all varying over time and space. To get your mind around the water cycle, for example, requires understanding a dozen or so different kinds of reservoirs, and the fluxes among them, and the processes that speed up or slow down each flux. And all of those things are going on at the same time. In general, humans find it difficult to consider many different processes or phenomena at the same time. We do, however, have one sensory modality that is exceptionally good at processing multiple simultaneous signals.

My Catastrophe is Bigger than Your Catastrophe part of Earth and Mind:Posts
A week ago, in my journalism seminar we did a student-produced case study on loss of biodiversity: "The Sixth Extinction." Last week, the lunchtime seminar in my research division at Lamont was a report from the annual conference from the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. The newspaper this week is full of the United National Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I feel as though the scientific community is pulling itself apart, with biologists drawn to to biodiversity loss, geologists drawn to peak oil, chemists and physicists drawn to climate change. Each faction is trying to draw attention of politicians, the public, and media to their favorite impending disaster.

Milk Comes from the Store; Data Comes From the Internet part of Earth and Mind:Posts
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been working with a doctoral student, Sandra Swenson, who has asked 8th, 9th and 12th graders a series of open-ended questions about a widely-used geoscience data map. One of her questions is "How do you think this was made?" A substantial fraction of these kids provided answers along the lines of "it came from a computer," giving no inkling that data had been gathered from the actual Earth in order to create the data representation. I was reminded of the stereotype of the city kid who thinks that milk comes from the grocery store. Imagine my outrage when I came across a website made by adults who should know better.

Where do Data-Driven Visualizations Come From? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Two posts back, I introduced the distinction between data-driven and concept-driven visualizations, and in the last post I explored some of the affordances and pitfalls of concept-driven visualizations. Today I'd like to dig into how data-driven visualizations get made in geosciences–and how much of that process students need to know about. Recall that "a data-driven visualization uses empirically or mathematically derived data values to formulate the visualization" (Clark & Wiebe, 2000, p. 28.) With doctoral student Sandra Swenson, I have been researching how middle school and high school students understand one particular data-driven visualization: a global map of topography and bathymetry.

Universal versus Conditional Truths part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In my previous post, I wrote about the distinction between data-driven visualizations and concept-driven visualizations. Today I'd like to dig deeper into how concept-driven visualizations play out in geosciences, recalling that concept-driven visualizations are "typically generated from a concept or theory and not directly tied to any empirical data" (Clark & Wiebe, 2000). To put the punchline first, I conclude that concept-driven visualizations can synthesize a stunning amount of geoscience information efficiently and compactly, but that they run the danger of overspecifying the features of a heterogeneous planet. Below is an example of a powerful concept-driven visualization from an introductory textbook. This single figure pulls together the findings of geoscientist-centuries of earth exploration. To learn enough about seafloor bathymetry to be able to sketch in the mid-ocean rift valley and the abyssal hill fabric required ship-years worth of echo-sounder data and the cartographic genius of Marie Tharp. To learn enough about mid-ocean ridge magmatism to confidently write "spreading center basaltic vulcanism" required hundreds of rock dredges and thousands of analyses. In terms of insights per square centimeter, this figure is a masterpiece. At the same time, this figure is also a potential source of deep confusion,

Data-Driven Versus Concept-Driven Visualizations part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In a much underappreciated paper, Aaron C. Clark & Eric N. Wiebe of North Carolina State University draw a distinction that should be front and center in the minds of every person who teaches with or learns from scientific visualizations: a distinction between what they call "concept-driven" and "data-driven" visualizations. In creating a visualization, the initial design is typically driven by classifying graphics into two major categories. ... A concept-driven visualization is typically generated from a concept or theory and not directly tied to any empirical data. It does not mean that there isn't any data that either supports or refutes the theory, but this particular exploration does not require [data.] ... A data-driven visualization uses empirically or mathematically derived data values to formulate the visualization. In this case, a specific relationship between data values and the graphic elements is defined so that a graphic characteristic varies in some predetermined fashion. (Clark & Wiebe, 2000, p. 28.) From the point of view of a teacher or learner, data-driven and concept-driven visualizations have different affordances and different pitfalls.

Assistant Professors are Like Fish part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Cathy wrote here recently of how profoundly a systems approach had "infiltrated her thinking," enabling her to "make sense out of seemingly mystifying behavior" across a range of real-world contexts by thinking in terms of "drivers and feedbacks operating on the various players." This perspective, in turn, enables her to prioritize where to focus her energies and identify ways by which she can effectively influence a system. I'd like to enthusiastically endorse Cathy's idea that systems thinking is a skill transferable to problems outside of geosciences, and back it up with a real-world example. Ten years ago, I found myself on a writing team comprising myself, an English professor, an astrophysicist, and an institutional research professional trained in social sciences. On and off for two years, we collaborated on what became the Commission on the Status of Women report on Advancement of Women through the Academic Ranks of the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Where are the Leaks in the Pipeline? None of us had scholarly training or expertise in the content of the pipeline report. Instead, we all brought to the table our discipline-appropriate habits of mind and perspectives and expectations for what constitutes evidence or a persuasive argument. The English professor wrote eloquent prose. The social science researcher wanted tables of numbers and statistics. The physics-trained guy wanted graphs.

Congratulations, Marcia! part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Congratulations to Marcia McNutt, who has been confirmed by the Senate as the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. I trailed a few years behind Marcia in the doctoral program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the 1970's, when women scientists were scarce at Scripps and non-existent in the higher reaches of the profession. Times have indeed changed:

Turning Nature into Numbers part of Earth and Mind:Posts
On October 24, 2009, environmental activists around the world gathered in support of a geophysical data point. With their bodies, banners, and balloons, they formed the numeral 350, advocating that governments should adopt 350 ppm as a target for atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. How remarkable that a number should have such rallying power. How remarkable that humans are able to conceptualize the invisible stuff we live within and breathe into our bodies as a substance made of numbers. Our ability to do so is an end product of a long series of insights and inventions by our scientific predecessors. For hundreds of year, a major activity and accomplishment of Earth Scientists and our predecessor natural historians, has been to turn experienced reality into numbers. Earth Science is sometimes dismissed as merely a "descriptive" or "observational" science, but such an attitude understates both the vastness and the power (and the pitfalls) of the enterprise of mathematicizing that which had previously only been known through non-quantitative human senses. I can jump into a pond or the ocean and sense its temperature with sensors in my skin and describe my sensation in words: "Warm," "Not so cold, come on in," "Cold," "Icey." With the invention of the thermometer, approximately 400 years ago, it became possible to turn these feelings into numbers. Over the same 400 year stretch of time, many attributes and processes of the Earth were turned into numbers: the power of an earthquake, the height of a mountain, the swiftness of the wind, the saltiness of the ocean, the density of minerals, etc., etc. Why was this considered a good thing to do?

Triaging the Behindedness part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Today my institution, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is honoring my former advisor and boss, Bill Ryan. As my small contribution to the day, I offer this essay, written for the L-DEO women scientists' group five years ago. It ends with a story about the Bill Ryan of 25 years ago.

Why Nature is Quiet and the Built Environment is Noisy part of Earth and Mind:Posts
The front page of yesterday's New York Times reports on a bill in Congress that would require a federal safety standard to "protect pedestrians from ultra-quiet cars," including plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. The perceived danger is that pedestrians would not hear the quiet cars coming and would be more likely to be hit. One proposed solution is to require that the cars make an artificial noise, a "fake vroom for safety." This story highlights a profound difference between the built environment and the natural environment: We expect the built environment to be noisy, and we expect nature to be quiet.

Science Education Should Not be Viewed as the Public Relations Arm of the Research Establishment part of Earth and Mind:Posts
The National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE) has released new report called "Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems." Although I found much to agree with in the report, a phrase from the press release rubbed me the wrong way: Engaging the public is a top priority, the AC-ERE believes. "Without an informed knowledge base, citizens and policymakers are ill-equipped to make responsible decisions about our environmental future. It is time to ask how we can best promote environmental literacy by engaging a cyber-connected society for the benefit of environmental science." Note that last line: "..... for the benefit of environmental science."

Even Darwin Struggled with Dip and Strike part of Earth and Mind:Posts
When students were asked what aspects of introductory geology they found most troublesome, dip and strike featured on many students' hit lists (Helmer & Repine, 2006). One thread of my research with psychologist Lynn Liben seeks to understand why dip and strike are so hard for so many students. Instructors and students who have struggled with this topic may find it reassuring to learn that even Charles Darwin struggled with dip and strike. Shortly before leaving on his epic voyage on the Beagle, he wrote to J. S. Henslow, professor of mineralogy and botany at Cambridge University: I should have written to you sometime ago, only I was determined to wait for the Clinometer: & I am very glad to say I think it will answer admirably: I put all the tables in my bedroom, at every conceivable angle & direction I will venture to say I have measured them as accurately as any Geologist going could do. Darwin Correspondence Project: Letter 102 I love the image of one of the greatest observational scientists of all time, with the tables in his bedroom all askew, trying to master his brand new clinometer.

"Boring Volcanic Rocks" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
We've been writing a lot on the blog and in Synthesis Project manuscripts, about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaboration. In so doing, we are reflecting an important trend within Geosciences, as the field tries to grapple with problems that are too big for one brain to solve. Yet even as this trend picks up momentum, there is a discernible countercurrent of colleagues who decidedly do not want to be drawn into interdisciplinarity. I might paraphrase their point of view as: "I study A, and the reason that I'm good at studying A is because I focus on A, and I really don't think that B, C, D, E, and F are as interesting or important as A, and if I did I would have studied them instead of A. So leave me alone, and let me get back to work studying A." Their point is well taken: Deep expertise requires concentrated focus over a long duration, and collaboration takes time. Moreover, without the findings of disciplinary specialists, the interdisciplinary folks would have nothing upon which to build. Usually this tension between the let's collaborate camp and the let me alone camp simmers quietly, perhaps flaring up behind the closed doors of a staff meeting. I was therefore surprised, while thumbing through the current issue of GSA Today, to find an illustration that seemed to express the latter point of view right out there in public for all the world to see. In the midst of an intricate stratigraphic diagram of cross-cutting sedimentary relationships there was a minor unit, conspicuously colored in bright red, and conspicuously labelled as "Boring Volcanic Rocks." Does that really say "boring?" My goodness, how....um...forthright.

Geology equals "Wild card" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
The Wall Street Journal has been running a column co-written by their San Francisco bureau chief (Steve Yoder) and his college age son (Isaac Yoder.) The weekly column has chronicled Isaac's college ...

"How did Economists Get it So Wrong?" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In yesterday's New York Times magazine, Nobel prizewinner economist and columnist Paul Krugman asked "How Did Economists Get it So Wrong?" Earlier this year, in Mother Jones, journalist Dean Starkman asked "How could 9,000 business reporters blow the biggest story on their beat?" Starkman cited a multitude of intertwined factors, including failing financial health of the media industry with consequent newsroom layoffs, desire on the part of business journalists to keep on good terms with key sources inside corporations, and less investigative work by federal regulators. What with one distraction and another, almost all business journalists failed to anticipate that economic collapse was imminent or inevitable. Krugman cites a different multitude of intertwined factors, including mistaking an internally coherent line of reasoning for a correct line of reasoning, and academic infighting. Both writers' arguments are clear and compelling as far as they go. But I think there is another reason: Most people who grew up to be today's economists and business journalists never studied Earth System Science.

Was "Voyage of the Mimi" Effective? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Today my daughter Dana and I went whale-watching on Stellwagen Bank. This area of shoal water and high marine productivity, north of Cape Cod, is where the dramatic narrative segments of the first Voyage of the Mimi were set. The Voyage of the Mimi was an early (1980's) attempt to combine video, software, and print materials to teach math and science in a manner that was both fascinating and accurate. Half of each 30 minute video was a dramatic narrative set on a research vessel, and the other 15 minutes were an expedition to a science research facility where one of the actors from the dramatic narrative met real scientists researching something germane to an issue that had arisen in this week's narrative. Voyage of the Mimi was my personal and immediate introduction to reform ideas in science education, and was surely one of the experiences that lured me into geo-ed.

By Way of Introduction, Part 2 part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Cathy's eloquent By Way of Introduction post has inspired me to try my hand at articulating what I am hoping to accomplish with the Earth & Mind blog. As I see it, humanity faces profound problems in our relationship with our planet, basic, non-negotiable problems such as ensuring sufficient food, potable water, energy, and a stable climate. Throughout the history of our species, Homo sapiens' most effective survival strategies have hinged around our ability to think and to combine the thinking of multiple individuals through mechanisms of distributed cognition (Hutchins, 2000). If, a hundred years from now, our descendants look back on the 21st century and see that human society survived our era intact, it will likely be because we managed to think our way, and collaborate our way, through our problems. I see Earth & Mind: The Blog as a mechanism to facilitate this thinking and collaborating.

"Geologists are comfortable with uncertainty" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In followup to our recent EOS paper "How Geoscientists Think and Learn" (Kastens, Manduca, et al, 2009), Michael D. Max, of Marine Desalination Systems, wrote: "Geologists draw conclusions from observational data, analogs, processes, and often from resources that to other scientists might appear to be totally unrelated. ...Geologists are comfortable with uncertainty as that is normal." I think Dr. Max's point about "geologists are comfortable with uncertainty" is well taken. In fact, this seems to be one of the make or break points in geoscience education for some students.

Extrapolating Beyond the Last Data Point part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In followup to our recent EOS paper "How Geoscientists Think and Learn" (Kastens, Manduca, et al, 2009), Michael D. Max, of Marine Desalination Systems, wrote: "In most scientific disciplines data is produced, analyzed and interpreted. Extrapolation beyond a data set is more or less forbidden. Geologists, on the other hand, are trained from the outset to understand that they almost never will have enough actual data to arrive at a useful solution except in the most closely controlled three dimensional situations such as mine and reservoir mapping. But this usually involves a level of cost that is only rarely obtainable." I think this is an interesting point, that extrapolation beyond the last data point is more or less forbidden in science, but geologists do it anyway.

More Hypothesis Templates part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In an earlier post, I introduced the idea of "hypothesis templates," a device intended to help students learn to generate plausible hypotheses from spatial information. I'm still struggling with the question of how do people, either experienced geoscientists or beginning students, generate meaning from information about the position, configuration, trajectory, orientation or shape of objects or phenomena in the real world. Over the last few days, my collaborators and I have been going through student products from the Lamont Data Puzzle Project, a curriculum development project. Whenever we instructed the students to "Suggest a hypothesis to explain [the observations they had just made from data]," many students struggled and came up with little to nothing. So today, I offer hypothesis templates for two additional common types of observations.

The Meaning of "Meaning": Causes & Consequences part of Earth and Mind:Posts
In an earlier post, I asked "how is it that skilled spatial thinkers can construct meaningful inferences from observations of shape, size, position, orientation, configuration or trajectory of objects or phenomena of the Earth and environment?" It seems to me that "meaningful inferences " fall into two broad categories: causes and consequences. What processes caused the observed spatial phenomena to be the way they are? And, what are the consequences or implications of the observed spatial phenomena?

"...oil is first found ... in the minds of men" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
The first sentence of the first paper coming out from the Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences says: "Decades ago, pioneering petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt pointed out that oil is first found in the human mind" (Kastens, et al, p. 265.) We use Pratt as a jumping off point to introduce the idea that the human mind is an important geoscience tool, the tool with which geoscientists construct causal and predictive models. In fact, Pratt's exact words were: "Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of men" (Pratt, 1952). I can't tell you how many edits and revisions and discussions it took, among co-authors, reviewers and editors, to arrive at wording that captures Pratt's prescient insight while avoiding the 1950's vintage phrasing, which sounds sexist to the 21st century ear.

"Hypothesis templates" for extracting meaning from spatial information part of Earth and Mind:Posts
(Adapted from reflective essay written for the DFG/NSF Spatial Cognition Workshop July 2009, New York) Extracting meaning from spatial data does not come easily for many students. On its surface, a geospatial representation comprises dots, squiggles and blotches of color. The process of turning these dots, squiggles and blotches into a scientific explanation seems woefully underconstrained. Where is a student to start? How is it that skilled spatial thinkers can construct meaningful inferences about causal processes from observations of shape, size, position, orientation, configuration or trajectory of objects or phenomena? What scaffolding can an educator put in place to help a mystified student begin to think methodically and productively about spatial data, without simply telling them the answer? I suggest that it may be possible and useful to equip such students with a suite of "hypothesis templates" that correspond with distinctive, frequently-observed spatial patterns.

"Women Can't be Doctors" part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Yesterday was the 18th birthday of my older daughter. Inevitably, my thoughts drifted back over our years together. A vignette flashed through my memory. We were getting ready for nursery school. Completely out of the blue, Holly announced, "Women can't be doctors." I managed to assemble an astonished response, "Yes, of course women can be doctors....Honey, your own doctor is a woman." Superimposed thoughts and emotions flew through my head: thanks that I had insisted on a female pediatrician, anger that someone could have told Holly such nonsense, hypotheses about who it might have been. It took a while for the mis-statement to hit me as a personal affront, rather than as an abstract generalization. And then I stumbled on: "Holly, I am a doctor, your own mother is a doctor."

Evolution selects for Energy Conservation part of Earth and Mind:Posts
On the national scene, the powers that be are once again squabbling over the question of should the United States meet its future energy needs by finding new sources of energy or by energy conservation. Against this backdrop has been growing in my mind the realization that evolution selects for energy conservation. You may think this is obvious. But it isn't how I was taught in school, and it isn't how natural selection is being presented to the public today.

A Geoscience Example of Mental Rotation? part of Earth and Mind:Posts
Mental rotation is one of the most widely used tests of spatial ability. Identifying microfossils in a microscope is a geoscience task that may call on mental rotation.

The Energy Budget of Thinking part of Earth and Mind:Posts
At the spatial cognition workshop I mentioned in the previous post, we were asked to think big picture thoughts about what we most wanted to find out about spatial cognition. My big wish is to be able to find out the energy costs, literally the calorie expenditure, of various thought processes. This notion is not totally far fetched. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the brain imaging technology that shows specific regions of the brain "lit up" when they are being used, is a measure of blood flow. Blood flows in order to bring oxygen. Oxygen comes in order to support respiration. And respiration occurs in order to generate energy. So at least conceptually, the increase in blood flow that occurs when a brain region is active could be a proxy for energy demand.

Giving Earth Science Away part of Earth and Mind:Posts
I just came home from a workshop on spatial cognition, attended by researchers concerned with how people and other "cognitive agents" think spatially. In her opening comments, Nora Newcombe, the director of the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center mentioned that our meeting was continuing in the tradition of "Giving Psychology Away." I could hear the quotes and capital letters in her voice, so asked my neighbor, a psychologist, what Nora meant by this obviously dripping-with-significance phrase. The phrase turns out to be a quote from Dr. George Miller in his 1969 Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association. He was making the point that psychologists should not keep the insights of psychology to themselves; instead they should "give it away to the people who really need it–and that includes everyone. (p. 1071)" He then went on to say: "I am keenly aware that giving psychology away will be no simple task. (p. 1071)" I think that Earth & Environmental Sciences are in the same position: we need to find ways to give away the insights and world view of Earth Science "to the people who really need it–and that includes everyone."


Events and Communities

Visualization Workshop 2004 Participants

New Geoscience Tools 2008 Participants

Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences Participants

Temporal Learning Journal Club

Web-based Resources 2003 Participants

Research on Learning

Using Data in the Classroom Workshop 2004 Participants

Teaching Structural Geology Participants

InTeGrate Assess Working Group 5-2012

Cutting Edge Spatial Thinking Journal Club