Spatial Thinking Workbook
Developing and Testing Materials to Improve Spatial Skills in Upper Division Geoscience Courses
The Problem: Spatial thinking is essential for success in a wide variety of fields, including the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. However, the spatial skills of undergraduate geoscience students vary from excellent to nearly non-existent.
The Solution: We are developing teaching activities to strengthen geoscience students' penetrative thinking skills: the ability to visualize spatial relations inside an object. The workbook exercises require students to visualize slices through a variety of objects, both geological and non-geological. The exercises build from simple to complex, scaffolding students' penetrative thinking skills, and use instructional strategies suggested by cognitive science research. We are testing these exercises in three different undergraduate geoscience classes (Mineralogy, Sedimentology & Stratigraphy, and Structural Geology) at three different institutions (Louisiana State University, the University of St. Thomas, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison), to measure their effectiveness at improving students' spatial thinking.
The Significance: Being able to successfully visualize the interior of objects at all scales, from planets to oceans to regional outcrops to hand samples to microscope slides to the atoms within minerals, is a core geoscience skill. Furthermore, students with strong spatial skills are more likely to persist in STEM fields. Therefore, improving the spatial skills of all students in geoscience classes will increase the pool of students, including students from underrepresented groups, who are likely to pursue careers in the STEM fields. This approach, which extends previous work in engineering, will provide a model for other disciplines.
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