Teaching Spatial Thinking Across the Geoscience Curriculum

Spatial thinking is one of the hallmarks of geoscientific thinking (e.g. Kastens et al., 2009; Manduca and Kastens, 2012), and it is multifaceted (e.g. Liben and Titus, 2012; Ormand et al., 2014). To produce graduates who are proficient at it, we need to infuse it in our undergraduate curricula. Here are a handful of examples of how geoscience faculty have incorporated spatial thinking in their undergraduate courses.
Jump down to exercises for introductory courses or exercises for a wide variety of upper-level courses.

Spatial Thinking in Introductory-Level Courses

  • Investigating Earthquakes: GIS Mapping and Analysis: Users download and format near real-time and historical earthquake data from the USGS. They use latitude and longitude fields to plot the data in a GIS. They analyze patterns by querying records and overlaying datasets. The focus of the chapter's case study is earthquake prediction. Users examine earthquake distributions, monitor current earthquake activity, and try to predict where the next big earthquake will occur on Earth.
  • Journey Across the Pacific introduces students to bathymetrical survey methods and allows them to explore different bathymetric features of the Pacific Ocean using GeoMapApp.
  • Data Detectives teaches students to use geospatial technology as a key method in finding answers to environmental problems.
  • Environmental Assessment of Newark Road Prairie: Students conduct an initial field reconnaissance, measure the discharge of a stream that flows through the prairie (inflow and outflow), describe prairie soils, and measure water levels at seven previously installed water table wells and four staff gages. All field data, including GPS coordinates of the positions of discharge measurements, soils samples, and wells, are recorded in a standardized data dictionary. Data are downloaded in the lab and utilized for the construction of a water table map (by hand) and an assessment of site conditions and potential impacts.
  • Annotating Change in Satellite Images: During this exercise, students compare a series of satellite images taken 3-4 years apart to investigate the effects of human land use. They will annotate the images using ImageJ software and use the annotated images to explain their findings. The LANDSAT images provided show an area near Hong Kong where land is being reclaimed from the sea by dredging.
  • Historical Urban Land Use: A historic land-use map or maps for your urban area (e.g., Jersey City, NJ) will be scanned and rectified to real-world coordinates. This map(s) can then be overlain with more modern maps and data sets (e.g., NJ Known Contaminated Site List (KCSL). Students will pose hypotheses to explain patterns of contamination in the context of historic land use.

For more ideas, explore the complete collection of spatial thinking teaching activities

Spatial Thinking in Upper-Level Courses

  • The Spatial Thinking workbook project has several spatial thinking exercises for Mineralogy, including activities on crystal symmetry, polymorphs, and Miller Indices; spatial thinking exercises for Sedimentary Geology, including activities on sedimentary structures; and spatial thinking exercises for Structural Geology, including activities on folds, faults, and microstructures.
  • Directed Discovery of Crystal Structures Using Computer Visualizations: This online exercise uses a "discovery-based" approach and the latest online crystallographic information and visualization software to teach the spatial relationships and crystal-chemical rules that govern the crystal structures of common minerals and other crystalline solids.
  • Teaching Geologic Map Interpretation Using Google Earth: For many students, the vertical view below of eroded and dipping units is little more than a two dimensional pattern of colors. Using tilt, rotate, and zoom in Google Earth, students can see the third dimension with extraordinary clarity.
  • Cascadia Great Earthquake and Tsunami Suite: The Cascadia Earthquakes and Tsunami Suite contains five case studies organized around understanding the potential for large earthquakes and tsunami and their impact in the Cascadia region of North America. They not only explore the potential for a great earthquake in Cascadia and its impact, but they also include an investigation of the 2004 Great Sumatra earthquake and tsunami and an investigation of the potential for and impact of a magnitude 7 earthquake on the Seattle fault, which runs through downtown Seattle Washington.
  • Northwest Passage: In this exercise, undergraduate students use Google Earth and information from several web sites to investigate some of the consequences of climate change in polar regions, including the seasonal and longer-term changes in the extent of the ice cap at the North Pole, disintegration of ice shelves, opening of shipping routes, access to sources of fossil fuels, geopolitics, effects on polar bears, and possible secondary effects on climate in other regions due to changes in ocean currents.
  • Northridge: A Case Study of an Urban Earthquake: The 1994 Northridge Earthquake Case Study explores the mystery of how such a major fault could have been missed within a tectonic basin that is one of the most studied in the world. It also helps students understand the relationship between subsurface geology and the damage patterns of an earthquake.
  • Using LiDAR and GPS data to model the water table: In this exercise, students process LiDAR data for the Hamilton College campus area to determine accurate elevations of wellheads of sampling wells on campus. Students use both GPS readings and orthophotos to determine wellhead locations and combine those with water levels, casing heights, and wellhead elevations to interpolate a groundwater surface under the campus and portray the groundwater in ArcScene.
  • Mapping commingled magmas, Eastern Head of Isle Au Haut, Maine: This is a week-long bedrock mapping project on Isle Au Haut, in Penobscot Bay, Maine, with three to four field days followed by 1-2 lab days. The bedrock is Silurian gabbro and granite that commingled in a magma chamber yielding hybrid magmas and spectacular examples of magmatic pillows and pipes that can be used to evaluate the fluid kinematics of the magma chamber. Students mapped intrusive contacts, collected GPS-located data on contact strike and dips and pipe trend and plunges, and finally made a map in ArcGIS.

For more ideas, explore the complete collection of spatial thinking teaching activities


Kastens, K.A., C.A. Manduca, C. Cervato, R. Frodeman, C. Goodwin, L.S. Liben, D.W. Mogk, T.C. Spangler, N.A. Stillings, and S. Titus (2009). How Geoscientists Think and Learn: EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, v. 90, n.31, pp. 265-266.

Liben, L.S. and S.J. Titus (2012). The importance of spatial thinking for geoscience education: Insights from the crossroads of geoscience and cognitive science, in Kastens, K.A. and C.A. Manduca, eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Special Paper 486, pp. 51-70.

Manduca, Cathryn A. and Kim A. Kastens (2012). Mapping the domain of complex earth systems in the geosciences, in Kastens, K.A. and Manduca, C.A., eds., Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: Geological Society of America Special Paper 486, pp. 91-96.

Ormand, Carol J., Cathryn A. Manduca, Thomas F. Shipley, Basil Tikoff, Cara L. Harwood, Kinnari Atit, and Alexander P. Boone (2014). Evaluating Geoscience Students' Spatial Thinking Skills in a Multi-Institutional Classroom Study: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 62, n. 1, pp. 146-154.