Teaching Spatial Thinking in Mineralogy, Structural Geology, and Sedimentology & Stratigraphy: Tools and Strategies from Cognitive Science Research
Our curricular materials are based on several promising strategies that have emerged from cognitive science research on spatial thinking. These strategies include predictive sketching, making visual comparisons, gesturing, and the use of analogy. We conducted a three-year study of the efficacy of these materials in strengthening the spatial skills of students in these upper-level geoscience courses at three universities. Our methodology relies on a pre- and post-test study design, using several tests of spatial thinking skills administered at the beginning and end of each course, and on embedded assessments within each of the courses. In 2011-2012, we used a "teaching as usual" approach to gather baseline data, measuring improvement in students' spatial thinking skills with the existing curricula. In the two subsequent years we incorporated our new course-specific curricular materials, which can be found on the project website: http://serc.carleton.edu/spatialworkbook/activities.html.
Students in all courses, over all three years, show improvement in spatial thinking skills. Embedded assessments show that students exposed to our new curricular materials are better able to solve some spatially challenging geological problems than students from the baseline year. 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.