Research at the Interface of DBER and Cognitive Science

Thursday, Friday 8:30am-11:30am Gordon: Symphony Meeting Room

Session Chairs

Tim Shipley, Temple University
David Uttal, Northwestern University
Martina Rau, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The workshop aims to strengthen ties between the cognitive science and Geoscience education communities. The first day will include presentations by cognitive scientists who have expertise in education research and discussion about the opportunities and challenges of developing interdisciplinary research teams in this area. The second day will be small group discussion structured by problem of interest to the workshop attendees – with input from cognitive scientists on the basic science questions and from geoscience education researchers on the critical areas for research.


Research on STEM education requires combining Science of Learning (Psychology and Education) with disciplinary content. Findings from robust interdisciplinary research offer new insights to all disciplines. The workshop intends to strengthen the ties between the cognitive science and geoscience education communities by providing an opportunity to discuss research that combines the aims of the cognitive scientists (understanding the nature of the mind), the education scientists (understanding best instruction practices), and disciplinary instructors (anticipating content students find challenging to learn, monitoring learning, and constructing pedagogy to best support learning specific content). The workshop is structured to support design and testing of new educational activities and research on learning challenges.

Much research has shown that strong spatial thinking skills are linked to success in STEM disciplines (e.g., Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009). Furthermore, researchers have established that spatial thinking skills are malleable and can be improved with practice and training (Uttal, Miller, & Newcombe, 2013; Uttal et al., 2013). Therefore, there has been a push by educators and researchers to train these skills to improve STEM outcomes (Sorby et al., 2013). Largely, the field of cognitive science agrees that even though it is often presented as a unitary construct, spatial thinking is comprised of several different kinds of spatial skills (e.g., McGee, 1979; Thurstone & Thurstone, 1941). Whether certain skills are domain-specific or domain-general is still an open question. Some researchers have found that training domain-general spatial thinking skills improves domain-specific spatial skills, such as engineering students' ability to solve calculus problems (e.g., Sorby et al., 2013), whereas others have found that for certain skills domain knowledge matters, such as skill in cross-sectioning in the geosciences (Jee et al., 2009). As the geosciences have been recognized as an especially spatially demanding STEM domain (e.g., Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006; Atit, Shipley, & Tikoff, 2014), it is critical for both cognitive scientists and geoscientists to consider how and which spatial skills are utilized in the field and how they can be effectively developed within the context of the discipline.

The Workshop supports an agenda of research on life-long education in the geosciences from Pre-K through lower, middle, and high school, on to undergraduate, graduate, and post doctoral training, and including professional development.

Target Audience

The target audience for this workshop are geoscience education researchers and disciplinary instructors seeking to design research on education or apply science of learning principles to developing new approaches to instruction. We encourage all participants to bring course materials as foundation for discussion of design as part of the workshop.


  • Develop an understanding of the opportunities and limits of cognitive science research for teaching
  • Develop an understanding of the opportunities and limits of classroom observations and challenges for cognitive science research
  • Form connections for future interdisciplinary research on instructional design


The first day will include an introduction to a cognitive science approach to science education research, and discussion of combining disciplinary expertise with science of learning. The second day will be small group activity with a goal of developing a project or program that combines basic science and education.

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