A Pilot Study of Spatial Thinking for Meteorology Education

Tuesday 4:30pm-5:30pm Red Gym
Poster Session


Peggy McNeal, Towson University
Todd Ellis, Western Michigan University
Heather Petcovic, Western Michigan University
The important role of spatial thinking in STEM education is established, yet minimally applied to meteorology education and the study of atmospheric sciences. Weather forecasting, involving hand plotting of isopleths, visualization of three-dimensional atmospheric processes, interpretation of computer-generated forecasting products and conceptualization of atmospheric motion, draws heavily on spatial reasoning. Understanding how meteorologists employ these skills in the forecasting process has implications for meteorology and atmospheric science education.

A pilot survey investigating how meteorologists and meteorology students engage in spatial thinking during forecasting was created to inform future research. The survey was administered to fifty participants at the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting in January 2016 followed by online administration through the spring of 2016. Using written explanations and diagrams, we first introduced participants to six types of spatial thinking previously identified in the literature: visual penetrative ability, perspective taking, mental animation, mental rotation, object location memory and disembedding. Participants then interacted with nine products illustrating a weather event from the fall of 2015, including visible and water vapor satellite imagery, radar base reflectivity and velocity products, surface observation analyses, 500 mb geothermal height plots and model forecast four-panel plots. Finally, participants indicated whether they used each of the six types of spatial thinking in interpreting each product. Initial data analysis suggests that mental animation figures highly in the forecasting process and merits closer investigation.

The results of this pilot study point to a need for collaboration between cognitive scientists and meteorology educators and for drawing from successful studies of spatial thinking in the geosciences. It is anticipated that understanding spatial thinking in meteorology will enhance meteorology education, increase student retention in the discipline and encourage a more profound understanding of atmospheric processes.