Data that are distributed throughout 3-dimensional space are at the core of geoscience. Geologists, atmospheric scientists, and oceanographers all routinely explore and analyze data shown on maps. In addition, geoscientists easily combine evidence from a wide range scales—extracting information about the uplift of mountain ranges from the textures seen in a thin section for example, or integrating data from individual ocean buoys to determine currents and patterns across the entire Pacific Ocean. This is a spatial skill... Many times, students are required to understand spatial visual information contained within abstract visualizations. For some people, understanding spatial representations can be a barrier to becoming a successful geoscientist. This barrier can be overcome through good instruction and practice.
Common challenges and misconceptions
- Students often don't perceive maps as consisting of data, but instead think of them as pictures (Swenson and Kastens, 2011 )
- Students may not have a strong understanding of horizontal and vertical, so struggle to describe the orientation of objects with respect to those (Liben and Titus, 2012 )
- Spatial skills vary widely throughout the population and are rarely taught explicitly, so undergraduates often struggle with tasks that involve spatial analysis
Learning outcomes and assessment for spatial thinking
Learning outcomes for spatial thinking benefit from specificity. For example, you may want students to be able to "read a topographic map," but this phrase may be completely opaque to a beginning student. Instead, Learning outcomes that addresses this habit of mind might be something like:
- Students will choose an appropriate orientation to draw a cross-section from a map (a geologic map, or sea-surface temperature, or earthquake distribution, for example).
- Assessment: Ask students to analyze existing published maps for their cross-section locations. As a group, describe the typical characteristics of these cross-section lines. Then give students multiple opportunities to practice selecting the location using increasingly complex maps where they must choose the orientation of a cross-section that will highlight the important features. Ask them to sketch the key features of the cross-sections.
- Students will be able to recognize and describe patterns in map-based data such as earthquakes, sea-surface temperatures, and natural resource distribution
- Assessment: Give students several maps of the same area with similar data sets. Work with them to analyze and compare the data, introducing ways to describe the data patterns (asymmetric, tightly clustered, etc.). Give the students a new map and ask them to do the same thing on their own.
Resources for teaching about spatial thinking
- Spatial thinking from On the Cutting Edge
- The Spatial thinking workbook, focused on improving spatial skills in upper-division undergraduate geoscience courses
- Teaching with GIS in the Geosciences from Pedagogy in Action
- Teaching with Google Earth from Pedagogy in Action and On the Cutting Edge
- Teaching geoscience with visualizations from On the Cutting Edge
Connections to big ideas, essential principles, and fundamental concepts about spatial thinking in the geoscience literacies
- Earth Science Big Idea 3. Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life.
- Fundamental concept 3.4. Earth's systems interact over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. These scales range from microscopic to global in size...
- Climate Literacy Essential Principle 4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.
- Fundamental concept D. Scientific observations indicate that global climate has changed in the past, is changing now, and will change in the future. ...
- Atmospheric Science Essential Principle 4. Earth's atmosphere changes over time and space, giving rise to weather and climate.
- Fundamental concept 4.2. ...Earth's history has been marked by gradual variations global climate caused by long-term cyclic variations in Earth's orbit and axial tilt, and modulated by changes over geologic time in the sizes and distributions of the continents....
- Liben, L.S. and Titus, S.J., 2012, The importance of spatial thinking for geoscience education: Insights from the crossroads of geoscience and cognitive science , 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, p. 51-70
- Clark et al., 2008, University Students' Conceptualization and Interpretation of Topographic Maps ; International Journal of Science Education, v. 30, p. 377-408
- Swenson, S., and Kastens, K.A., 2011, Student interpretation of a global elevation map: What it is, how it was made, and what it is useful for in Feig, A.D., and Stokes, A., eds., Qualitative Inquiry in Geoscience Education Research: Geological Society of America Special Paper 474, p. 189-211
- Committee on the Support for Thinking Spatially, 2006, Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a support system in the K-12 curriculum ; National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.