Toward a Better Understanding of the Complicated Earth: Insights from Geologic Research, Education, and Cognitive Science

Talks Presented at a Pardee Symposium, Geological Society of America

Denver, Colorado | October 28 - 30 2002
Convened by Cathryn A. Manduca (Carleton College) and David W. Mogk (Montana State University)

Session Overview

Geoscientists integrate visual, theoretical, experimental and model data in complicated ways to understand the Earth. This session addresses how we can increase our ability to learn about the Earth by better understanding the learning process. Discussion will focus on maps, visualizations, and models as learning tools for researchers and students.

Geoscientists struggle every day with complicated data. The geologic record is often incomplete and must be interpreted. Geophysical and geochemical studies are difficult to constrain as the rocks and processes of the Earth's interior cannot be observed directly. Modern processes clearly reflect interactions among complex physical, chemical and biological systems. Earth processes typically operate on spatial and temporal scales beyond every day human experience. Geoscientists are aided in working in this arena by tools and strategies that assist with visualization, data representation and analysis, modeling and simulation, and the integration of partial information from a wide variety of sources into coherent interpretation. Learning about the Earth-by scientists doing research and by students in the classroom-often employs similar approaches and methodologies. Research in cognitive science, as well as research and educational experience in the geosciences offer insights into how both researchers and students effectively learn in this complex setting. This session will bring together experts in each of these domains to discuss three critical areas for geoscience education and research:

1) How do we learn from maps or image compilations? How do our minds integrate field or remote sensing observations to make interpretations? What do we see? How do we integrate this with past observations, and with other abstract representations? How can maps or processed images help us more completely understand the Earth? How can they become better tools for transmitting this information to others? 2) How do we glean new understanding from visualizations of the Earth's interior? How do we interpret images of things we can't see? How do we represent or understand uncertainty? How can visualizations be rendered to more effectively enhance understanding? What complementary supporting materials are needed to promote understanding in appropriate contexts, to avoid introducing misconceptions or false interpretations? 3) How do we apply what we learn from theoretical or physical models to the complex Earth system in its natural state? How do our minds deal with complexity and uncertainty to enable synthesis and understanding?

This session is timely as the application of cognitive science to science education has received much attention in the past two years (NRC, 2000 ; Knowing what Students Know, NRC 2001). It is clear that cognitive science and learning science research provide valuable information that can be applied to enhance learning. However, research aimed specifically at learning in a geoscience context is just beginning and little attention has been paid to the high potential for application of cognitive research to geoscience research. New learning research, if well integrated into the geoscience community, can have a major impact on enhancing both research and education. Thinking about how we learn about the Earth is a topic of intrinsic interest to geoscientists in all disciplines.