Spatial Thinking in Geosciences

Spatial thinking is thinking that finds meaning in the shape, size, orientation, location, direction or trajectory, of objects, processes or phenomena, or the relative positions in space of multiple objects, processes or phenomena. Spatial thinking uses the properties of space as a vehicle for structuring problems, for finding answers, and for expressing solutions (National Research Council, 2006).

Geoscience demands extensive spatial thinking from learners and practitioners (National Research Council, 2006; Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006). Geoscientists describe, and classify, and look for causal meaning in the shape of myriad objects in nature, inferring strain history from the shape of a mineral, temperature of an ancient ocean from the shape of a marine microfossil, and atmospheric conditions from the shape of a cloud. Students must master a variety of spatial representations, beginning with maps, cross-sections, and block diagrams, and moving on to unfamiliar specialized representations such as those showing directions of earthquake first motion, or the temperature/salinity structure of an oceanic water mass. Most geoscience data are collected in one or two dimensions; for example, seawater temperature is recorded by an instrument lowered on a wire from a research vessel (a 1-D data type). Students need to learn to combine data from 1- or 2-D information sources into a 3-D mental model of earth phenomena.

With respect to spatial thinking in the geosciences, we wish to know:

  • How do students learn to recognize which features in the shape or configuration of natural objects have significance, and how can educators foster that learning process?
  • How do people combine information gathered from multiple viewpoints into a single integrated mental model of the three-dimensional object or process, and how can that inherent human ability be harnessed to help students interpret 1-D or 2-D data sets in terms of 3-D processes?
  • To understand specialized spatial representations, such as phase diagrams of mineral stability fields or stereonet representations of folded rocks, the student needs to understand the process or structure being depicted. However, the means by which the process is best depicted is that same unfamiliar diagram. How can the learner break into this cycle, in which the process is conveyed through the representation, but the representation can't be deciphered without understanding the process?
  • To what extent do people who chose careers in geoscience self-select for high spatial skills, and to what extent does practice with geoscience tasks improve spatial thinking (Baldwin & Hall, 2002; Piburn et al., 2002)?
  • What teaching strategies are most effective for helping students with weaker spatial abilities understand geoscience concepts and master geoscience skills? If, as some research has found (National Research Council, 2006), spatial abilities differ by gender, finding answers to this question may help to increase the representation of women in the geoscience educational pipeline and workforce.

Research on specific courses and curricula has shown that performance on spatially-demanding tasks is resistant to change through geoscience education (e.g. Saliero, et al., 2005, demanding concerning causes of the seasons), and such tasks are ranked by many students as the most difficult in the geoscience curriculum (e.g. Hemler and Repine, 2006, concerning measurement of strike and dip). Recent studies have begun to tease out the nature of these difficulties. For example, Kali and Orion (1996) tested students' ability to envision the unviewed sides of a 3-D geological block diagram. They documented a category of profound "non-penetrative errors," in which students apparently failed to realize that the inside of the block would not be the same as the viewed surfaces. Through use of a survey instrument designed to probe students' conceptions about ground water, Dickerson, et al. (2005) found that misconceptions were often rooted in misunderstandings of scale or size.

Browse our Growing Resource Collection Addressing Spatial Thinking in the Geosciences

References Cited

Baldwin, T. K. and M. Hall-Wallace (2002). Measuring spatial abilities of students introductory geoscience courses. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Program, Abstract 132-111.

Dickerson, D., Callahan, T. J., Van Sickle, M., & Hay, G. (2005). Students' Conceptions of Scale Regarding Groundwater. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53, 374-380.

Hemler, D. and T. Repine (2006). Teachers doing science: An authentic geology research experience for teachers. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54, 93-102.

Kali, Y. and Orion, N. (1996). Spatial abilities of high-school students in the perception of geologic structures. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33, 369-391.

Kastens, K.A. and T. Ishikawa (2006). Spatial Thinking in Geosciences and Cognitive Sciences, in C. Manduca and D. Mogk (Eds.), Earth & Mind: How Geoscientists Think and Learn about the Earth Earth. Geological Society of America Special Publication 413

National Research Council. (2006). Learning to Think Spatially Spatially. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Piburn, M., Reynolds, S. J., Leedy, D. E., McAuliffe, C. M., Birk, J. P., & Johnson, J. K. (2002). The Hidden Earth: Visualization of Geologic Features and their Subsurface Geometry. Paper presented at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, New Orleans, LA.

Salierno, C., Edelson, D., and Sherin, B. (2005). The Development of Student Conceptions of the Earth-Sun Relationship in an Inquiry-Based Curriculum. Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(4), 422-431.