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NSF/Johnson Foundation Workshop: Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences

July 8-10, 2002

Discussion Questions

A leadership team is assigned for each discussion question. Their responsibilities are to:

  1. Introduce the discussion topic in no more than 5 minutes (We recommend that the group identify one or two speakers who will make VERY brief remarks to frame the context and expected outcomes of the discussion; more extended discussion preparation can take place on the list-server).
  2. Facilitate the discussion.
  3. Prepare a bulleted list summarizing the key discussion points. This will form the basis of group discussion of overarching themes we would like to include in the report.

For each discussion question, we would like to answer the following four questions:

  • What does classroom experience suggest are the critical barriers to learning?
  • What existing research on learning, including that from other STEM disciplines, is applicable to these issues?
  • What new work is needed to further develop a research base on learning in the geosciences?
  • What are critical next steps?

This discussion forms the basis for developing the two workshop products 1) a report describing key areas of high potential for the application of research on learning to the geosciences and recommending actions for disseminating research on learning to geoscience educators and 2) the development of concrete plans for a coordinated follow-on activity to enhance the application of research on learning throughout the geoscience community.

Question 1: Goals for Geoscience Education
What are the goals or desired learning outcomes of instruction in the geosciences? What are we trying to achieve in college-level science instruction, generally, and how can/do the geosciences contribute to achieving these goals? What are the discipline-specific goals of instruction in the geosciences (at lower- and upper- undergraduate levels)? What are the content, skill and process goals for geoscience students? What are the particular challenges of teaching the discipline? Outcomes: A framework for thinking about geoscience learning; priority questions or themes for discussion; recommendations for faculty on balancing between content and process learning.

Leadership Team: Cathy Manduca, David Mogk, Neil Stillings
Discussion summary PowerPoint file

Question 2: Time and Spatial Scales
How do we help students grapple with interrelating scales (e.g., spatial and temporal) and levels of understanding in a context that is meaningful to them? Geoscience deals with a huge range of spatial scales, from the atomic to the planetary/cosmological, and time scales from milliseconds to eons. We know from classroom experience and educational research on chemistry and mathematics that it is difficult for students to learn how to connect concepts and representations from different spatial-temporal scales or different levels of analysis and that they have difficulty with orders of magnitude. What lessons oes this research hold for the geosciences? What further research is needed?

Leadership team: David Uttal, Kim Kastens, Loretta Jones
Discussion summary (Acrobat (PDF) 67kB Mar23 04)

Question 3: Data Representation
What strategies will help undergraduates become comfortable with the complex representations and the interlocking multiple representations common in the geosciences? What is the role of computer-based technology in managing this complexity and enhancing visualization abilities? How can digital databases be used effectively for inquiry-oriented learning and undergraduate research?

Leadership Team: Judy Dori, Michelle Hall-Wallace, Steve Reynolds
Data Representation Discussion, Discussion summary (Acrobat (PDF) 71kB Mar23 04)
Computing-based Technology, Discussion summary (Acrobat (PDF) 87kB Mar23 04)

Question 4: Complex Systems
The Earth system is complicated. The elegant, law-governed phenomena and models of (basic) chemistry and physics contrast with a much higher degree of disorder, contingency, and uncertainty in the geosciences. How do students learn to understand pieces of the system or individual processes and then integrate that understanding into a holistic view? How do students understand or make predictions in systems with multiple interacting causality chains including complicated interacting feedback loops? How much of what we have learned about teaching chemistry and physics carries over to domains characterized by complex causal models/theories and complex relationships to multifaceted sources of observational and experimental data? What new studies are needed?

Leadership Team: Joel Michael, Janice Gobert, Richard Yuretich
PowerPoint Intro/Discussion summary (Acrobat (PDF) 131kB Mar23 04)

Question 5: Ways of Knowing
The geosciences combine observation with experimentation, theory, and modeling to understand the Earth and other planets. The ability to integrate keen observational skills working in the field, with imagery (from remote sensing to microscopic) and with representations of large numerical data sets is important. Equally critical is the application of learning from experiment, theory and modeling to develop an interpretation of the observations. What do we know about how students obtain these skills? How can we assist them: in observing better? thinking in multiple spatial, temporal, and conceptual dimensions? interpreting their observations? testing their interpretations?

Leadership Team: Pam Burnely, Julie Libarkin, Marcia Linn
Discussion summary pdf file (Acrobat (PDF) 5kB Mar23 04)

Question 6: Learning Environment
What types of instruction and learning environments work well for the geosciences? In studying the evolution and workings of a complex heterogeneous, open Earth system through geologic time, the geosciences utilize knowledge bases, methodologies, and philosophical approaches to problem-solving and understanding that are distinct from sister STEM disciplines. The geosciences offer opportunities for students to learn how science is done when we face complex, macroscopic natural phenomena with critical public policy dimensions that must be faced under conditions of uncertainty. Geosciences are intrinsically integrative in their application of first principles derived from other STEM disciplines, creating challenges for students with differing backgrounds or comprehension. What teaching strategies are effective in this context? Which of the alternative pedagogical models that have developed in college science are well suited to this discipline? Should they be adapted to the geosciences? If so in what context and how should this be done? What special opportunities are offered by the field-based nature of much of the geosciences and by the accessibility of digital databases? What new opportunities do the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE) and the National STEM Digital Library (NSDL) hold for instruction in the geosciences?

Leadership Team: Joe Redish, Dan Edelson, Bill Slattery, Helen King
Discussion summary (Acrobat (PDF) 88kB Mar23 04)
Opening Comments from Joe Redish (Acrobat (PDF) 457kB Mar23 04)