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

July 8-10, 2002

Workshop Motivation

Bringing Research on Learning to the Earth and Environmental Sciences: Motivation

(Extracted from Proposal by Manduca, Mogk and Stillings)

Advances in the science of learning have reached the stage where application to educational practice can have a major impact on student learning (How People Learn, NRC, 2000; Knowing What Students Know, NRC, 2001). A critical step in the successful application of principles of learning science to the classroom, has been the development of disciplinary communities that adapt research results to the specifics of the particular educational problems of the discipline and engage in discipline focused research on learning. For example, the identification of specific misconceptions, techniques for engaging students in conceptual understanding, and assessment instruments for verifying the efficacy of these techniques has been integral to the application of research on learning to the Physics community (e.g., McDermott and Redish, 1999). Similarly, the development of a community of learning scientists and chemists to address issues surrounding visualization in chemistry was an important first step in applying learning science to this important area of chemistry education (

A similar community focused on the application of learning science to the geosciences has not yet emerged. This is a significant shortfalling because the geosciences play an important role in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. In addition to training the nation's supply of geoscientists, introductory courses in the Earth and environmental sciences are among the most popular on college campuses providing an important venue for increasing the scientific literacy of the broader student body. Earth and space science form a significant component of the National Science Education Standards (NSES, NRC, 1996) marking a major shift in the K-12 curriculum in our country. The implementation of this new curriculum and the training of a new cadre of Earth science teachers provide a leverage point where enhancements in geoscience teaching and learning can have a magnified impact on scientific literacy in our country. Lastly, the need for broad public understanding of the Earth system and the ability to apply that knowledge to both individual choices and policy decisions is essential to maintaining public health, a quality environment, and our standard of living. (e.g., NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000, NSF, 2000). Enhancing geoscience education through the application of research on learning will have beneficial impacts throughout our educational system and society.

In addition, the geosciences offer many unique opportunities for advances in learning science. Students and researchers in the geosciences visualize multidimensional data on a variety of scales, usually in a geographic context, and often with a temporal component. They infer Earth processes using a complicated combination of direct observations, remote sensing using geophysical, geochemical, and imaging techniques, theory, computational modeling, and experiments assisted by a wide variety of technologically enabled tools. The process of finding meaning and testing hypotheses using these methods in a complex system characterized by partial data, underconstrained problems, and shifting boundary conditions provides fertile ground for research on learning. Effective teaching practices in this context are little examined.

There is growing interest in the geoscience community to fully engage a coordinated research effort on learning in the geosciences. Recent thematic sessions at the Geological Society of America and American Geophysical Union meetings indicate that a critical mass of interested individuals has emerged. Projects are underway to study misconceptions, create concept tests, identify cognitive learning goals, and evaluate techniques including undergraduate research experiences (personal communication with Kastens, Libarkin, Hall-Wallace, Stockman, Burnley, Buhr, Reynolds, Furhman). Interaction between geoscience and the learning science community at this point could have a major impact on these initial efforts, while jumpstarting new collaborations and enabling coordinated work across the geoscience/learning science communities. There is a clear need to establish collaborative and cooperative connections between the geoscience education and research on learning communities. And there is a related need to disseminate the results of research on learning in the geosciences in formats that are accessible to educators to effectively inform educational practice.

To initiate the development of a community engaged in applying learning science to the geosciences, we propose a two-day workshop initiating dialog among twenty leaders from geoscience education, learning science, and the application of learning science to STEM disciplines. The need for such a workshop is clear in the minds of geoscience leaders who feel the community is ready for this step. An initial call for increased application of research on learning was put forward in 1996 when the GEO directorate considered its role in geoscience education (NSF 97-171, Geoscience Education: A Recommended Strategy). In spring 2000, the Directorates for Geosciences and Education and Human Resources at the National Science Foundation convened an ad hoc workshop, "Geoscience Education in the Next Millennium." The report from the workshop (BRIDGES: Connecting Research and Education in the Earth System Sciences, 2000) identified research on learning about the Earth system as a critical area for future work both to address the needs of geoscience educators to understand the ways in which students learn about complex systems and for the opportunities geoscience offers for new learning science research. In summer 2001, the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE) annual meeting included a session on the application of research on learning to the design of digital resources. The participants in this session recommended a workshop with learning scientists and geoscience educators as an important next step. Most recently the GEO Advisory Committee (AC/GEO) issued a similar recommendation at their fall meeting in order to advance the application of learning science to practical questions in geoscience instruction.

This workshop is envisioned as the first step in a series of activities to accelerate the integration of research on learning into undergraduate geoscience education and produce the strong grounding in learning science research throughout the geoscience community that is desirable for all faculty. To achieve this larger result, we believe a longer-term effort is needed that will:

  • build connections between experts on learning and geoscience educators
  • develop buy-in from geoscience educators and creators of educational resources on the value and applicability of research on learning
  • develop interest in researchers on learning in exploring questions of high interest to geoscience educators
  • disseminate research on learning and its effective application to the classroom within the geoscience education community

This workshop provides a mechanism for developing collaboration between leaders in the geosciences and learning sciences necessary to develop activities that will meet the larger goal. We believe that a coordinated effort to engage geoscientists in using research on learning is the critical next step. We propose to use part of the workshop agenda to collectively brainstorm how this might best be accomplished. Of high interest in our minds is exploration of the feasibility of developing a research project that engages geoscience faculty in obtaining and interpreting data addressing a learning question of high utility in informing geoscience educational practice. If successfully executed, this type of research would have two major impacts. First, the research result could be directly applied to geoscience education and the development of curricula. Second, the educators participating in the research project would be engaged in examining their students' learning. This would help them understand the utility of research on learning and create a receptive audience for the application of other learning science findings. A community-based research experiment is one model for facilitating the integration of learning research and classroom practice in the geosciences. Other models might involve the broad-based application of learning research results in chemistry, physics, or math in geoscience with a return flow of new data to these communities. While it is difficult to define the most desirable structure for this type of coordinated activity prior to workshop discussions, the potential for such collaboration is clear. Enabling this type of activity is a major workshop goal.