Collaborative Research: Constructing Mental Images of Geologic Structures from Field Observations

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

We wish to better understand the process by which people can create a three-dimensional spatial model of a geological structure from the scattered and incomplete empirical observations available in outcrops. This is an instance of interpreting and predicting from a "shard-like" distribution of incomplete information, as contrasted with a sample of a distribution ("shard-like" is an analogy to pottery shards, where there are discrete regions of near-complete information separted by regions of little or no information.) We are interested in how expert geologists accomplish this spatial integration, and how students learn to do so. Our interests include: how underlying spatial skills influence performance; how learners perceive and represent attitude (dip and strike) and position information from outcrops and from non-geological dipping slabs; and how students reason from observation to interpretation on a task that requires spatial integration.


This study is conducted at two sites: the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory campus in Palisades NY, and the Penn State campus in State College, PA. In each case, we use a portion of the campus as the field site. For the Penn State component of the study, undergraduates were selected based on gender and their performance on a screening test of spatial ability, the 2-D water level task. For the Lamont component, undergrad non-science majors were required to have had no college level coursework in earth science.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is cross-sectional, and is designed to generate evidence that is descriptive [observational/phenomenological] and causal [experimental]. This project collects original data through personal observation and videography, semi-structured face-to-face interviews, assessments of learning or achievement tests, analysis of learner-created inscriptions, assessments of spatial skills, and assessments of prior conceptions (in the absence of instruction).

Inscriptions are categorized according to their organizational schema (spatial or sentential) and coded with respect to what information the participant noticed and recorded (e.g. dip direction, dip angle, lithologies, etc) and what symbols they used for each element. Utterances and gestures in video recordings were initially coded by the nature of the observations and inferences stated; this was then collapsed into a logic diagram for each participant; which in turn was analysed as data/warrants/claims. Data from single outcrop and table top models are analysed both graphically and statistically. Graphical analysis of azimuth data uses both rose diagrams and stereonets (a geologists' visual representation of lines or planes in 3-D). Statistical analysis uses ANOVA and stepwise multiple regression, generally with spatial ability and sex as predictor variables.


We are researching how geologists and students gather, represent, and integrate spatial information about the attitude and location of dipping layers, a skill set underlying success in field geology.

In the constituent-skills component of the study, undergraduates observe an artificial "outcrop" installed on the Penn State campus, a tabletop model of a dipping surface, and/or a rod lying on the table or ground. Tasks include sketching strike or rod orientation onto a map, estimating dip angle, and drawing strike line or "water level" directly onto the dipping surface of the tabletop model. We examine performance in relation to the nature of instruction, the strike and dip of the tabletop model, the orientation of the rod, and the gender and spatial skills of the participants.

In the integrative component of the study, participants observe an array of eight artificial outcrops, which have been installed on the L-DEO campus so as to form a "structure" at a realistic scale. After observing and taking notes on the outcrops, participants choose from among fourteen 3-D scale models the one that they think best represents a structure that could be formed by the outcrops. Participants are videotaped while selecting and explaining their model.

There are many potential implications for field geology instruction. Dip may be an easier and more obvious concept for students than strike, and might be better taught first. Students' spatial skills influence not only their performance on strike and dip tasks, but also the likelihood that they will spontaneously adopt useful (and teachable) spatial strategies such as scanning middle-distance landmarks in the surrounding environment. Almost everyone overestimates dip angle, across a wide range of circumstances. Physical models offer promise for scaffolding both students' perception (e.g., in "seeing" the strike line in a dipping surface) and students' reasoning (e.g,, in identifying attributes of outcrops to incorporate in interpretation).

Publications & Presentations: 

Ishikawa, T. and K. A. Kastens, 2004, Envisioning Large Geological Structures from Field Observations: An Experimental Study, Geological Society of America Annual Meeting and Exposition Abstracts with Programs. Paper 62-21.

Kastens, K. A., Ishikawa, T., & Liben, L. S. (2006). Visualizing a 3-D geological structure from outcrop observations: Strategies used by geoscience experts, students and novices. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting & Exposition Abstracts with Program, v. 38, no. 7, p. 424.

Liben, L., Kastens, K. A., & Christensen, A. E. (2006). Students' difficulty in visualizing the horizontal may contribute to difficulty on geological strike and dip tasks. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting & Exposition Abstracts with Program, v. 38, no. 7, p. 425.

Liben, L.S., Kim A. Kastens, Adam Christensen and Shruti Agrawal (2008). Implications for Field Geology Instruction From a Behavioral Study on how Students Gather, Represent, and Integrate Spatial Information about Dipping Surfaces. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting and Exposition Abstracts with Program.
Kastens, K. A., S. Agrawal, L. S. Liben (2009). How students and field geologists reason in integrating spatial observations from outcrops to visualize a 3-D geological structure, International Journal of Science Education, special issue on Visual & spatial modes of learning, J. Ramadas & J. Gilbert (editors), v. 31(3), pp. 365-393.

Kastens, K. A., Liben, L. S., & Agrawal, S. (2008). Epistemic actions in science education. In Freksa, C., Newcombe, N.S., Gärdenfors, P., & Wölfl, S. (Eds.) Spatial cognition VI: Learning, reasoning, and talking about space (pp. 202-215). Freiburg, Germany: Springer.

Kastens, K.A., S. Agrawal, and L. S. Liben (2008). Research in Science Education: The Role of Gestures in Geoscience Teaching and Learning, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 54, n. 4, p. 362-368.

Liben, L. S., Kastens, K. A., & Christensen, A. E. (2006, May). Water-level task performance and gender are linked to success in geology. Poster presented at the Association of Psychological Science, New York.

Liben, L. S., Kastens, K. A., & Christensen, A. E. (2008, March). The role of basic spatial concepts in education: What learners bring to the classroom. Poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.

Liben, L. S., Christensen, A. E., & Kastens, K. A (2008, June). Basic spatial concepts in learning geology. Paper presented at the Conference on Research and Training in Spatial Intelligence, Evanston, Illinois.

Liben, L. S. (2009, February). (in collaboration with K. A. Kastens, S. Agrawal, A.E. Christensen, & L. J. Myers). Spatial concepts are critical in science education. Poster presented at the National Science Foundation, Arlington,VA.

Other Products: 

There are no project products at this time.