Collaborative Research: Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This research is motivated by a desire to better understand, and ultimately improve, how humans think about the Earth/Ocean/Atmosphere System, at a time when society faces many pressing problems in the relationship between our species and our planet. How does the human mind encompass something as big, as old, and as complex as the Earth system? How do we stretch our minds from the familiar time intervals within a human lifespan to the millions of years of geological history? How do we think about a system that has multiple intertwined causality chains, interacting through multiple feedback loops? How do we build mental models of processes we cannot see, and cannot manipulate experimentally, such as motions of air, heat and moisture over the surface of the Earth? How do we learn to perceive and disaggregate the superimposed traces of multiple earth processes that have all impacted one place? How do individuals and societies incorporate understanding of earth systems into decision-making? In other words, how do Geoscientists think about the Earth, and how can Geoscience students learn this way of thinking?


Formal earth & environmental science education at all levels from elementary through graduate school, but strongest focus is on undergrads. We draw from research globally, but strongest focus is in U.S.

Research Design: 

This is a synthesis research project and involving literature review via a virtual Journal Club, reflection by geoscientists and geoscience educators, plus structured discussions between geoscientists and cognitive scientists. We assembled a team of geoscientists and cognitive scientists, working in pairs, with one geoscientist and one cognitive scientist for each of our four thematic concentrations (geologic time, spatial thinking in geosciences, systems thinking in geosciences, and learning in the field.) We had an initial scoping meeting to define the breadth of inquiry for each theme and for the project as a whole. For five months we met weekly as a virtual Journal Club, discussing key papers from the literature among ourselves and with invited experts from outside our group. Then we had a week-long summer writing retreat that alternated sessions where the thematic dyads worked in pairs to digest and articulate the available information on their theme with full group discussions on cross-cutting issues. We were joined for portions of the writing retreat by outside discussants, who responded to our work to date. Thematic pairs are now co-authoring papers on their thematic topics, and co-PI's are co-authoring papers on two cross-cutting themes: the nature of expertise in geosciences and means for knowledge integration in geosciences. In addition, we are creating concept maps for each of the four themes, to lay out the scope of the entire domain, within which the thematic papers are situated.


The articles cited summarize the results of an interdisciplinary effort to distill what is known and articulate what else needs to be known about how humans think and learn about the Earth, focusing on temporal thinking, spatial thinking, systems thinking, and field-based learning. Concerning temporal thinking, the authors make the case that individuals with a strong grasp of geological timescales may incorporate a longer time horizon into personal and professional decision-making on environmental issues. Concerning spatial thinking, progress has been made on identifying and improving spatial skills that underpin the geoscience curriculum, but how geoscientists infer causal processes from spatial observations remains poorly understood. Concerning systems thinking, feedback loops have been identified as a threshold concept, difficult to master but opening the door to profound insights. Concerning field-based learning, the group has assembled evidence that field experiences help students develop professional vision and learn to create and critique first inscriptions.

Integrating across all four themes, we find that geoscientists are not merely individuals who know a lot about the oceans, atmosphere or solid earth; they are a “community of practice,” who have been shaped by, and now embody, a distinctive suite of experiences, approaches, perspectives, and values. These include an apprenticeship that involves grappling directly with the raw materials of nature, taking a long view of time, seeking explanations in systems of influences rather than in linear causality chains, and making use of natural experiments whose results manifest as patterns in space and time.

Publications & Presentations: 

Kastens, K. A., C. A. Manduca, C. Cervato, R. Frodeman, C. Goodwin, L. S. Liben, D. W. Mogk, T. C. Spangler, N. Stillings, AND S. Titus (2008). Synthesizing research on thinking and learning in the Geosciences: An interdisciplinary collaborative project. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting & Exposition Abstracts with Program.

Kastens, K. A., Manduca, C. A., Cervato, C., Frodeman, R., Goodwin, C., Liben, L. S., Mogk, D. W., Spangler, T. C., Stillings, N. A., and Titus, S. (2009). How geoscientists think and learn: EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, v. 90(31), p. 265-266.