2002 Denver Annual Meeting (October 27-30, 2002)

Paper No. 3
Presentation Time: 2:00 PM


UTTAL, David H., Psychology, Northwestern Univ, 2029 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208-2710, duttal@northwestern.edu

Spatial images and other representations of the earth’s surface are critically important to education and practice in the geosciences. Expert geoscientists are often thought to be particularly skilled at “reading” different forms of representations of the earth’s surface. Consequently, geoscience educators devote substantial effort to helping students master the large variety of images and representational techniques that characterize modern geoscience practice. Unfortunately, however, educators often find it difficult to teach new geoscience students to understand the many different types of representations that they must master early in their studies.

The central goal of this presentation will be to bring a new perspective on the use and understanding of geoscience images and representations. The new perspective is adapted from research in cognitive science on how people develop an understanding of maps, models, and other forms of spatial representations. Borrowing from research in developmental and cognitive psychology, I will argue that maps and other representations can be difficult to comprehend because they have a dual nature; they are both representations of the earth as well as interesting objects in their own right. For example, when a geoscientist studies a complex image of the earth, he or she tends to focus mostly on what the image represents, rather than on the physical properties of the image itself. The geoscientist knows that the various colors stand for particularly properties or features of the earth. In contrast, a novice may focus more on the colors themselves and lose sight of (or never understand) what the colors are intended to represent.

I will review research that has demonstrated that both young children and novice college students often have difficulty learning the symbolic properties of colors and other features on maps and other representations. The review will highlight techniques that can help beginning students to master the representations that are critical to success in geoscience. The presentation will also suggest a possible research agenda for linking methods of cognitive science with questions in geoscience education regarding the understanding of images of the earth.