2009 Portland GSA Annual Meeting (18-21 October 2009)

Paper No. 3
Presentation Time: 8:35 AM


TITUS, Sarah, Dept. of Geology, Carleton College, Northfield, MN 55057 and LIBEN, Lynn S., Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, stitus@carleton.edu

Many students enrolled in geoscience courses have poorly developed spatial visualization skills. Their underdeveloped skills may result from the uneven distribution of spatial skills throughout the population as well as the lack of explicit teaching in K-16 education. To illustrate the variety of spatial skills required in the geosciences, we analyze a hypothetical field day for a Structural Geologist. The spatial tasks in this example can be divided as follows: (1) map related skills, (2) mineral and textural identification, (3) structural measurements, and (4) structural interpretation. We discuss the cognitive processes required for these spatial tasks based on a synthesis of cognitive science and geology literature. We also discuss teaching strategies for improving students' skills.

Problems on map-related tasks are often related to students' inability to understand map scale, map symbols, and/or the type of map projection. Further, the ability to rotate objects inside one's head – termed mental rotation – is correlated with the ability to navigate well using a map. Teaching students to orient the map with the real world may improve their map reading and navigation skills. Rock identification requires students to recognize an object or pattern embedded within a complex environment, a skill known as disembedding. Some types of spatial learners – termed object visualizers – are better at this type of pattern recognition than other learners. Structural measurements, such as a strike and dip, are difficult for a surprisingly large number of adults who cannot identify horizontal. This problem is compounded by the inability to estimate an orientation within a given framework. Teaching dip and dip direction, which are more intuitive to novice learners, may be an effective introduction to structural measurements. Structural interpretation, which often requires visualizing three-dimensional geologic structures from two-dimensional maps or outcrops, is difficult for those with poor visual penetrative ability. Providing ample opportunities for practice with this, and in fact all of the spatial skills described in this example, allows students to improve their spatial visualization skills.