Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Geologic Problem Solving in the Field: Analysis of Field Navigation and Mapping by Advanced Undergraduates

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Geologic Problem Solving in the Field: Analysis of Field Navigation and Mapping by Advanced Undergraduates

Article excerpt


Field instruction is a critical piece of undergraduate geoscience majors' education, and fieldwork remains a major part of the work of professional geologists. Despite the central importance of field education, there exists relatively little educational research exploring how students learn to solve problems in geological fieldwork. This study adds tools and insight to the study of field problem solving. We used GPS tracking of students engaged in independent field examinations, and developed two parallel coding approaches for analyzing student navigational choices. Taken together, our coding enables correlation of navigational characteristics with performance and lends insight into problem solving by building on a conceptual framework modified from the cognitive science field of Naturalistic Decision Making. Our results indicate that most advanced geology undergraduates are capable of recognizing important features in the field, however lower-performing students fail to systematically test multiple interpretations of their data as reflected in poorly planned traverses across the examination field area. Specific track sequences, especially those involving reoccupation of locations, show particular difficulties in aspects of problem solving that are reflected in low quality interpretations on finished maps. Our study offers new tools and an independent approach to gauging student skills in geologic field problem solving.


Field-based instruction is widely acknowledged to be a central part of undergraduate education in the geological sciences. Representatives from the energy and environmental industries as well as academia and government gathered at the Indiana University Geological Field Station (IUGFS) in a communitywide meeting on the future of field-based education in August of 2006, universally (but anecdotally) acknowledged the central importance of undergraduate field éducation, especially in capstone field camp settings. Even when graduates of these programs went into lines of work that did not require field skills per se, those present at the meeting noted that problem solving skills and habits of mind such as actively using multiple working hypotheses were greatly increased from geologic field camp education.

The geological sciences are among the most visually oriented of all sciences, and the earth sciences as a collection of allied fields collectively relies on spatially integrated and spatially embedded data more than any other branch of the natural sciences (Chadwick, 1978, Kali and Orion, 1996). The field clearly makes these spatial relations more concrete, but also demands abstract spatial thinking as well. Only recently have science education researchers begun to focus on the unique aspects of problem solving and cognition, and geologically specific spatial abilities that characterize expertise in this area, particularly in the critical outdoor teaching, learning and research environment (e.g. Orion, 2003; Ishikawa & Kastens, 2005).

The outdoor field-based environment is not ideally suited for controlled tests of cognition as would normally be carried out in laboratory or classroom educational setting, as the variables involved are many and human factors (i.e. human response to terrain, exhaustion, discomfort, etc.) become involved. Therefore the study of problem solving skills needs to be treated by proxy measures, and needs to explicitly work with the study of problem solving and decision making as it happens in natural, real-world settings. We have developed a methodology for analyzing navigational choices recorded on GFS units worn by students during field examinations that we have demonstrated reflects problem solving stages as defined by some workers in the cognitive science research fields of Naturalistic Decision Making (Klein, Orasanu, Calderwood, & Zsambok 1993; Marshall, 1995; Endsley, 2001). We discuss this approach and our methodologies in the sections that follow. …

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