Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Students' Geocognition of Deep Time, Conceptualized in an Informal Educational Setting

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Students' Geocognition of Deep Time, Conceptualized in an Informal Educational Setting

Article excerpt


Students in a Landscape Architecture Design 1 course (N = 25) at a research university in the southern US developed design solutions implementing geologic time for an informal education site. Those students who employed abstract metaphors for their designs (n = 8) were more successful than students who proceeded with a linear design construct. Pre- and posttest assessments using the Petrified Wood Survey and student-constructed timelines suggested that 1) 75% geoscience content knowledge is needed for successful design, and 2) relative understanding of Earth events and the barrenness of early Earth's landscape is also prerequisite for successful design implementation. Most revealing of students' cognitive processes were the concept statements and concept maps produced during the project. The concept statement forced students to address the project's requirements, take a position with their concept development of abstract metaphorical representation, and proceed with a final design solution. It appears that concept statements with accompanying concept maps facilitate student cognition by forcing student comprehension and application of geoscience content knowledge. We suggest that an inclusion of concept statements when teaching application of a complex Earth system or process may facilitate students' geoscience cognition in design and/or informal educational settings.


When elementary and middle school students visit the geology museum on the campus of a research university in the southern US, many of them enter with misconceptions about the age of Earth. Responses to the query of the planet's age include a range from "30 years" to "6000 years" to "maybe a couple of million." Even university students have difficulties grasping the enormity of Deep Time, or the 4.6 billion year geologic history of the planet.

Tours of the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum, located on the university campus in the southern US, usually include brief introduction to the ancient age of Earth, but visitors still struggle to comprehend the magnitude of 4.6 billion years. If visitors' ages are demonstrated with one hand clap per second, students will predict that it is possible to clap 4.6 billion seconds within a human lifetime. However, this is impossible, as more than 140 years are required!

Geologic time facilitates student understanding of the progression of life forms exhibited in the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum, from the Precambrian to the Holocene Epoch. Housed in Hilbun Hall, the museum's rock, mineral, and fossil displays fill the physical space. However, the area in front of the main entrance of the building is a blank canvas, and an underutilized space (Figure 1). Crossed by sidewalks, and with planting areas only against the building, the one-half acre (2000 m2) site could be designed to include informal educational exhibits. An effective landscape design could transform this undeveloped area into a learning extension of the museum.

This case study involved the collaboration of the geology museum director with a professor of landscape architecture. The researchers probed whether students in an introductory design course, through informed exercises, could effectively develop an informal learning site which represented geologic time to facilitate viewer understanding of the vast history of Earth.


Deep Time, or the 4.6 billion year history of Earth, is one of the central constructs of the geosciences (Carlyle, 1832, McPhee, 1981; Rudwick, 1992). Student conception of the immensity of the planet's history can affect other disciplines as well (Dodick and Orion, 2003). The Earth's geologic past can inform us of the principles that have dictated our planet's past, and help us to discern ancient patterns and trends; this may help us to effectively predict the planet's future (Soreghan, 2005).

Student comprehension of geologic time has been studied at the elementary level (AuIt, 1982), and among high school students and preservice teachers (Dodick, 2007; Trend, 2001, 2002). …

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