Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

An Integrated Field-Based Approach to Building Teachers' Geoscience Skills

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

An Integrated Field-Based Approach to Building Teachers' Geoscience Skills

Article excerpt


The Paleo Exploration Project was a professional development program for K-12 teachers from rural eastern Montana. The curriculum was designed to incorporate geospatial technologies, including Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and total station laser surveying, with authentic field experiences in geology and paleontology in an effort to enhance teachers' abilities to incorporate geospatial technologies and inquiry-based approaches into their classrooms. The program included preparatory weekend workshops for teachers and week-long summer research institutes for teachers and students, in which core geosciences skills were practiced in the field. These skills included (1) geology-related spatial visualization, (2) understanding absolute geologic time, including the concepts of physical and temporal correlation of stratigraphic units, (3) actualistic thinking, or the ability to interpret ancient environments through comparison with modern ones, (4) geological field strategies and techniques, and (5) scientific reasoning. Teachers responded very positively to the program, and nearly all went on to create, implement, and enhance their own technology-embedded, inquiry-based projects with their own students over the following two years. Intense preparation for the field experience, including building teacher content knowledge, technology skills, and field techniques, as well as the field-based approach, combining GIS as a visualization tool with field-based examination of geologic features, metacognitive reflection, and working with students in the field, were considered key elements of the program's success.

©2011 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/1.3543926]


There is an unquestioned national need for improving students' abilities in geosciences (American Geological Institute, 2008). Achieving this goal depends largely on teachers' own competencies. Unfortunately, proficiency in the geosciences involves several discipline specific abilities, and few K-12 teachers have significant training in geoscience.

For example, in contrast to other scientific disciplines, geoscience involves specific types of high-level spatial thinking; conceptualizing geologic time; and actualistic thinking (using current observations to explain past conditions or events). Further, geoscientists must be able to exercise these abilities in real world contexts, and therefore must develop proficiency in the strategies and methodologies involved in geologic fieldwork (King, 2008). As with all sciences, geoscience also involves process skills such as hypothesis formation, identifying appropriate observational evidence, combining multiple lines of evidence, and scientific reasoning.

Spatial thinking is important to many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines, but geoscientists in particular must have excellent visualization skills. Specifically, they must be able to visualize how three-dimensional (3D) stratigraphie units intersect the Earth's surface, and how these complex structures change through time (King, 2008). Titus and Horsman (2009) described three component skills that are particularly important in geoscience-related visualization (Fig. 1). These include (1) spatial relations, or the ability to mentally rotate objects, (2) spatial manipulation, or the ability to mentally manipulate an image into another arrangement, and (3) visual penetrative ability, or the ability to picture what is inside of a solid object sensu (Kali and Orion, 1996).

Although people vary widely in their innate spatial thinking abilities (Lord, 1985; Kali and Orion, 1996; Piburn et al, 2002; Hegarty et al, 2006), many struggle with spatial tasks. In a mock field exercise, Kastens et al. (2009) demonstrated that students had problems conceptualizing outcrops as discontinuous fragments of the underlying geologic structure. Instead, many thought of individual outcrops as generalizations of an entire subsurface structure. …

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