165 Identifying and Improving the Impact of Spatial Thinking in Pre-College Earth Science Courses

Monday, 7 January 2013
Exhibit Hall 3 (Austin Convention Center)
Michael J. Passow, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, NY; and K. A. Kastens and L. Pistolesi

Spatial thinking plays a major role in the everyday work of atmospheric and ocean scientists. We engage in spatial thinking when we derive meaning from the shape, size, orientation, position, direction, or trajectory of objects, processes or phenomena, or the relative positions in space of multiple objects, processes, or phenomena. Because spatial thinking is pervasive in these and other sciences, it should be incorporated into educational activities, and especially taught to ‘beginning scientists' in high school, middle school, and even elementary school classes. Yet there has been little pedagogical study of how much or how effectively this occurs in pre-college courses, and most teachers have received little training in this area of cognitive science.

Through “Professional Development to Improve the Spatial Thinking of Earth Science Teachers and Students” (a program at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University supported by National Science Foundation Grant GEO-1034994), we first developed a coding system to identify spatial concepts, representations, and skills in more than 1,000 test items from twelve recent exams administered to students in New York State “Physical Setting/Earth Science” (“Regents Earth Science”) courses. We found that more 63% of all items have one or multiple spatial components. We will present and discuss samples of items examining understanding of science education standards pertinent to atmospheric, climate, and oceanic content.

Next, our grant allowed us to work with teachers from New York and New Jersey who participate in the Earth2Class Workshops for Teachers program (www.earth2class.org). Monthly sessions focused on selected aspects of spatial thinking (http://www.earth2class.org/er/vc/). We learned from the teachers what they and their students found difficult and easy. In the workshops and their classes, they pilot-tested strategies to improve instruction and student achievement of these concepts. We will describe some of these strategies using examples having atmospheric and oceanographic themes.

Further goals of this program are to create a series of professional development activities which can be utilized by novice and experienced teachers to enhance their understanding of the role of spatial thinking in their science lessons, and share techniques to improve student learning and performance on standardized tests that demand spatial thinking.

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