Professional Development to Improve the Spatial Thinking of Earth Science Teachers and Students

Lead PI: Kim Anne Kastens , Dr. Michael J. Passow

Unit Affiliation: Marine and Polar Geophysics, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

September 2010 - August 2013
Project Type: Research Outreach

DESCRIPTION: This project, hosted at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of Columbia University, is creating and testing a professional development program for Earth Science teachers targeted at improving the spatial thinking of Earth Science students. "Spatial thinking" in this context involves envisioning or manipulating or drawing meaning from the position, shape, orientation, trajectory, or configuration of objects or phenomena. Extracting insight from 2-D spatial representations, such as maps, diagrams, and profiles, and envisioning 3-D processes, such as causes of seasons, eclipses and tides, are examples of spatial thinking. Spatial thinking is rarely assessed or taught in conventional courses in the U.S. education system; however, research shows that it is an essential foundational skill for science, in general, and Earth Science, in particular. New York State Earth Science teachers participating in LDEO's Earth2Class workshop series are co-developers/participants in the program. Teachers learn to diagnose students' spatial difficulties and develop strategies to support students' spatial thinking. Focus topics have been chosen through analysis of spatially-challenging elements of the NY State Earth Science Core Curricula and associated assessments, and reflect thinking skills used by geoscientists in research and practical applications. Topics include: "What is spatial thinking and why is it important?"; "Making inferences from patterns"; "Adding the 3rd dimension: profiles, cross-sections and block diagrams"; "Scale: why size matters; Perspective taking and projections".

OUTCOMES: Found that spatial content is consistently high in the exam. The workshop gained teachers over time, but use of workshop materials in the classroom has been less successful.


National Science Foundation (NSF)





Roessel, B., Kastens, K. A., & Passow, M. J.. "Seeing spatial relationships in three-dimensional physical models.," The Earth Scientist, 29(1), 17-20., v.29, 2013, p. 17.

Passow, M. J., & Kastens, K. A.. "Sequencing--Using Spatial Relationships to Understand Temporal Patterns.," The Earth Scientist, v.29, 2013, p. 24.

Kastens, K. A., & Passow, M. J.. "Opening a conversation about spatial thinking in Earth Science.," The Earth Scientist, v.28, 2012, p. 37.


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