Building Capacity for Investigating the Use of Spatial Reasoning in Fluid-Earth Science Disciplines
Effective Years: 2023-2024
This project aims to serve the national interest by developing a researcher’s skills to conduct fundamental geosciences education research that investigates how college students use spatial reasoning to think and learn about fluid-Earth science concepts. In fluid-Earth science courses, topics such as atmosphere and ocean dynamics are highly abstract and mathematical without a natural bridge to everyday understanding of physical reality. The important leaps in thinking from mathematical descriptions to visualizing fluids and understanding fluid flow are challenging. Although the ocean and atmosphere are not easily accessible to observe, they can be modeled in density and rotating tanks to support student learning. This provides an opportunity to study how students process these phenomena and use spatial reasoning to make sense of what they see. To advance this research, the project will establish a Fluid-Earth Science Spatial Thinking Laboratory at Towson University to be used for modeling fluid-Earth processes and observing students as they reason about what they observe. Throughout the project, the principal investigator (PI) will also develop her expertise and capacity for conducting spatial thinking research through an intense study of cognitive science theory and practice. With potential applications to the development of curricula and pedagogies, the project team ultimately seeks to make fluid-Earth science more accessible to diverse students with a broad range of backgrounds, experiences, and abilities.
This project will establish a Fluid-Earth Science Spatial Thinking Laboratory at Towson University to model fluid-Earth processes in density and rotating tanks while conducting investigations of undergraduate students’ use of spatial reasoning during observations of geophysical fluid processes. To build her capacity to conduct this work, the PI will participate in professional development in cognitive psychology to learn how to make robust connections between human behavior and theories of the mind. The professional development plan will include coursework in cognitive psychology and coaching from mentors and advisors. Current spatial thinking typologies and characterizations of spatial reasoning will frame a qualitative study that addresses two questions: 1) How do students use spatial reasoning to make sense of physical models of fluid-Earth dynamics? and 2) What are students’ spatial conceptions about fluid flow in these models? The project team will address these questions through interviews of students who observe fluid behavior while making predictions, sketches, and explanations of dynamic fluid phenomena. From analysis of student sense-making, researchers seek to gain an improved understanding of the spatial reasoning necessary for making mental models of fluid transformations in atmospheric science and oceanography contexts. The project team will aim to describe how spatial skills used to make mental fluid transformations are related to those used in transforming rigid objects, such as when thinking about the solid-Earth. The team will disseminate results through workshops to advance fluid-Earth thinking research, apply insights from the project, and build tools designed to enhance teaching. The project is supported by NSF's EHR Core Research Building Capacity in STEM Education Research (ECR: BCSER) program, which is designed to build investigators’ capacity to carry out high-quality STEM education research.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.