Visual/Spatial Representations in Earth Science

Heather Bradstreet,  Science Teacher, Rush-Henrietta Senior High School

Students have a need for spatial learning in science. Geosciences in particular are inherently spatial tasks and therefore even though spatial learning is not mentioned in the New York State Earth Science curriculum, developing these practices are critical for success in the Regents Earth Science course. For my action research I explored the question, when presented with visual information, will using the metacognitive strategy of identifying spatial representation types influence a student’s ability to construct, interpret and critique Earth Science diagrams?

Students were given explicit instruction to identify certain visual representation types and the corresponding strategies for interpreting them. Posters were created and used based on the premise that the most common spatial skills in geosciences are: mental animation (imagining or predicting movement, rotation or change in surface in a static diagram), representational correspondence (the concept that a symbol in a diagram stands for a thing in the real world), visual penetrative ability (the ability to imagine three dimensional objects given two dimensional surface clues or recognize the relationships between vertical and horizontal frame a reference), recognize patterns and shapes, scale in both distance and time, and finally, locate an object and learning spatial layout.

Three forms of evaluation were used to evaluate student progress: (1) At the beginning and end of the research time period the students were given psychological tasks that represent the geoscience visual-spatial tasks. The students were be engaged in their progress and purpose of these tasks, (2) Relevantly coded Regents questions were drawn from the three unit tests given during research time, and (3) because self assessment perception in science ability is a significant part of learning, students’ journal writing and diagram creation was be included in the evaluation.

Clear progress and change in cognitive ability was apparent however the most interesting part about using this practice is how the idea of visual/spatial representations became a part of nearly every lesson including assessment. In the end, I gained confidence as an educator to explore spatial/visual skills in a wide variety of topics and tasks. Images are a critical part of science. They share results, conceptualize ideas, and provide a common ground for discussion, especially in interdisciplinary topics. On the other hand, if poorly constructed, diagrams can confuse and even mislead. It was interesting to see students have sincere, evidence based arguments with each other about what type of representation the diagram at hand was and even eventually construct the idea that diagrams can be more than one type.  For more information, please visit my action research report, Explicit Metacognitive Instruction for Processing Spatial Tasks in Earth Science.

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