Earth Science Made Easier

August 11, 2009

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Instead of an ice-covered South Pole, picture sub-tropical temperatures and flowering plants. That’s what parts of Antarctica looked like 85 million years ago. How long ago was that? If you’re drawing a blank you’re not alone.

Thinking on geologic time scales does not come easily for many people, and that’s a challenge in teaching earth science, says Lamont-Doherty oceanographer Kim Kastens, in a recent cover story in EOS, a weekly newspaper published by the American Geophysical Union.

Our resistance to taking the long view of time is not surprising, Kastens and her colleagues explain. On the timeline of our planet, human history is but a tiny blip. Events like glaciations and mountain formation happen over thousands and millions of years, and at monumental scales. To make sense of Earth’s evolution, exponential numbers, ratios and proportional reasoning are required.

For nearly two decades Kastens has looked at ways to make learning about Earth more intuitive. Currently, she is leading an effort to synthesize research from psychology, philosophy and other disciplines. One technique for helping students understand geologic time, she writes, is to think about events in Earth’s past as a story, with pictures. Focusing on the narrative, rather than numerical ages, allows students to draw from their own experience of how earlier events shape later events.

She says that a “systems approach” to teaching earth science can be effective, by showing how the atmosphere, hydrosphere and other systems influence each other. She also recommends field-work to help students become better observers. “Like a criminal investigator at a crime scene, a geoscientist in the field sees differently than a novice at the same scene,” she writes.

The paper “How Geoscientists Think and Learn” is available to AGU members. Kastens is the lead author; Other authors: Cathryn Manduca, Cinzia Cervato, Robert Frodeman, Charles Goodwin, Lynn Liben, David Mogk, Timothy Spangler, Neil Stillings and Sarah Titus.

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