Teaching Earth Science: Oceanographer Wins Prestigious Prize

April 16, 2009


Media Inquiries

Kim Martineau

Oceanographer Wins Prestigious Prize for Work Advancing Education

Kim Kastens, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has been recognized for her research in making spatial concepts in earth science easier for students in a wide age range to understand. She will receive the American Geophysical Union’s Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at a ceremony in Toronto in May. 

It was through teaching an undergraduate course at Columbia, "Planet Earth," that Kastens noticed some students struggling to visualize 3-D processes like mountain building and to accurately fit together continents on a globe. What made the material so confusing, she wondered? And how could it be taught more effectively?

Those questions led Kastens from studying plate tectonics in the Mediterranean to looking for new ways to teach spatial concepts to children and young adults. In the last two decades, she has developed a map-skills curriculum for fourth-graders called "Where are We?" and come up with other hands-on learning techniques, such as Data Puzzles, to help students learn about earthquakes, seafloor spreading and the water cycle. Currently, she is leading an effort to synthesize research on thinking and learning in the earth sciences to make concepts such as geological time and feedback loops easier to comprehend.

 "She’s just very open to thinking about connecting across a wide range of sciences—behavioral and social as well as the physical sciences," said Lynn Liben, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University who is working with Kastens to study how students interpret natural features like rock outcroppings to picture the process that created them.

A class called "Oceans" inspired Kastens as a freshman at Yale University to focus her studies in marine geology.  She went on to participate in nearly 30 research expeditions, mostly in the Mediterranean, an active subduction zone. The birth of her first daughter, in 1991, led her to rethink her career path, as spending months at sea started to seem less attractive. As she watched her daughter grow, Kastens realized that how people think and learn is "even more interesting than the bottom of the oceans."

At Columbia, Kastens has been a leader in helping women to advance in science. She also teaches and co-directs the dual masters degree program in Earth & Environmental Science Journalism that she founded in 1996 to improve the way that science is communicated to the public. 

The AGU is the leading professional organization for earth and space science researchers, with more than 50,000 members worldwide.