August 2022 Researcher Spotlight

Dr. Peggy Mansfield McNeal

What is the focus of your current geoscience education research?

  • My research focuses on investigating how students use spatial reasoning in fluid-Earth science courses. I have worked with student and expert meteorologists to better understand their interpretation of complex data displays, such as surface and upper air maps. With colleagues, I'm currently working with student and expert hydrogeologists to look at how they visualize groundwater flow. In the future, I plan to use rotating tanks to study student use of spatial reasoning while observing models of geophysical fluid processes. Through these investigations, I hope to learn more about how humans think spatially and apply that knowledge to teaching and learning in undergraduate fluid-Earth classrooms. 

What research methods/approaches do you prefer and why?

  • I use both quantitative and qualitative research methods, but I think my favorite methods include statistical analysis. There is just something fun about measuring things and getting to do math. With that said, I'm still learning about statistics and probably will be forever.

What has been the best tool/resource you've found for developing as a geoscience education researcher (organization, conferences, webinar, person, online resource)? 

  • My best resource is the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT). This is very broad, but people are the #1 best resource. The NAGT community of practice is the most supportive, inspiring, and encouraging group of people I have worked with. The Earth Educators' Rendezvous is always impactful and I return having expanded my professional network, gained new research insight, and collected novel classroom ideas. The Geoscience Education Research (GER) Division's Toolbox hosted on the NAGT website is a wealth of materials, instruments, literature, and ideas for building research. The Journal of Geoscience Education is how I keep abreast of  research developments in the field and advance my understanding of best practices for teaching and learning in the geosciences.

What is your favorite or "must read" education research paper? Why is this paper meaningful for your work?

  • Early in my graduate program I read "I wish that I belonged more in this whole engineering group:" Achieving Individual Diversity by Foor et al. (2007; full reference below) and it really resonated with me. I taught middle school science for many years and that experience combined with several years teaching undergraduates underscores the need to level the STEM playing field so that all students can access success. The paper reviews Conefrey's five cultural myths of science and quotes Shiela Tobias: "in short unless they are younger versions of the science community itself, many otherwise intelligent, curious, and ambitious young people have every reason to conclude that there is no place for them in science." This paper is meaningful for everyone in STEM education and I highly recommend it! (It is also a beautiful example of qualitative research.)

What is the most interesting paper you have read in the field recently? How did it spark your researcher curiosity?

  • Hmm...there is an interesting paper by Mix et al. (full reference below) that was published in 2018. This group tested the intrinsic-extrinsic and static-dynamic spatial thinking classification scheme using confirmatory factor analysis with elementary age children. They successfully validated the intrinsic-extrinsic model, but did not find evidence for the static-dynamic distinction. I think that is a very intriguing finding. Categorizing spatial tasks is inherently complex and these results bring up a lot of interesting questions that I am curious about.

What does GER look like at your institution, in your position?

  • At Towson University, I'm in the Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences (yes, all three). I work with four accomplished science education researchers, but am the only faculty member focused on GER. I am currently working with an awesome geoscience faculty member on an NSF IUSE project that has developed into a productive and exciting collaboration. I am blessed to have so much support from many different groups of people.

Papers referenced:

Foor, C. E., Walden, S. E., & Trytten, D. A. (2007). "I wish that I belonged more in this whole engineering group:" Achieving individual diversity. Journal of Engineering Education96(2), 103-115.

Mix, K. S., Hambrick, D. Z., Satyam, V. R., Burgoyne, A. P., & Levine, S. C. (2018). The latent structure of spatial skill: A test of the 2× 2 typology. Cognition180, 268-278.

Check out Dr. McNeal's most recent publication:

McNeal, P., Flynn, W., Kirkpatrick, C., Kopacz, D., LaDue, D., & Maudlin, L. C. (2022). How undergraduate students learn atmospheric science: Characterizing the current body of research. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society103(2), E389-E401. https://doi.org/10.1175/BAMS-D-20-0023.1

To learn more about Dr. McNeal and her research, please visit her faculty website located here.

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