Initial Publication Date: May 17, 2016

December 2015 Spotlight: Karen McNeal

Karen McNeal, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, uses mixed-methods approaches to understanding affective and cognitive processes involved in learning about climate change and other complex Earth system processes. In the Dec. 2015 spotlight, she discusses her current research using augmented reality, highlights the influence of How people learn (Bransford, 2000) in her growth as a geoscience education researcher, and encourages early career professionals to connect with others at national meetings.

What is the focus of your current geoscience education research? What research methods/approaches do you prefer?
My work focuses on the affective and cognitive domains of learning about complex Earth systems and specifically climate change phenomena. I most frequently use quasi-experimental research approaches where I use both qualitative and quantitative methods in my work. Mixed research approaches provide the most complete dataset about your research subjects and provide the ability to triangulate data pools across many measures. For instance, I often employ psychometric tests when I want to measure pre-post differences in my population due to a given intervention, however, combining these questions with open-ended sources may inform me more about the mis-conceptions students are having and/or allow me to add additional multiple choice questions based on these mis-conceptions. Furthermore, the psychomotor tools that I employ, such as eye-tracking analysis and hand-sensors, often require subjects to think-out-loud or participate in post-interviews in order to support and expand on the robust quantitative datasets collected with these tools. Finally, I often utilize student concept maps and drawings as a means of assessing student understanding of complex Earth phenomena which are then scored using rubrics and co-coders.

What has been the best tool/resource you've found for developing as a geoscience education researcher?
I found that working with other more experienced geoscience education researchers as well as researchers outside the field has expanded my growth as a researcher. Through these collaborations I have been able to gain new knowledge/ways of doing things. Also, attending annual meetings, reading the literature, and having active group of graduate students have been other ways to keep myself current.

What is your favorite or "must read" education research paper? Why is this paper meaningful for your work?
My interest in geoscience education research in graduate school started with the reading of "How People Learn" (Bransford, J., National Research Council (U.S.)., & National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.). This book provided me foundational knowledge in teaching and learning that I had never been exposed to as a traditional geoscientist, until then. I have my graduate students read it when they enter my research lab so that they too can have a foundational look at the many aspects of science education. They also read the "DBER" book (see citation below) so that they can have a context of geoscience education research as it related to other DBER fields. "National Research Council. (2012). Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. S.R. Singer, N.R. Nielsen, and H.A. Schweingruber, Editors. Committee on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press."

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

Often, my group works on problems where we need to refer to work outside of the common geoscience education outlets in order to find methods or experimental design frameworks in how to solve problems in our field. For instance, given the upcoming COP21 conference, my group is conducting a research project where we are following social media activity on Twitter in regard to #COP21. We are interested in how Twitter is used as a tool for communicating about climate science and what characteristics of the tweet or the twitter user contribute to messages that are most frequently shared and most pervasive in the twitter space. As such, I have recently read the following which has been of strong interest to my work in this area: "Jan, S.M. and Hart P.S. 2015. Polarized frames on ''climate change'' and ''global warming'' across countries and states: Evidence from Twitter big data. Global Environmental Change, 32:11-17."

What type of project would you like to collaborate with other researchers on?
I am currently collaborating with a local museum on augmented reality use in the informal learning setting as a tool for engaging the public in climate science and hope to work with more museums in the future. Along the same lines, my group is gearing up for a project to use the augmented reality sand-box (see in undergraduate classrooms to teach about Earth sciences (e.g., topographic maps, surface water, and human structure impacts on the landscape). We are beginning initial collaborations with other institutions now, but would welcome more institutions that might be interested in using the AR sandbox in their classrooms to let join the effort.

What is your advice for an early career geoscience education researcher?
Being a geoscience education research can be liberating (e.g., we get to do really cool work in a relatively new field where there are lots of opportunities to make big impacts) but also frustrating (e.g., our disciplinary colleagues can sometimes be confused about what we do and why we belong in the traditional dept., etc.). However, it is important to think about yourself as an interdisciplinary researcher that has as much "right" to be in the dept./program as the other researchers (they would not have hired you if some proportion of your dept. didn't actually think this too, it is just hard to win everyone over). So keep doing what you know you ought to be doing, do the work that keeps you excited and motivated, and realize the with time the field will catch up the ever-expanding GER community. Also, at times you might feel isolated in your home institution, but there are so many others that you can connect with through the many opportunities in our field (e.g., SERC workshops, Earth Educator's Rendezvous, GSA, etc.). Attend. You will be glad you did!

What is your advice for someone who is interested in starting out in geoscience education research or scholarship of teaching and learning?
Understand that you are embarking on becoming bi-lingual/hybrid researcher – where you will learn a new research paradigm and language (e.g., education jargon), you will learn a new literature (DBER, geoscience education, science education, learning sciences, etc.), new methods and tools, and you will eventually start to identify yourself as a social scientist (as well as perhaps see yourself as the traditional physical or natural (geo)scientist). At first, it will be difficult to get started learning the basics, finding your area of passion, and perhaps getting over the cultural gap between the science and education fields where you might hear or get a sense from your colleagues that you are somehow doing "easier" work. However, ultimately, you have decided to pursue a field that crosses boundaries, that is expanding and growing in exciting new ways, and that is necessary for the future of the field, a geoscience literate society, and for the effective communication of and teaching and learning about the geosciences. So, dig in and get ready for the time of your life!

What does GER look like at your institution, in your position?
My position is housed in a traditional geoscience department - the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University in the College of Sciences. My Department includes two full-time geoscience education researchers, myself and Dr. David McConnell, in the Geocognition and Geoscience Education Research Group and The Geosciences Learning Processes Research Group, respectively. This strong commitment to geoscience education facilitates a vibrant and comprehensive geoscience education graduate program, where we currently have 2 undergraduates, 7 graduate students, and 2 post-doctoral scholars in our collective groups. We are looking for two more graduate students this upcoming year and welcome applications. Please contact me at if you are interested.

Recent Publication of Interest:
McNeal, K.S., Spry, J., Mitra, R., Tipton, J. 2014. Measuring Student Engagement, Knowledge, and Perceptions of Climate Change in an Introductory Geology Course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 62: 655-667.
This paper highlights some of my recent work using hand-sensors in the classroom to monitor student engagement during different classrooms activities centered about climate change.

To learn more about Karen, visit her research website at