Thematic Research Priorities at a Glance

The nature of the thematic grand challenges articulated by each working group (WG) is a reflection of the state of research knowledge and practice in that area, as well as a projection of research needs and opportunities going forward. Collectively, this document lays out a prioritized geoscience education research agenda. It aims to be a catalyst for action - for getting important work done. The following are key take-away points from each of the theme chapters (Table 1), and links to each of the chapter descriptions are provided.

  1. Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Geology/Solid Earth Science Content (WG1): While more work needs to be done on identifying and correcting student misconceptions of geology/solid Earth concepts, a foundation already exists to also tackle another large-scale challenge: determining optimal learning progressions (i.e., conceptual scope and sequence) for undergraduate geology degree programs - from introductory and cognate sciences through upper level course work - to best support growth in conceptual understanding and career preparation. Such learning progressions would coordinate well with work done in K-12 on Earth science learning progressions (especially the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the related Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS]; NRC, 2012, NGSS Lead States, 2013), as well as outcomes from the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Education (Mosher et al., 2014). This research theme highlights the important point that the current undergraduate curriculum in the geosciences follows a general pattern that is guided largely by faculty expertise, as well as workforce expectations, but rarely takes into account students' prior knowledge and naïve understanding of solid Earth concepts. There is scant empirical evidence to support the notion that a traditional construct for undergraduate geoscience curricular design meets the needs of geoscience majors (including pre-service secondary education teachers [WG3]) or non-majors. In addition, while this working group focused on the future education research on teaching and learning of solid Earth/geology, there was also clear emphasis of how the solid Earth fits within broader Earth system thinking and the need to link to other Earth system components (e.g., WG2).
  2. Research on Students' Conceptual Understanding of Environmental, Oceanic, Atmospheric, and Climate Science Content (WG2): Recommended research in this theme focuses on both identifying and overcoming students' misconceptions of each of the more "fluid" (non-solid Earth) components of the Earth system, and how to more effectively teach about the complex interconnectedness of these components. The recommended research emphasizes the need to expand education research in the environmental, oceanic, atmospheric, and climate sciences, which historically has lagged behind similar research on geology/solid Earth concepts. Increased research attention on conceptual understanding of these parts of the Earth system means a more integrated approach in other ways too, including examination of how tools, such as models (e.g., Global Circulation Models) essential to teaching integrated concepts, are best used, and how the path and identity of the learner impact student learning about the Earth system sciences. New research directions will depend on adapting and/or developing new instruments (e.g, perhaps with the Fundamentals in Meteorology Inventory assessment exam as one starting point; Davenport, Wohlwend, & Koehler, 2015), and can capitalize on existing content frameworks, such as the Climate Literacy Principles (USGCRP, 2009) or the Summit outcomes (Mosher et al., 2014), as compilations of the big ideas to organize research on common misconceptions.
  3. Research on Elementary, Middle, and Secondary Earth and Space Sciences (ESS) Teacher Education (WG3): Teacher education research, including research on ESS teacher education, has historically developed in isolation from research on undergraduate geoscience education. This working group considered the challenges unique to undergraduates preparing to teach ESS across grades K-12, and identified several themes that link to those identified by other working groups. Grand challenges for future research include attracting, supporting, and retaining a greater number of, and a more diverse population of, future K-12 ESS teachers who can effectively engage diverse K-12 learners, and identifying effective models for incorporating ESS into undergraduate K-12 teacher preparation that successfully promote the three-dimensional learning (i.e., science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas) of the NGSS (NRC, 2012). In order to fully realize a diverse and well-prepared K-12 ESS teacher workforce, teacher education research must also recognize the complex landscape in which teacher education takes place, involving an interplay of programmatic, institutional, demographic, political, state, and national factors.
  4. Research on Teaching about the Earth in the Context of Societal Problems (WG4): The use of societal problems for teaching about the Earth highlights a potentially effective context for teaching that supports needs identified in AGI's report on Geoscience for America's Critical Needs (2016), and can build upon two recent large-scale initiatives: the InTeGrate project and the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education (Mosher et al., 2014). These may provide the initial platforms and/or potentially large datasets to robustly investigate how such a teaching approach impacts student learning and student motivation to learn about the Earth. Successful research outcomes will also depend on the identification and/or development of assessments to measure the efficacy of these approaches. In addition, issues of both theory and practice should be studied to understand the optimal design principles of curricula that integrate geoscience content within the context of societal issues.
  5. Research on Access and Success of Under-represented Groups in the Geosciences (WG5): As geoscience programs seek to broaden participation and reach more diverse audiences, two broadly interdependent and complimentary research perspectives are recommended in the construction and assessment of innovations. These two paths build on the modern theories of multicontextuality and intersectionality in diversity, and on the active and supportive perspective of "attracting and thriving", over the more passive "recruiting and retaining" (Ibarra, 2001, 1999). These aim to determine how to support the individual identities and personal pathways of students as they are attracted to and thrive in the geosciences, and how to create solutions that capitalize on different scales of efforts to broaden participation that are appropriate to the situations and communities. Research addressing these grand challenges in geoscience education directly connects to challenges of diversification across STEM fields that were outlined in the National Academies report on "Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation" (2011).
  6. Research on Cognitive Domain in Geoscience Learning: Temporal and Spatial Reasoning (WG6): While research on spatial thinking already has a well-established foundation (e.g., SILC), the research priorities laid out here give a clear, multi-step path for identifying and supporting the development of temporal and spatial reasoning skills expected of geoscientists. A first step is to determine how spatial and temporal reasoning skills correlate to specific tasks essential to different specialties within the geosciences. Then it is important to empirically test whether these tasks actually draw on the spatial and temporal reasoning skills that were mapped. This process will require examination of current measures of spatial and temporal reasoning to determine if they accurately assess the skills of interest, and also the development of new assessments, if needed. Outcomes can then be used to develop strategies for geoscience educators to foster spatial and temporal reasoning skills in each specialty area.
  7. Research on Cognitive Domain in Geoscience Learning: Quantitative Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Use of Models (WG7): Similar to WG6, the research here focuses on understanding and developing habits of mind important to geoscientists. One research priority is to learn how quantitative thinking helps geoscientists and citizens (i.e., general education students) better understand the Earth and how geoscience educators move students towards these competencies. There are rich opportunities to link future work in this area to mathematics education research. A second research priority is to determine how using big data and emerging technologies can help students find and solve problems that they care about concerning the Earth. That this challenge is both about identifying problems, as well as solving them, highlights the need to help learners confront the reality of complex, messy, ill-defined problems, which may be quite different from narrowly constrained problems they may have become accustomed to in their science classes and labs. Third, research is needed to address how we can help students understand the process by which geoscientists create and validate a wide range of models (e.g., conceptual to computational) and use them to generate new knowledge about the Earth.
  8. Research on Instructional Strategies to Improve Geoscience Learning in Different Settings with Different Technologies (WG8): Research for this theme aims towards more effective, accessible, inclusive, relevant, and practical geoscience teaching and learning. Five challenges highlight different aspects of instruction, and research on all of these challenges will benefit from greater partnership between geoscience education researchers and practitioners. Because the pace and the excitement of technological and methodological advances in education (and in the geoscience workforce) tend to outstrip the more deliberate progress of relevant educational research and assessment, finding ways to close the research gap is a first-order research priority. This work will require researchers to maintain vigilance of innovations in technological and methodological strategies for teaching in other fields and other domains (e.g., free-choice or informal STEM education) as well as in the geosciences, and testing across instructional contexts. As instructional practices and settings of undergraduate geoscience instruction also evolve, researchers need to determine what works best for the greatest range of learners. This will also mean identifying and overcoming structural barriers that impede effective teaching and learning. Lastly, research that explores the role of the learner as a co-discoverer of knowledge and a co-creator of new instructional strategies will fill in gaps in our understanding of the design of mentored research and course-based research experiences (CUREs), and will also give attention to new ways of student-centered active learning that have been proposed in the context of other disciplines but have not yet been tested in geoscience education.
  9. Research on Geoscience Students' Self-Regulated Learning, Metacognition, and Affect (WG9): One important take-away about this theme is that it is not getting enough attention overall in the geosciences. Very little research exists on how students' self-regulation, metacognition (i.e., reflection on what they know, what they don't know, and what they need to do to improve), and affect (i.e., emotional response) can enhance (or inhibit) their ability to navigate tasks within the geosciences. Focusing research to help geoscience educators better support students in developing the ability to self-regulate their learning and metacognition, should also result in movement along the novice to expert continuum. In addition, more research is needed to understand the role that affect may play in determining effective strategies for engaging a diverse population of students and sustaining their interest in the geosciences. Research success in all of these areas will depend on identifying (e.g., RTOP) and/or developing robust research-grade instruments and surveys, as well as classroom-level assessments for instructor use, which also may include incorporating new research technologies to assess and record student variables in real-time.
  10. Research on Institutional Change and Professional Development (WG10): Recommended research in this area addresses important challenges in the landscape in which instructors work and in which undergraduate geoscience teaching and learning happens. Research on professional development programs has a long and robust history (e.g., On the Cutting Edge program in the geosciences; Manduca et al., 2017). Building on Manduca (2017), we recommend a new lens for professional development research - where the faculty member is viewed as the learner, and we research ways to support that learner over time. Seen through this lens, there is a need for longitudinal studies that focus on continual growth of geoscience instructors - in their ability to teach effectively and implement research-supported teaching practices, as well as on how their personal histories and identities interact within the larger institutional context. Research is also needed on the roles that different types of professional development experiences play in geoscience instructors' evolving teaching practices over time. Lastly, borrowing from the systems approach to teaching about the Earth, we might re-conceptualize geoscience departments and programs as complex systems too, and through research identify the factors and feedbacks that create and sustain healthy undergraduate geoscience programs.