Synergies Across Multiple Themes

The 10 theme areas of GER do not stand in isolation from each other. As described in the Framework Development chapter, these themes emerged from the review of several reports, discussions, and survey feedback (Manduca, Mogk, & Stillings, 2003; Lewis & Baker, 2010; Kastens & Manduca, 2012; NRC, 2012b; the 2015 GER workshop; and 2017 GER survey). These sources of information provided working groups with perspectives on the role of education research, and GER specifically, in improving undergraduate teaching and learning, and on what areas of research are garnering the attention of researchers. The 10 themes have distinct-enough characteristics to offer organizational structure and research sub-discipline "homes" for investigators; nevertheless these themes also interconnect. Out of the fuzzy boundaries of the themes emerge opportunities for research synergies across multiple themes (Figure 2).

One way to get a first-order understanding of the opportunities for research synergy among the themes is to categorize the types of connections between themes. Three types of connections emerged based on a review of the rationales for the thematic grand challenges and their recommended research strategies. Each type of connection is important, and no hierarchy exists among them. These are perhaps best understood by analogy to chemical bonds. In chemical bonds electrons are transferred or shared, or are held by electrostatic attraction; the bonds are the forces that connect atoms and molecules together. The three types of connections between geoscience education research themes can therefore be thought of as being like three main types of chemical bonds - covalent, ionic, and hydrogen bonds:

  • A strong sharing of research foci or process is like covalent bonding between atoms.
  • A supportive, give-and-take research connection is like ionic bonding between atoms.
  • A dispersed research connection at a larger level is like hydrogen bonds between water molecules.

A simplified correlation matrix (Table 2) of the 10 themes uses colors to represent these different types of research connections. A summary of these research connections is described below, and a DETAILED CORRELATION MATRIX is accessible in the Downloadable Spreadsheet (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 16kB Jun29 18). In addition, we encourage researchers to read in detail the theme chapters that align with their areas of interest and use those as a foundation for designing targeted research studies that address questions of high importance to the geoscience education researcher and practitioner community.

Themes with Strong Research Connections: Covalent Bond Analogy

A few themes have strong research connections (shown in yellow in Table 2), some of which result from our "splitter" vs "lumper" approach in defining themes for this project. As noted in the Framework Development chapter, although there is widespread interest in teaching with an Earth system science perspective, much of the published research in students' conceptual understanding lies in (Working Group [WG] 1) geology/solid Earth concepts, (unintentionally) resulting in less emphasis on the other parts of the Earth system. Therefore we deliberately choose to split research on students' conceptual understanding into two working groups to give visibility to the need for more research on environmental, oceanic, atmospheric, and climate science content (WG2). Nevertheless, conceptual understanding of Earth systems requires an integrated understanding of all system spheres. The two themes share strong research foci on identifying and addressing misconceptions, and on developing Earth-system interconnections.

Strong research synergies also exist between the two themes that focus on cognitive domain (WG6 and WG7) because all cognitive domain research involves study of how students think - how they acquire, process, and make use of knowledge. While WG6 focused on research on temporal and spatial reasoning, and WG7 focused on research on quantitative reasoning, problem solving, and use of models, these cognitive tasks are often intertwined. In particular, many spatial and temporal tasks involve use of models and have related quantitative learning goals. For example, a general understanding that some Earth phenomenon varies upstream to downstream, or offshore to onshore, or in urban vs rural settings can be mathematicised into a quantitative gradient. A general understanding that sometimes an Earth phenomenon is fast and sometimes it is slow can be mathematicised to a quantitative measure of rate. Rate and gradient look like simple math, but they are powerful concepts in geosciences, that once mastered can be used again and again. Understanding how to harness that quantitative power is a challenge for education researchers to tackle. A related strong research connection exists between WG2 with WG7: models and quantitative reasoning are used to represent and understand properties and changes in the environment, ocean, atmosphere, and climate to better understand the Earth system, and to make predictions. Research on problem-based learning for teaching about complex issues such as climate change, and on the use of models to teach about concepts in atmospheric, oceanic and climate sciences were specifically raised as grand challenges by both working groups.

While the research connections above were anticipated, others were more surprising, perhaps because they involve themes that were generally not included in previous formal discussions of undergraduate geoscience education research needs (see Table 2 in Framework Development chapter), such as the connection between research on K-12 teacher education (WG3) and research on teaching about the Earth in the context of societal problems (WG4). Research on reformed teaching practices, including teaching in the context of societal problems at the undergraduate level may support the development of future teachers' pedagogical content knowledge, and help support teacher recruitment and retention efforts. In addition, the K-12 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NRC 2012a; NGSS Lead States, 2013) explore the use of transdisciplinary approaches, meaning our future college students will bring those skills, experiences, and content knowledge to our classrooms. Similarly, students coming into our geoscience courses may be familiar with societal issues in their local community, proving an opportunity to explore geoscience-society connections. This connects to research on instructional strategies (WG8), in particular place-based learning, and therefore may have good linkages to co-investigate.

Themes with Supportive, Give-and-Take Research Connections: Ionic Bond Analogy

Many themes have supportive, give-and-take research connections (shown in pink in Table 2). Some of these connections are common to multiple themes because they link characteristics about the learner to approaches to curriculum and instruction. Metrics of success for learning any geoscience content (WG1 and WG2), skill (WG6 and WG7), or disposition (WG9) may depend on the situational context: the instructional strategies, the setting, and the technology used (WG8). For example, targeted instructional approaches should be investigated to assess if and how these interventions support the development of spatial reasoning, temporal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, and modelling skills.

Metrics of success for learning any geoscience content (WG1 and WG2), skill (WG6 and WG7), or disposition (WG9) may also depend on the whole experience, identity, and pathway of the learner (WG5). For example, research on what learning experiences can help students with poor math preparation or attitudes have an experience where they can feel the power of math to answer questions or solve problems they care about concerning the Earth (and develop the self-efficacy to persist in learning to use math as a tool to do so) has the potential to help many students, and may help with underrepresented student groups' access and success.

The pathways and identities of students (WG5) also affect their self-regulated learning, metacognition, and affect (WG9), which in turn affect likelihood of being attracted to and thriving in the geosciences. Given how the geosciences touch the lives of all people, it should also be a field that is representative of all people, but this is not yet the case. It is important to determine how we can construct learning environments that help all students identify with the content and feel as though they belong within the geoscience community.

In addition, we must determine how students can connect with the content and apply their classroom learning to support real-world decision making. It is important for students to know not just what we know, but how we know it, why it is important, , and how it applies to their own lives and the lives of those around them. Risks of poor understanding of geology, environmental, ocean, atmospheric, and climate concepts (WG1, WG2) are non-trivial, ranging from the economic costs of commodities and energy to the potentially fatal impact of hazards - these are societal problems (WG4). Teaching with societal problems may be a mechanism to increase student interest (WG9) in the geosciences. In addition, teaching using societal problems may be especially important for teaching students about the sources and reliability of data (WG7) in considering issues they may see in the news, and may also be important when considering ways to develop geoscience learning progressions (WG1).

There are also parallel research challenges in different themes that can be opportunities for more coordinated research. Many of the challenges in recruiting, preparing, and retaining a diverse K-12 ESS teacher workforce (WG3) parallel issues of diversity and inclusion broadly in the geosciences (WG5).

Themes with Dispersed Research Connections at a Larger Level: Hydrogen Bond Analogy

While hydrogen bonds are considered weak or less "connected" compared to covalent or ionic bonds, they are actually quite important, especially between water molecules. They help create the medium through which all other chemical reactions take place and allow the transport of dissolved constituents from one place to another. In our analogy, like hydrogen bonds, the connections between some geoscience education research themes are more dispersed and happen at a large scale (shown in blue in Table 2). And like hydrogen bonds between water molecules, such research connections are important, giving critical structure to research and opportunities for movement of ideas and results within geoscience education.

This analogy is especially true for connections between institutional change and professional development (WG10) and the other themes. Research on supporting instructors' growth through professional development, and on building structural supports that foster effective teaching and learning, impact all of the other themes. This relationship exists is because instructors play a central role in the students' geoscience education: they design and implement learning experiences to teach content, skills, dispositions; they interact individually with students and manage classroom climate; they mentor and advise. For example, barriers to helping instructors learn about strategies to support students in self-regulated learning can be psychological, institutional and logistical - these need to be understood and overcome. The challenge of attracting and supporting future geoscience majors and future Earth and space science teachers has an institutional context that needs to be addressed. In addition, teaching for and through society's most pressing problems is a different way of approaching teaching and learning, which will require instructor professional development; the InTeGrate program has made strides in this way that may be useful to build upon. Improvement in geoscience students' quantitative literacy will also require more effective professional development and the motivation of instructors who want to develop students' quantitative skills. Professional development and institutional change may also play important roles in addressing the challenge of broadening participation of faculty who engage in education research in environmental, oceanic, atmospheric, and climate science by making the work of GER meaningful to faculty. Interestingly, research on professional development and faculty preparation in higher education has many of the same challenges as does research on teacher education, so there are opportunities for synergy there as well. Without stronger strategies to promote individual instructor learning and programmatic design changes that incorporate findings from across GER, faculty and their institutions may not put into practice research findings with sufficient fidelity to the underlying theories to enhance the outcomes of our undergraduate students.

Other large-scale connections between themes tie together K-12 and undergraduate education: conceptual understanding of Earth system processes and materials (WG1 and WG2) are embedded in K-12 science education and therefore important to pre-service teacher education (WG3). Future teachers struggle with the same cognitive (WG6 and WG7) and metacognitive (WG9) learning challenges as do other undergraduate students. In addition, climate and environmental change (WG2) are prominent in NGSS Earth and space science core ideas, and systems thinking, scale, proportion, and modelling are all cross-cutting concepts of NGSS. Thus, K-12 preparation shapes the broad student population entering our undergraduate programs and those connections need greater attention by researchers, especially when considering the pathways for undergraduate geoscience learning progressions.

There are also the embedded connections between thematic concepts and skills: geologic, environmental, oceanic, atmospheric, and climate processes (WG1 and WG2) all have broad temporal and spatial scales (WG6). Geoscience processes produce resources and result in hazards and complex issues relevant to the human condition (WG4). All of these challenges require problem-solving skills and may involve quantitative reasoning and modeling (WG7).

In addition, there are linkages between research on metacognition (WG9) and cognition (WG6 and WG7). Helping students become aware of their own cognition can also help with research about the mental process that develops understanding. In particular, the processes by which we take a holistic understanding and morph it into a mathematical form invite deep reflection on our own cognitive processes (i.e., metacognition).