Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 1:

What are ways to further develop current and to discover new ways of understanding critical concepts for developing Earth Systems thinking on processes from the surface to the core, and links to other Earth system components?


Historically, Earth science education at the secondary level has not instilled a deep understanding of Earth science concepts nor strong connections to other science content areas. And while the more recent Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and the subsequent publication of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States) in 2013 situate the geosciences curriculum as a natural capstone for secondary students' science education and a natural transition to the undergraduate experience, this vision has not yet been achieved. As a result, undergraduate students enter college with largely distant memories of "Earth science" having some "geology" concepts, but are likely to conflate the two in their decision-making. Without a complete picture of what is known (and unknown) about these students' conceptions and misconceptions in solid Earth concepts, the divide between expert faculty and the majority of undergraduate students is unlikely to be bridged by curricular innovations. The Earth Science Literacy Principles (ESLP) (2009, p.1) states that an Earth science literate person "understands the fundamental components of Earth's many systems". If students have misconceptions about fundamental components of the solid Earth (ESLP Big Ideas 3 & 4), then the complexity of solid Earth systems and their connections to other Earth systems will continually be beyond their grasp and thus they will remain illiterate about the Earth. In fact, these misconceptions will become an impediment to further learning.

Addressing student misconceptions requires a consideration of conceptual understanding as seen by both instructors and students (as is the case with learning progressions), and require specific strategies to correct (Cohen, 1995). According to Korom (2002, p.139), "...misconceptions are such flaws in the definitions, concepts, and models in the cognitive structure of children and adults alike that are incompatible with the current scientific concepts, and are so deeply embedded in the cognitive structure that they can hardly be changed". Donovan & Bransford (2004) stress that the way in which people best learn science starts with a foundation of students' pre-instructional concepts, both accurate conceptions as well as misconceptions. Once understood, the design of inquiry-based learning experiences can be facilitated, targeting misconceptions. This cycle is complete when students have had the support of instructors in developing metacognitive connections across ideas. Applied to an undergraduate setting, the cycle extends the 3-dimensional learning structure of A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012) to the college science education experience.

In the geosciences, the role of the introductory course as a cross-roads is not widely appreciated. This course marks the transition from pre-college to undergraduate geoscience for majors, while also effectively being the end-point of students' geoscience education experience in general education. The introductory course is further complicated by a consideration of the needs of pre-service teachers across the K-12 curriculum (Mosher et al., 2014).

Geoscience is also an interdisciplinary domain, and undergraduate curricula typically require more cognate science and mathematics courses than other science domains. What has not been considered extensively is the role that cognate science courses, and their curricular timing, play in undergradate students' conceptual development. Conceptual entrenchment (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992) and persistent misconceptions (Chi, Sotta, and de Leeuw, 1994) in science have been shown to limit subsequent student learning in an area (Tammer & Allen, 2005). Anderson & Libarkin (2016) have suggested that entrenchment of physics and chemistry misconceptions, largely refractory to instruction, can be contrasted with Earth science concepts, which are more mobile but no more correct, as students lack conceptual anchoring by prior educational experience.

Identifying gaps in the research literature on undergraduate students' solid Earth misconceptions is important for understanding their prior educational and personal experiences (Figure 2). From 1984 to 2009, Duit (2009) maintained an active, subject/topic referenced bibliography of students' and teachers' concepts in science education. Initially biased towards physics concepts, the database grew to nearly 600 pages, with several thousand entries, including an increasingly large body of Earth science related concept-based manuscripts. A total of 76 references applicable to solid Earth and surface processes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB May31 18) are available in this database. Although somewhat dated and weighted towards K-12 students, the relative lack of solid Earth/surface processes misconceptions research at the pre-college level suggests that gaps in our understanding are likely to exist, and are likely more prevalent at the undergraduate level. Therefore, understanding the relationship between K-12 and undergraduate students' misconceptions of the solid Earth is likely to inform the course of misconceptions research among undergraduate students.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Perform a Gap Analysis of existing solid Earth concepts literature compared with contemporary solid Earth system science to identify misconceptions, describe conceptual progressions, and develop frameworks to evaluate instructional practices. Dove (1998) and later Francek (2013) have been largely successful in summarizing the literature from the standpoint of the research that has been done, inductively identifying persistent misconceptions held by students. But this approach has had limited success in identifying particular gaps in the literature, especially in light of changing educational goals for science education.
  2. Identify the best research practices (quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods) for identifying misconceptions. Scherer, Holder, & Herbert (2017), as well as Holder, Scherer, & Herbert (2017) provide a basic framework through which a gap analysis of complex near-surface Earth systems literature might inform practice. It is not a stretch to extend such an approach to finding the "holes" in the literature from the near-surface to the deep subsurface, encompassing the entirety of the solid Earth.