Initial Publication Date: July 12, 2018

Grand Challenge 1:

How do we identify and address the challenges to the conceptual understanding specific to each discipline: environmental science, ocean sciences, atmospheric sciences, and climate science?


As we define the best undergraduate geoscience learning experience, we build longitudinal connections with K-12 education, in which core Earth science concepts are well defined and articulated. Earth systems, Earth and human activity, weather and climate, natural hazards, and human sustainability are disciplinary core concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards that represent the foundation to the conceptual understanding of environmental science, ocean sciences. atmospheric sciences, and climate science. These disciplines are also central to the Big Ideas in the Earth Science Literacy Principles that identify the Earth as a complex, constantly changing system on which life evolves and modifies it (Big Ideas 3, 4, 6 and 9). Humans' dependence on natural resources and the risk that hazards pose to humans are the theme of Big Ideas 7 and 8, while the role of water on the planet is Big Idea 5.

Misconceptions, pre-conceptions, partially correct conceptions, or naive conceptions are a challenge to students' conceptual understanding. Identifying prior conceptions that are specific to each discipline of the fluid Earth is the first step in achieving a higher level of conceptual understanding. This can be done using concept inventories, surveys, or focus group interviews (e.g., Arthurs et al., 2015; Robelia & Murphy, 2012).

Project 2061 contains assessment items that target core concepts and misconceptions in the Earth, life, and physical sciences. Each question contains data on the percentage of middle and high school students that answered it correctly. It also contains information on the misconception held by students who answered incorrectly (Prud'homme-Generaux, 2017). There are more than 80 documented misconceptions in the weather and climate theme, including basic concepts and seasonal differences. The website also includes an extensive list of references to studies that explore or unveil misconceptions. Since they are challenging to replace, it is likely that misconceptions held by middle and high school students will persist in college, making the Project 2061 information very valuable for the GER community (Prud'homme-Generaux, 2017).

A review of the literature on misconceptions is available for the solid Earth (Francek, 2013) but research on conceptual understanding of the fluid Earth is scattered among several journals: misconceptions related to tornadoes (Van Den Broeke and Arthurs, 2015), climate change (Huxter et al., 2015), environmental issues (Khalid, 2001; Robelia and Murphy, 2012), ozone formation (Howard et al., 2013), atmospheric pressure (Tytler, 1998), air motion (Papadimitriou, 2001), ocean acidification (Danielson and Tanner, 2015), the greenhouse effect (Boyes & Stanisstreet, 1993; Harris & Gold, 2017)(Figure 4), and sea-level rise (Gillette and Hamilton, 2011). Making available a compilation of common misconceptions to educators through an organized review would be a valuable contribution of the GER community.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. The most common barrier to conceptual understanding are existing misconceptions or pre-conceptions, thus identifying them is the first step. Assessment instruments, like the Force Concept Inventory used in physics or the Geoscience Concept Inventory, are commonly used to identify misconceptions: we recommend the creation and/or dissemination of concept inventories about oceanography, climate, and weather as a valuable contribution from the GER community to educators. The Fundamentals in Meteorology Inventory assessment exam (Davenport et al., 2015) could be used as a starting point. The Climate Literacy Principles (USGCRP, 2009) could be used as a compilation of the big ideas in climate science and to organize common misconceptions.
  2. Existing literature focuses on specific misconceptions within the fields of oceanography, environment, climate and weather science for specific populations. An extensive overview of misconceptions on weather and climate is included in Project 2061 but this tool is not widely used by college instructors. A literature review that summarizes what we already know, why students hold these conceptions, and how they compare in different populations, will be a useful guide for future research and educators.