Grand Challenge 1:

What skills and tasks are essential to the different specialties within the geosciences? What spatial and temporal reasoning skills map onto these specific tasks?


To ensure that our work is relevant to the broader geoscience community, we first need to focus the research on the primary specialties within the community, for example using AGU's sections or GSA's divisions. Because these specialties can vary greatly in terms of their scale, scope, and methods, it is necessary to identify the primary defining skills and tasks in each area.

Several efforts have been made to summarize the kinds of skills and tasks necessary to master in order to be a geoscientist. For example, the 2014 Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education brought together ~200 post-secondary educators and representatives from industry and professional geoscience societies. The Report from that meeting stresses that geoscientists "need to be able to think spatially and temporally... [and] think critically and readily solve problems, especially those requiring spatial and temporal (i.e. 3D and 4D) interpretations" (Mosher et al., 2014). In a survey following the Summit, "problem-solving with spatial and temporal data" was ranked as the second most critical geoscience (non-professional scientist) skill in undergraduate education (Survey Results), with more than 60% of 455 respondents identifying it as "very important." Further, attendees of the Geoscience Employers Workshop provided thoughts on the various concepts they thought geoscience graduates should be able to understand (Meeting Outcome). Many of these concepts rely on spatial and temporal thinking, including understanding how systems work and interact, geological time/Earth evolution, age dating, events and rates, and landscape alteration (i.e., geomorphology).

Researchers have also tried to make sense of the complex array of spatial and temporal skills required for geoscientists (Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006; Liben & Titus, 2012; Newcombe & Shipley, 2015; Tarampi et al., 2016; Zen, 2001; Krantz, Ormand, & Freeman, 2013; Cervato & Frodeman, 2012). Some of these tasks include things like "recognizing, describing, and classifying the shape of an object; describing the position and orientation of objects; making and using maps; envisioning processes in three dimensions; and using spatial-thinking strategies to think about nonspatial phenomena" (Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006). A 2009 report by Kastens and others suggested that geoscientists possess a distinctive set of approaches and perspectives when it comes to studying the Earth. Specifically, they identified four themes in how geoscientists think and learn which includes their ability to think about time, their understanding of the earth as a complex and complicated system, their experience with categorization, identification and transformation in fieldwork, and their use of spatial thinking for interpreting visualizations and seeing patterns in data. These four themes are meant to generalize across all specialties within the geosciences, but it is likely the case that some skills and tasks are more (or less) critical to certain specialties. For example, map reading (spatial) and time-sequenced data interpretation are important to many specialties such as ocean sciences and global environmental change, but may be less immediately important to other specialties (e.g. a geochemist doing bulk chemical analysis to assess re-opening an old quarry might not be as concerned with temporal data, but could still want to map where their samples came from and the extent of the potential quarry). Once the essential tasks and skills of these specialties are identified, the types of spatial and temporal reasoning in each needs to be "mapped" so the community can understand if and how these fields differ.

Recommended Research Strategies

  1. Kastens & Manduca (2012) created concept maps of Spatial Thinking and Temporal Thinking in Geosciences (Figure 2). These should be revisited and used as a model for creating a map of the various kinds of spatial and temporal reasoning skills and the geoscience specialties that rely on these skills. This kind of representation would allow us to see where specialists may overlap in particular skills and where they may draw upon a unique set of skills.
  2. While some specialties within Geoscience have been investigated in terms of the kinds of spatial and temporal reasoning they require (e.g., Tarampi et al., 2016), many have not. Thus, an important research strategy is to conduct process and task analyses in these less explored specialities to make inferences about how the geoscience skill aligns with spatial or temporal reasoning skills. For example, it could be said that the field of paleontology requires spatial thinking in the form of penetrative thinking, disembedding, mental rotation, and mental transformation. That is, locating fossils requires being able to imagine the layers of rock (penetrative thinking), being able to "see" relevant structures within the rock (disembedding), and the ability to mentally rotate fossils (mental rotation) in order to generate inferences about what the entire creature should look like (mental transformation).
  3. Select specific, well-defined areas of geoscience and have people in those fields describe the spatial and temporal tasks they do as part of their job in focus groups. We recommend that focus groups might help elicit more ideas than one-on-one interviews or surveys. This cognitive task analysis with specific experts could be used to identify the most important, or essential, spatial and temporal reasoning tasks they do. This could also be completed as a modified Delphi study, or by studying geoscientists doing expert tasks, and coding for different reasonings being used.