Geologists use above-average spatial thinking skills to interpret and communicate complex geologic structures. Interpretation challenges, especially with industry subsurface targets, come from abundant but still ambiguous data volumes, challenging geologic forms, powerful but difficult-to-learn software and under-prepared staff.
Last June, 70 participants met in Reno to discuss these and related issues, and to explore how spatial cognitive science can help us better understand and develop geologic interpretation skills, software tools and education strategies. Industry interpreters and trainers, academic structural geologists, software developers and cognitive scientists brought complementary perspectives to three days of presentations, posters and discussions, plus a field day with interactive interpretation modules.
This Hedberg conference provided new, shared insights to the interpretation process, ideas for improving skill development and abundant opportunities for further collaboration.
Academic geologists have long sought and continue to seek the best methods to educate future geologists. In recent decades, these efforts have included rigorous, quantitative classroom-based research on effective pedagogies. The development of students’ spatial thinking skills is an emerging focus of this research, as educators have articulated its vital importance throughout the geoscience workforce – including the petroleum industry.
Cognitive scientists explore how people develop and apply spatial thinking skills to accurately perceive, understand and communicate 3-D (and 4-D) relationships, and how these skills impact success in tasks ranging from navigation to laproscopic surgery.
It is clear from this research that spatial skills are malleable, though how best to train these skills remains an area of active research. Some academic geologists are engaged in investigating the application of spatial cognitive concepts to improve teaching and student performance.
Petroleum industry professionals, particularly those with significant interpretation experience, are uniquely qualified to describe the spatial cognition challenges inherent in 3-D (and 4-D) interpretation. Collaboration with academic geologists allows industry to inform educators about the kinds of tasks new hires face.
Collaborating with cognitive scientists provides industry professionals an opportunity to better understand the cognitive challenges of subsurface interpretation – and to develop training strategies and tools informed by cognitive science. Conversely, working with professional geologists provides cognitive scientists a window into the minds of spatial thinking experts.
Software (and hardware) developers and users strive for effective 3-D visualization and interpretation software, which is widely used in the petroleum industry. Beyond the notion of a software product being used solely to achieve a technical outcome, software routinely represents the subsurface in a 3-D viewer or 3-D interpretation environment.
To a large degree, subsurface geology is an obvious application for 3-D visualization, where the benefits of cognitive off-loading (the geologist is freed from the mental process of imagining in 3-D because it’s manifest on the screen) are implicit.
However, toolkits and visualization systems can actually overload the interpreter with the enormous amount of information that is available.
Techniques for interactive visual culling and intuitive object hiding and retrieval are seen as a way forward to simplify both user experience and productivity.
A Productive Exchange of Ideas
Given the diverse backgrounds of the conference participants, the opening keynote panel provided an overview of key concepts and perspectives.
♦ George Davis (University of Arizona) described structural geology as the study of the architecture of the earth. He emphasized the need to visualize rocks in both deformed and undeformed states, and to consider how 3-D and 4-D processes must relate the two.
♦ Steve Davis (ExxonMobil) related structural form and complexity to the exploration and production mission, emphasizing that current and future E&P targets exist in settings with extreme complexity, requiring more accurate and complete interpretation than in the past.
♦ Mary Hegarty (UC-Santa Barbara) reviewed the cognitive science of spatial thinking, especially as expressed in the physical sciences, with insights into the importance of scale, visualization and representation.
♦ Steve Reynolds (Arizona State University) shared his experiences with trying to help students develop and apply spatial thinking to geology, including challenges such as recognizing key elements, being able to see “inside” a 3-D volume, spatial vs. verbal mental processing, and dealing with cognitive load.
♦ Colin Dunlap (Midland Valley Exploration) described software innovations as disruptive, including both the first generation of 3-D visualization tools and projecting what the next generation might bring.
♦ Doug Goff (Chevron) addressed the industry-training mission in which diverse staff with variable backgrounds must build both experience and expertise, and might benefit from understanding concepts before learning software.
Following the Monday morning panel, the group heard more about the science of spatial cognition – including basic concepts and areas of research – plus methods for assessment of spatial skills.
In addition to presentations on how these skills impact field geologic interpretation, the group completed a standard skills assessment test.
Monday afternoon sessions provided examples and discussions of typical subsurface interpretation projects, demonstrating the geologic complexity and interpretive challenges that arise from integrated data sets (seismic, well logs, production performance, for example) and desired end goals, ranging from complete structural frameworks to dynamic modeling. Presentations addressed workflow and thought processes across a range of geologic settings and practical problems, especially where the 3-D nature of the structure, and its evolution through time, pose significant risk to economic success.
On Tuesday, the group traveled to Hat Creek, Calif., where a complex zone of normal faults offsets Quaternary volcanic flows. The fault zone, with throws up to 500 meters, provided a laboratory for real-time interpretation exercises.
While most of the participants completed and discussed their maps, sketches and thinking, the cognitive scientists made observations and recordings to capture insights about processes employed and implications for 3-D interpretation.
Wednesday began with an introduction to software tools, including subsurface interpretations based on the Hat Creek fault zone. Presenters described how design can address the technical challenges while facilitating or inhibiting the cognitive process.
The focus then switched to a review of how academic teaching strategies have incorporated understanding of spatial skills, and their impact on geoscience education. Pedagogic methods suggest how industry might improve subsurface training through awareness of critical skill needs and levels.
Wednesday closed with a poster session, including digital presentations and demonstrations showing current research (such as eye-tracking studies) and seismic interpretation methods.
Discussions around the posters continued during a series of breakout sessions, with focus themes including the critical role of 3-D thought and process, the differences between interpretation novices and experts, ideas for next generation software and hardware, and opportunities for further learning and collaboration.
On Thursday, the final set of presentations addressed how to improve interpretation. Speakers offered suggestions for strategies and practices with current tools, but also posed questions for how to better develop skills – especially in the context of collaboration.
The conference closed with a general review and discussion of the week’s experiences, and plans for future meetings.
In the end, many participants expressed significant new insights. These included:
♦ A new appreciation for the complexity of the interpretation mission, both geologically and cognitively.
♦ A deeper understanding of the distance between novice and expert geoscientists, exemplified by the complexity of 3-D interpretation.
♦ A developing understanding of the benefits of comprehending the cognitive processes and cognitive challenges of our work.
♦ A desire to learn and apply research-proven strategies to help move people from novice to expert more efficiently.
Most academic geologists were impressed with the complexity and intellectually stimulating geology in typical industry subsurface projects, and by the power of industry software to display and manipulate 3-D data.
Geologists, both in academia and industry, also recognized the key difference between traditional surface geologic mapping and interpreting subsurface 3-D structural frameworks. This difference emerged when academic and industry participants compared interpretations during the field exercises, and highlights contrasting strategies for spatial thinking.
The cognitive scientists, while struggling to follow the nuances of geological interpretations, were quite impressed by the speed and facility with which geologists developed and discussed mental models of complex stratigraphic and structural systems.
Novices and experts clearly interpret structures with different skills and strategies. Novices can be overwhelmed with information (and software), and struggle to build a 3-D mental model. Experts are more likely to rely on mental representations, but may be misled by experience bias. Training methods must account for novice versus expert abilities.
For most participants, the cognitive science perspective on what we do, how we do it and how we can teach/train people to do what we do was completely new.
A few key ideas generated a high level of interest.
First among them was that spatial cognition improves with practice, and also degenerates with disuse. Furthermore, whatever we can do to reduce the cognitive demands of visualizing spatially complex datasets frees our minds to analyze and interpret the data. Strategies that are known to help with cognitive off-loading include gesturing, sketching and, of course, working with computerized visualizations of the data.
There are obvious implications in this for teaching and training the next generation of interpreters.
Opportunities and Actions
Several key opportunities emerged during the conference, with strong support and commitments from participants. These include:
♦ Increase awareness of the subsurface interpretation mission and methods across the academic geologic world.
♦ Encourage industry interpreters to use 3-D interpretation environments as their default tools.
♦ Apply spatial cognitive science and informed pedagogy for interpretation tools, strategies and training methods.
♦ Pursue further interdisciplinary and cross industry-academic collaborations, including:
- Software developers and cognitive scientists (intuitively oriented hardware and software).
- Industry and academic interpreters (industry data, tools and objectives).
- Industry trainers and academic educators (teaching and assessment methods).
- Industry interpreters and cognitive scientists (applied spatial thinking).
- Academic geologists and cognitive scientists (teaching and measuring spatial thinking skills).