Yeah, it’s easy for you

Grasp of Space and Time Can be Elusive

Off the top of your head, not using a calculator:

One billion seconds is equivalent to about how many years? Is it 480 years? 218 years? 106 years? 32 years?

Mastering ideas about time and space isn’t easy, especially for young students.

Educators and researchers are struggling to help students understand the concepts of complex three-dimensional space and deep geological time – areas where competence is essential for a geologist.

The Geological Society of America’s “Earth and Mind II,” published as GSA Special Paper 486 earlier this year, examines geoscience education and the concepts of time, space, systems and field.

In each section, a number of authors provide their thoughts and theories about education and those topics – including a theory that the ability to think about complex space and time might be a talent, something like inherent musical ability or athletic skill.

Kim Kastens
Kim Kastens

Kim Kastens and Cathryn Manduca served as editors for the volume.

Manduca is director of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Kastens, formerly affiliated with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, recently became principal scientist in charge of science education at Educational Development Center Inc. in Waltham, Mass.

In the book, their work begins with an examination of the scientific and collaborative nature of geology as a profession. The ability to be a geoscientist is, as much as anything, a frame of mind.

“Geoscientists operate in a frame where the geographic, spatial and temporal details are very important. A conversation is unlikely to proceed very far before the geoscientist seeks to make sense of information using this frame,” Manduca and Kastens wrote in their introductory paper.

This framework assumes the geologist can work with and make sense of complex ideas about space and time. Helping students think in that frame has been a challenge for educators.

Yes, Geology IS a Science

Another challenge for geoscience teachers is convincing students that geology is actually a science.

As a science, geology stands apart from those sciences grounded in more traditional, experimental methodology, Kastens observed.

“The first thing for both students and educators to realize is that the ways geologists have of seeking truth is somewhat different from the way experimental scientists do,” she said.

The scientific method typically involves experimentation using a controlled variable and carefully controlled conditions, with deductions based on multiple outcomes and observations leading to a defensible conclusion or set of conclusions.

Very few of the breakthroughs or major advances in geology – you could say almost none – were made that way, Kastens noted.

Geological interpretation requires a different way of thinking about space, time and reality.

“If students don’t realize that’s a way to make or reach conclusions,” she said, “they can come away thinking, ‘This isn’t actually a science,’ or they don’t understand the kind of claims we can make.”

Making It Real

And that’s not the only challenge faced by geoscience teachers.

Jonna Gentry
Jonna Gentry

Jonna Gentry teaches ninth-grade Earth Science at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, Colo. She is AAPG’s 2012 Earth Science Teacher of the Year.

Gentry might be fighting a different kind of fight than the one described in “Earth and Mind II.”

“A lot of our students walk into the classroom and say, ‘Well, I don’t like Earth science,’ even though they’ve never taken an Earth science class,” Gentry said.

She described the young teens as “natural-born biology students,” but said some of them have a pronounced antipathy toward studying geology.

“Astronomy tends to be very fascinating for them. Meteorology is fascinating for them. I don’t know where it comes from, but they think rocks are just boring,” she said.

Despite being literally under their feet, the complex geology of the Earth is an abstraction for most young students. So is the concept of prolonged periods of time that can run into the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years.

Science teachers seem almost desperate to make these abstractions more concrete.

“We try to use as many manipulatives as possible and as many things kids can touch as possible. We show a lot of PowerPoints – ‘This is the way things look in the field,’ ” Gentry said.

“A lot of it is, ‘Can they attach it to something in their lives?’ and, ‘Why is it important?’” she added.

Masters of Space and Time?

Whether or not the ability to think about complex space is a talent, there’s little doubt that some people do it better than others. Researchers have studied the way K-12 students think about spatial concepts.

“A very robust finding coming out of that research is that there is a large variability in spatial abilities,” Kastens said.

Gentry agrees that spatial skills develop differently in different students, and says she sees the variation in her classroom.

“It’s like putting together pieces of a puzzle,” she said. “That’s what geology is like. Some kids are really good at putting the spatial together, and some kids really struggle with that.”

Students in their teens also can have a problem conceptualizing large numbers outside of their normal frame of thinking, like the concept of “one billion” (if you are 32 years old or older, you already have lived more than one billion seconds).

“Billions of years. That’s really tough,” Gentry said.

Teachers often use spatial concepts to help students understand temporal concepts. For instance, a timeline on paper is a two-dimensional representation of time.

To a professional geologist, the difficulty of teaching these concepts might seem strange.

“Teaching students about the magnitude of geological time using analogies requires overcoming the challenges in aligning spatial and temporal scales. Experts who have succeeded in doing this may find it difficult to understand why students find this hard to do,” wrote Ilyse Resnick, Kinnai Atit and Thomas Shipley of Temple University.

Kastens said using spatial analogies to explore concepts of time is a useful tool.

“It’s good in that it lets us tap into this wonderful ability the human brain has to do things like, for example, recognize patterns,” she said. “By making spatial representations we can have a shared artifact that we can share with other people, and we can save it for use later.”

But time and space don’t work the same way, so the approach does have some pitfalls.

“The human brain wants to assume that equal space converts to equal time,” Kastens noted. “That’s drastically untrue.”

The Light Comes On

If the hurdles faced by both geoscience teachers and geoscience students seem like too much of a challenge, there is one saving grace. Remember, competence in understanding complex space and deep time is essential for a geologist.

The key word is “competence,” not brilliance.

Educators are reaching the conclusion that they can teach almost any student to be competent in thinking about space, time and systems, regardless of inherent levels of ability.

“Many instructors consider spatial abilities to be a divider separating students who can be successful geologists from those who should ‘try some other career.’ This view is not supported by research,” wrote Steven Reynolds of Arizona State University.

“Any kid can be a good problem solver. Any kid can do critical thinking,” Gentry said.

“It’s doable. My colleagues have seen this, too,” she added. “We get students who say, ‘Oh, now I see what this is about!’”

Geoscience education continues to evolve, and “Earth and Mind II” provides a window on some current thoughts in this area in a collaboration among geoscientists and cognitive scientists.

“It’s really timely to have this conversation, because K-12 education is moving aggressively into practices. ‘Practices’ is the term they are using to talk about ways of thinking. The fancy word is ‘epistemology,’” Kastens explained.

“I think this book moved the conversation forward,” she said.

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