Datapages, Inc.Print this page

3D Spatial Thinking Employed by Geoscience Experts in the Petroleum Industry

Melanie Coyan, Bob Krantz, Peter Hennings, Richard Aram, and Juli Hennings
ConocoPhillips, Houston, TX, USA


Geoscientists within the energy industry must possess keen spatial-visualization and spatial-reasoning skills. Their jobs require them to decipher the orientations and kinematic evolution of units that can not be directly observed to accurately interpret and understand the subsurface. Much of the time, these geoscientists must construct a complete understanding using a data set of variable clarity and resolution derived from only a portion of the area of interest.

Within the industry, technology is continually improved to meet new challenges and further productivity; however, there is typically little focus, if any, on understanding the cognitive demands involved in meeting these same challenges. Changes occurring across the industry, such as a growing need to understand areas of greater subsurface complexity as well as the increased hiring of early-career geoscientists coupled with the retirement of experienced geoscientists, necessitate hastening the learning process. Consequently, we seek to better understand the spatial skills involved in the various aspects of subsurface interpretation, incorporate spatial-skills enrichment into geoscience training, and bridge the gap between industry and the expertise of the academic research community.

Subsurface interpretation involves constructing 3D mental models of complex spatial relationships from 2D or 3D data, mentally manipulating these models into different spatial arrangements, mentally rotating these models to perceive them from different orientations, and constructing mental pictures of the internal structure, at the very least. Previous research exploring the relationship between spatial cognition and geoscience expertise suggests that visual penetrative ability (Alles and Riggs, 2011; Titus and Horsman, 2009; Piburn et al., 2005; Kali and Orion, 2996), mental rotation (Titus and Horsman, 2009; Piburn et al., 2005), spatial manipulation (Titus and Horsman, 2009; Piburn et al., 2005), and disembedding (Kastens and Ishikawa, 2006; Black, 2005; Piburn et al., 2005) are all integral to the practice of geology. Piburn et al. (2005) and Titus and Horsman (2009) additionally showed that spatial skills can improve with training and practice.

Few studies exist that explore the role of 3D spatial thinking at the expert level, and particularly in the context of subsurface interpretation as practiced by industry employees. It is, therefore, our goal to more clearly define the specific spatial cognition skills employed by industry experts and to explore the extent to which newly-hired geoscientists' spatial skills can be developed through training. In an effort to take the first steps toward answering these questions, we administered three spatial-skills tests to participants in a structural geology course for newly-hired geoscientists and examined whether there was a relationship between test scores and success on two course exercises. The spatial-skills tests measured mental rotation (Bodener and Guay, 1997), spatial visualization (Ekstrom et al., 1976), and visual penetration ability (Titus and Horsman, 2009). The course exercises involved creating a structure map from a series of cross sections and interpreting a seismic line. Although the results were not statistically significant (possibly a result of our small sample size), we found a modest relationship between the ability to generate a structure map from a series of cross sections and scores on the spatial-skills tests. The results of this study were limited by the abstract nature of the spatial-skills tests we administered as well as the high level of expertise of our geoscientist participants, all of whom had advanced college degrees.

To more deeply investigate and attempt to define the specific spatial cognition skills employed by industry experts, our next steps will involve examining expert spatial skills in a contextualized setting, rather than employing abstract spatial skills tests. We, therefore, intend to interview or use think-aloud protocol with geoscience experts while they interpret a seismic volume. By doing so, we hope to be able to generalize the specific cognitive skills and workflows that are common among these experts. Identification of expert practices and key 3D thinking skills required of this task will enable us to improve our spatial-skills training program.

In addition to these investigations into expert 3D spatial thinking, as an ongoing effort to promote and help others recognize the essential integration of 3D thinking and subsurface interpretation, the instructors of the structural geology course at ConocoPhillips incorporate innovative, spatial cognition training and awareness into their courses. They encourage metacognition by discussing various components of 3D spatial skills and their relationship to subsurface interpretation. They encourage sketching throughout the course. These instructors also lead a field course to examine the Hat Creek fault zone in Hat Creek, California, which promotes linking observable geologic structures with 3D mental-model development.


Alles, M., Riggs, E.M., 2011, Developing a Process Model for Visual Penetrative Ability. In: Feig, A., Stokes, A. (eds.) Qualitative Inquiry in Geoscience Education Research, Geological Society of America Special Paper 474, 63-80.

Black, A.A, 2005, Spatial ability and Earth Science conceptual understanding: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 53, no. 4, p. 402-414.

Bodner, G. M., Guay, R. B., 1997, The Purdue Visualization of Rotations Test: The Chemical Educator, v. 2(4).

Ekstrom, R. B., French, J. W., Harman, H. H., 1976, Manual for Kit of Factor-Referenced Cognitive Tests. Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ.

Kali, Y., Orion, N., 1996, Spatial Abilities of High-School Students in the Perception of Geologic Structures: J. Research in Science Teaching, v. 33(4), p. 369-391.

Kastens, K.A., Ishikawa, T., 2006, Spatial thinking in the geosciences and cognitive sciences: A cross-disciplinary look at the intersection of the two fields, In: Manduca, C.A., and Mogk, D.W. (eds.) Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about the Earth; Geological Society of America Special Paper 413, p. 53-76

Piburn, M.D., Reynolds, S.J., McAuliffe, C., Leedy, D.E., Birk, J.P., Johnson, J.K., 2005, The Role of Visualization in Learning from Computer-Based Images: Int. J. Sci. Educ., v. 27(5), p. 513-527.

Titus, S., Horsman, E., 2009, Characterizing and Improving Spatial Visualization Skills: Curriculum & Instruction, v. 57(4), p. 242-254.


AAPG Search and Discovery Article #120140© 2014 AAPG Hedberg Conference 3D Structural Geologic Interpretation: Earth, Mind and Machine, June 23-27, 2013, Reno, Nevada