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Embodied Cognition in Geoscience: The Connection Between Mind, Body, Expertise and Technology in Understanding Geological Systems

Eric M. Riggs¹, Juan S. Herrera², Russell N. Balliet², and Adam V. Maltese³
¹College of Geosciences, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX
²Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN
³Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN


Understanding the geometry and evolution of geologic structures superimposed on preserved sedimentary systems and sequence stratigraphy is crucial in the petroleum industry. The development of these skill sets among geoscientists and engineers in university education and industry training is critical, but the details of how people come to understand these spatial and temporal concepts remains poorly understood from an educational and cognitive perspective. Some advances have been made in understanding classroom and field education, but these are still largely preliminary and the role of advanced software and technological tools in education or industry relative to conceptual development and completeness is even less well-understood.

Embodied cognition holds that the physical environment, including notes and external recording of thinking, as well as direct body motions (gesture, navigation, gaze) are all a key element of the full cognition process, i.e. all cognition does not occur only in the mind. This appears to be especially relevant as spatial and temporal thinking is engaged. Our study of embodied cognition in geoscience has focused on gesture and linkage to linguistic metaphor, cognition recorded in notes in the field coupled with navigation and attention decisions. The research presented here is therefore split into two major sections: 1) understanding conceptualization and expression of key ideas and processes in sequence stratigraphy through analysis of gesture, language, and interaction with instructional software and 2) understanding problem solving, geological model building and workflow in the field using student navigation, note-taking, and attention as observed via point-of-view cameras.

1) Understanding of Sequence Stratigraphic concepts: This research was undertaken to develop a clearer picture of how conceptual understanding in this area of sedimentary geology grows as a result of instruction and how instructors can monitor the completeness and accuracy of student thinking and mental models. We sought ways to assess understanding that did not rely on model-specific jargon but rather was based in physical expression of basic processes and attributes of sedimentary systems. Advances in cognitive science and educational research indicate that a significant part of spatial cognition is facilitated by gesture, (e.g. giving directions, describing objects or landscape features). We aligned the analysis of gestures with conceptual metaphor theory to probe the use of mental image-schemas as a source of concept representation for students' learning of sedimentary processes. In order to explore image schemas that lie in student explanations, we focused our analysis on four core ideas about sedimentary systems that involve sea level change and sediment deposition, namely relative sea level, base level, and sea-level fluctuations and resulting basin geometry and sediment deposition changes. The study included 25 students from three U.S. Midwestern universities. Undergraduate and graduate-level participants were enrolled in senior-level undergraduate courses in sedimentology and stratigraphy. We used semi-structured interviews and videotaping for data collection. We coded the data to focus on deictic (pointing), iconic, and metaphoric gestures, and coded interview transcripts for linguistic metaphors using the rubric established by Lakoff (1987) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999). The results suggested that students attempted to make more iconic and metaphoric gestures when dealing with abstract concepts such as relative sea level, base level, and unconformities. Schemas that were evident in both gesture and linguistic expressions dominantly included container schemas, schemas that expressed a source-path-goal relationship, and schemas that represented linear scales of quantity, such as thickness or time. We also found that when students were working with an instructional software program designed to simulate the accumulation of siliciclastic sedimentary sequences, they readily adapted and substituted deictic gestures to represent iconic and metaphoric gestures seen with physical models, drawings, and free-form discussions. Linguistic metaphors continued to accompany these re-purposed deictic gestures for many of the same key concepts in sequence stratigraphy. Based on the analysis of gestures that expressed these central ideas, we found that proper use of representational gestures likely indicates completeness in conceptual understanding. We concluded that students rely on image schemas to develop ideas about complex sedimentary systems. Our research also supports the hypothesis that gestures provide an independent and non-linguistic indicator of image-schemas serving as mental models that shape conceptual development. The implication is that instructors should encourage proper gesture use by students during instruction, and also that gesture and linguistic metaphor could potentially be used as tools to assess student understanding.

2) Understanding Problem Solving, Work Flow and Geological Model building in the Field Understanding how geologists conduct fieldwork through analysis of problem solving has significant potential impact on field instruction methods. Recent progress has been made in this area but the problem solving behaviors displayed by geologists during fieldwork and the associated underlying cognition remains poorly understood. We present research showing how geology students initiate and develop geologic models as part of the problem solving process. We qualitatively analyzed field notes and interview data from 36 undergraduate geoscientists engaged in field exams while enrolled in a six-week advanced field camp. Eight cognitive frameworks grouped in two broad categories emerged from the data that show how students develop geologic models. Students employ both single and multiple model approaches with varying degrees of success and frequency. The success of any given approach is dependent on the level of students' geologic situational awareness. The development of multiple geologic models leads to a higher rate of success in general, because of the inherent flexibility to accommodate newly collected data. Instructors should continue to teach a multiple model approach until students have the proper geologic skills to ensure a high level of situational awareness and exhibit expert characteristics in the field. In addition, we collected GPS navigation data from students during these field exams in order to understand the relationship between navigation, cognition, and performance. From the analysis of this data we found that over half of all stops are 1-4 minutes long, while very few of students' stops are longer than 9 minutes as the frequency of stops decreases as the duration increases. Regardless of performance or framework, there is an increase in shorter stops and decrease in longer stops from exam one to three, indicating that students changed the way they investigated as the field course progressed. Temporal signatures categorized by performance only show slight differences, but do indicate that there is an increase in very short and longer stops with declining performance. In contrast, higher performance is linked to an increase in short and medium length stops, suggesting that stops 4-14 minutes long are a "sweet spot" for investigation. We speculate that a high percentage of very short stops involve basic field tasks such as locating or data collection and that the decreasing frequency of long stops indicates that there is a relationship between the length of the stop and the complexity of the activities performed during that stop. To test this, we performed qualitative analysis of 24 sets of students' field exam notes revealed that there are 14 different note taking stop types or "species". Species are distinguished by their subject (notes about lithology, structure, or both) and the actions taken during the stop (data collection, hypothesis generation, or both). The GPS data we collected from these students while they took these notes allowing us to connect the duration of a stop to the types of notes produced during that stop. Note taking species occurred in various frequencies with the most common type being those that focused on lithologic, or lithologic & structural data collection. Stops that produced geologic models, specifically structural models, were much less frequent. The more frequent data collection stops are very short in length (typically 1-4 minutes), while the more complex stops tend to be longer in duration as the note taking gets more complex. Poor performing students had a high proportion of stops where they only collect lithologic data or stops where they don't generate any hypotheses. In contrast, successful students have more structural data and hypothesis generation in their notes. From this analysis we conclude that too much effort spent on stops with only basic data collection leaves less time for the cognitive effort required for model development, eventually leading to poor exam performance. Specifically, a higher frequency of lithologic data stops and lack of structural data leads to the development of incomplete geologic models or lack of comprehensive models altogether. Furthermore, we equipped a subset of these students in related field areas with portable eye tracking equipment and coded their activities and duration. We found that student time at stops is split between observation of outcrops and rock material, locating themselves on topo maps and air photos, making notes and recording observations and hypotheses and constructing maps. The variance in time and sequence of events does not at this time usefully determine a successful work flow. This preliminary research provides a coding framework for video data of this type and many technical lessons, which pave the way for additional work of this nature. We also noted key differences in student behavior working individually compared with group mapping. We believe these findings provide data for geoscience educators to consider when thinking about how to develop the observational skills of their students and how to design appropriate field course instruction.


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