SILC Showcase

Showcase February 2015: Spatial cognition and spatial learning resources on the SERC website

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Spatial cognition and spatial learning resources on the SERC website

Carol Ormand

SERC at Carleton College and University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College works to improve education through projects that support educators. That support takes many forms, including the SERC website: This website is as multi-faceted as SERC’s mission would suggest, and includes a number of modules related to spatial cognition and spatial learning. Here’s an overview of the SERC web resources that I think are likely to be of interest to SILC members and others conducting research on spatial thinking and learning in the STEM disciplines.

1. The Spatial Thinking Workbook project website:

Figure 1
Figure 1. Spatial Thinking Workbook project website banner, showing Dr. Basil Tikoff using spatial alignment in the field to scaffold students’ understanding of the structural geology.

The Spatial Thinking Workbook is our (my, Tim Shipley’s, and Basil Tikoff’s) NSF-funded project developing and testing curricular materials to improve spatial thinking skills in courses for undergraduate geoscience majors. These curricular materials target spatially-challenging concepts and tasks in upper-level geology courses, using strategies and tools based on SILC research: analogy, progressive alignment, gesture, and sketching. In essence, this project puts what SILC is learning about spatial thinking and learning into the undergraduate geoscience classroom, and tests the efficacy of these curricular materials in that setting.

The website is a work in progress, with only a handful of the curricular materials currently available to the public. Additional teaching activities will be added this spring, along with a page describing the research on the cognitive supports we have incorporated into the curricular materials.

2. Pages from the Spatial Thinking Journal Club: and

Figure 2
Figure 2. Screen capture of the top of the Spatial Thinking Journal Club Findings web page.

In 2012, Tim Shipley (Psychology, Temple), Mary Hegarty (Psychology, UC-Santa Barbara), Eric Riggs (Geosciences, Texas A&M) and I co-convened a journal club on spatial thinking in the geosciences, as part of the NSF-funded “On the Cutting Edge” project. We had monthly, virtual meetings to discuss readings from the geoscience and cognitive science literature, with an emphasis on exploring the cognitive aspects of spatial thinking and their implications for geoscience education. To facilitate a deep exploration of this topic, we ran the meetings as a series, with participants applying to participate and committing to attending all five meetings. Participants were a mix of geoscientists and cognitive psychologists. Our goals were to:

You can see a detailed list of our readings on the Spatial Thinking Journal Club website; each month’s readings focused on a different theme ( The two pages that I think will be of highest interest to SILC members, however, are the pages summarizing the Journal Club findings and our recommendations regarding research directions and questions (see links above).

3. Pages from the Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences: and

Figure 3
Figure 3. Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences project website banner.

This is a synopsis of findings from another NSF-funded project. A detailed summary can be found in Earth and Mind II (Kastens and Manduca, eds.). The goals of this project, as described on the website, were to “synthesize existing knowledge and articulate unanswered questions in critical areas of research on cognition and learning relevant to the Geosciences,” including spatial thinking. A small group of participants, with expertise in geoscience, geoscience education, research on learning, and cognitive science, collaborated to accomplish this synthesis. While the website provides only a high-level summary of the synthesis, it does provide a list of key research questions that this group articulated, related to spatial thinking in the geosciences.

4. The Earth and Mind Blog, and specifically posts related to spatial thinking:

The Earth and Mind blog is a series of short reflections related to geoscience thinking and learning, searchable by topic. As of this writing, there are 19 blog posts related to spatial thinking in the geosciences. Many of them are on topics of interest to SILC researchers, including musings on diagrams and animations. SILC researchers might also consider writing an Earth and Mind post as a guest author. If you are interested in doing so, contact the editorial team ( to propose your idea.