|| Spatial Thinking
The focus of AGSSS is spatial thinking. Spatial thinking is defined as the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to use concepts of space, tools of representation, and processes of reasoning to structure problems, find answers and express solutions to these problems.
- Science and Spatial Thinking. Many scientific discoveries result from processes of spatial thinking. Today, particularly non-experimental empirical sciences such as geoscience and environmental science rely on the analysis and interpretation of observational data provided by an array of sensors. As the NSF report Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century points out, “Spatially explicit information in increasingly compatible formats and scales is now becoming available…These new instrumentation, data-handling, and methodological capabilities have expanded the horizons of what we can study and understand…These tools are helping us address long standing scientific questions as well as issues of immediate societal concern” (Pfirman and AC-ERE 2003, 5). Scientists use maps, analytic techniques (e.g., trend surface analysis), and representational systems (e.g., spectral diagrams) to support their research-and they use spatial thinking in the process. Spatial thinking is grounded in an understanding of the meaning and properties of space. Natural and social scientists use spatial representations such as maps, images, diagrams, models, and visualizations in two- and three-dimensions to describe, explain, and discuss the functions, structures, relationships, and operations of various phenomena.
Although spatial thinking is a required skill for learning and doing mathematics, science, and social science, AGSSS focuses on science and social science.
- Spatial Thinking and Technologies. Spatial thinking also serves as the foundation for using and understanding geospatial technologies such as geographical information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), and remote sensing (RS). These technologies have recently been identified by the US Department of Labor as one of three “hot, emerging careers” [Geospatial Profile (pdf)]. Career opportunities abound for spatially-literate workers (Gewin 2004).
- Students and Spatial Thinking. Some students excel in spatial thinking and choose careers that capitalize on this “habit of mind.” Others are excluded from making such choices because they do not have the required skills or reasoning processes to think spatially. Despite its importance, spatial thinking is not an explicit part of science, mathematics, or social science curricula in universities, let alone elementary, middle, and high school classrooms in Texas or the United States.
The intellectual merit of this project lies in its plans to create, use, and evaluate materials and strategies to enhance spatial thinking. This is important because it is clear that society cannot afford to relegate some students to a lesser position simply because they do not innately know how to think spatially. This project will begin to explore, develop, and evaluate ways to enhance spatial thinking and abilities. While there is a body of theoretical research in psychology and geography in aspects of spatial thinking (particularly the recent work of Tversky, Newcombe and Huttenlocher, Linn, and Liben and Downs in psychology and Golledge, Downs, Lloyd, Mark, and Montello in geography), there has been little attempt to apply this research to the development of curriculum or instruction in spatial analysis and problem solving. This is a new, emerging field of interest with broad implications for a number of domains, including school-to-workforce issues.
- AGSSS and Spatial Thinking. AGSSS proposes to enhance the spatial thinking skills of Fellows, Teachers, and Students, in two ways:
Note of Caution: We do not claim that there is a direct connection between the ability to think spatially or to apply spatial problem solving strategies and geospatial technologies, but we do know that technologies can enhance and enable spatial analysis (Baker 2003; Golledge and Bell 1995; Weigand 2004).
- explicit training to create an awareness of aspects of spatial thinking based on recommendations made by the National Research Council Committee on Spatial Thinking; and
- instruction in geospatial technologies and observational science that support spatial thinking. Instruction will occur within the context of science and social science with a special emphasis on problem-solving in both domains (Bransford et al. 1999).
Our approach to spatial thinking will include low-tech (paper-and-pencil or experiential approaches) and high-tech (technology-mediated) methods.
- Observational Science. Observational science, defined as theoretical, experimental and applied research related to oceanic, atmospheric, and terrestrial sciences, relies heavily upon spatial thinking. The ultimate goal of observational science is a better description of the world. Often, it is not feasible to perform a controlled study of scientific phenomena. For example, Earth system scientists cannot control any system to observe the large-scale effects on other systems. Thus, observational science depends on seeing and watching rather than manipulating or experimenting in the lab.
Observational science is used not only to answer fundamental questions about how the Earth system functions but also to address significant environment-society problems. NASA's web site Earth Observatory [http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/] provides numerous examples of ways spatial thinking, remote sensing, and observational science are contributing to the solution of global social and environmental problems.
Resources to Learn More About Spatial Thinking