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Geologic Column
Thinking Space
Lisa Rossbacher

Geoscientists know things (with apologies to Dean Koontz and cats for stealing his coin phrase).

Geoscientists know about the value of spatial thinking. Geology and geography depend on thinking in 3-D and being able to see changes through time. Remember those Bravais lattices in mineralogy? Nearest-neighbor analyses in geography? Fold axes? The maps of Pangaea in the early Mesozoic? Any geoscientist can think of dozens of examples without pausing to take a breath. But spatial thinking is much more pervasive than only geological applications.

Many examples of spatial thinking come from our daily experiences, such as putting together the “some assembly required” furniture, changing a battery, packing books into a box (and then packing boxes into a car trunk) and reading a map. Ever watch a group of geologists load a van and plan a route? Does the word “over-engineered” come to mind? Geoscientists are “high-end users” of spatial information, but we’re not alone. Architects, engineers and air-traffic controllers are all spatial thinkers on steroids, too.

“Learning to Think Spatially” is the 2005 report of the Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially: The Incorporation of Geographic Information Science Across the K-12 Curriculum, published by the National Academies Press ( The report makes a powerful argument for why spatial thinking is important — and how to ensure that the next generation is equipped to deal with these issues.

Several case studies in the report are drawn from the geosciences. One is devoted to the early evolution of understanding about the size and shape of Earth and the structure of the solar system and beyond. Another focuses on the challenge of “describing the shape of an object, rigorously and unambiguously”: crystal structure (and stereograms), structural geology (strike and dip, folds and axial planes) and fossils. The shape can then be used to classify the object and, finally, to understand the meaning of the shape. As spatial thinking skills develop, geoscientists are able to see patterns in the data, infer three dimensions from 1- or 2-D information, and translate 3-D relationships through time. Geoscientists can remember spatial relationships from the past, too.

The report cites several examples of geologists and their exceptionally strong mapping abilities. Appalachian field geologist John Rodgers, the report notes, knew the location of “every outcrop and every ice cream stand from Maine to Georgia.” Marie Tharp’s ability to create maps of the ocean floor, using limited — and often erroneous — data, is also described as evidence of the power of strong spatial thinking in geology. German geographer Walter Christaller provides an example through his discovery of “central place theory,” which offers a model for understanding and predicting the size, number and location of human settlements.

Of course, geoscientists don’t have exclusive rights to spatial thinking, and the Committee on Support for Thinking Spatially included sections in its report on the expertise in education, psychology and astronomy. The report notes that spatial thinking is not restricted to any particular discipline, and the skills are critical for dealing with many aspects of daily life.

The committee makes several recommendations. Rather than proposing new courses in spatial thinking, the committee advocates integrating the learning into a wide range of courses — a range that reflects the variety of ways in which spatial thinking is important to daily life, normal problem solving, good citizenship and stewardship.

The report recommends the collaborative development of a “model GIS-enabled school, followed by creation of both the teacher-preparation programs and model curriculum standards for teaching spatial thinking.” However, GIS is only one of a suite of approaches to teaching and learning spatial thinking. GIS software has improved dramatically since the days when the non- intuitive applications were described, correctly, as “user surly,” but GIS is still a tool for learning to think spatially, not the complete answer.

The remarkable success and spread of Google Earth is a brilliant example of how sophisticated technology can be made available, interesting and useful to a large number of people. And My Wonderful World (, a National Geographic-led campaign, provides a number of resources for teaching spatial awareness and recommendations for how to incorporate geography into school curricula.

The committee believes that this collaboration should be broad, with representatives of government agencies, the private sector, K-12 education, and academia, as well as classroom teachers, educational designers and psychologists — all charged with developing the model curriculum. The development of a clear structure for measurement and assessment, so that we are able to recognize — and presumably reward — success is also part of the formula.

A geoscientist reading this National Academy report might be tempted to succumb to complacency. In particular, the case studies reinforce the idea that geoscientists “get it.” We understand the importance of spatial thinking and use it all the time. Some of us may have ended up in this discipline because we are inherently good at seeing and thinking spatially.

Don’t be complacent. Geoscientists are already trained in spatial thinking, but we — and anyone with a knack for spatial thinking — have an extra responsibility to be part of the collaboration, as the report concludes, to prepare the next generation of students for life and work in the 21st century.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

National Academies Press
My Wonderful World, a National Geographic-led campaign

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