Spatial Thinking across the College Curriculum, first round of thoughts

Earlier this week I was part of a 2-day conference on Spatial Thinking across the College Curriculum, in Santa Barbara.  There were about 46 of us, a broad mix of largely comprised of geographers and psychologists, with a few scattered from other disciplines (landscape architecture, anthropology, physics, chemistry, computer science, history).

In organizing this event, we’d laid out a series of questions that we thought we might be able to tackle.

  • What are best current practices in spatial education at the college level?
  • What is the role of technologies, such as geographic information systems and virtual environment technologies, in developing spatial thinking skills?
  • Can we identify a set of general spatial skills that are relevant to spatial thinking across several disciplines?
  • Are spatial skills best trained in the context of a discipline or in a domain of general knowledge? For example, if a student is taught to imagine cross sections in the context of a geology course, does this skill transfer to imagining sections in engineering or biology?
  • What are the connections between “spatial thinking” courses and curricula organized for disciplines? For example, do all geography or geometry courses naturally or automatically support spatial thinking processes?
  • What are learning outcomes for spatial thinking curricula, and what form should assessment take?
  • What are the administrative challenges and opportunities for implementing spatial thinking courses and programs at the college level?

But, in the end, our conversation was a bit too far ranging to discuss many of these with specificity.

For most people the meeting’s topic could only be imagined in the hypothetical. Their own institutions have little or no interest in these topics, and their own interests, be they spatial cognition or geography education, are just that – their own interests.

Others of us live and breathe this topic every day. We’ve thought through many of these questions before, and may even already have prototypical implementations of curricula in place.  So it was difficult to launch into new areas of conversation without having to catch others up, to back fill, or to explain first. And it wasn’t just explaining methods or techniques.  At times we were starting at square one, seeming to question the validity of the premise itself – that spatial learning and thinking is significant enough that it merits a much more substantial place within our formal educational environments.

Roger Downs led off the discussion on Day 1, challenging the group to develop a Case Statement. A case statement has a rationale and justification for the campaign; focuses on problems to be fixed or solved, identifies a proposed solution; and anticipates the major questions. Why us?  Why now? among others.

The goal he proposed we consider was that every student should graduate with a working understanding (understand = know + do) of the theory and practice of spatial thinking.

Rationale #1: Spatial thinking is an essential underpinning to life in the physical and virtual world.

Rationale #2: Geospatial tools and technologies are integral to everyday life, business, research and government.  Really, they’re inescapable.

Rationale #3: Students must be informed, wise, and ethical in their use of a wide range of spatial tools.

Roger also laid out challenges, among which included the “deceptive obviousness” of spatial thinking.  An unresolved question remains that if this is all really so important, why have we not paid attention to it before?  What has happened in the world because we have NOT been thinking as spatially as we all could have been?  (I’m still collecting these anecdotes for publication in my forthcoming book.)

Really, these were some of the most cogent and powerful points of the whole conference.  I’ll share my reflections on some of the other highlights soon.

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