2023-2024: Education: Kim A. Kastens

Kim A. Kastens
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory


My training and early career were in marine geology, focusing on the geological evolution of the Mediterranean region and the structure and tectonics of transform faults.  I was an early user of high-resolution seafloor mapping technologies, and served as Co-Chief Scientist of Ocean Drilling Program Leg 107 in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  During this phase of my life, I spent twenty-two months at sea on oceanographic research vessels.  

Nearly 30 years ago, I shifted my focus towards improving the public's understanding of the Earth and environment, through training of environmental journalists, development of instructional materials, professional development for teachers, innovative use of information technology, and science of learning research.  When I began collaborating with cognitive scientists and researching how people think and learn about the Earth, the field had no name; now it is called Geoscience Education Research. I helped to shape the scope and direction of this emerging field by representing Geosciences on a National Academy of Sciences study of discipline-based education research, and by co-leading the Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences.   

My early education research projects investigated how children use maps while navigating, how climate forecast maps are understood by their target audiences, and how novices and experts visualize three-dimensional geological structures. A thread running through my more recent research has been how learners and scientists accomplish the "practices" of science:  asking questions, analyzing and interpreting data, using models. I am currently developing a new research direction around how people think about feedback loops.  Runaway reinforcing feedback loops underlie many environmental problems, and balancing feedback loops underlie many potential solutions; and yet how people think with and about feedback loops is almost completely unresearched.  

I hold a bachelor’s degree in Geology & Geophysics from Yale University, and a PhD in Oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego.  Since 1981, I have been a research scientist and research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University; my current position is Special Research Scientist, an emeritus position.  In addition, from 2012 to 2014, I was a Distinguished Scholar at Education Development Center, Inc., an education research and development non-profit in Waltham, Massachusetts.  For my work in geoscience education research and development, I received the Award for Excellence in Geophysical Education from the American Geophysical Union in 2009.  

I wrote about my career shift and my role in founding the field of Geoscience Education Research in a memoir at Kastens, K. A. (2021), Cultivating a new field at the boundary between geoscience and education research. Perspectives of Earth and Space Scientists, on-line at https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1029/2021CN000149

Abstract: Geoscience Education Research: What it is and Why it Matters

Geoscience Education Research (GER) is research on how humans think and learn about the Earth and environment.  GER researchers merge deep expertise in the concepts, practices, values and priorities of the Geosciences with rigorous research methodologies from cognitive and learning sciences.  

GER matters to geoscientists and future geoscientists because: (a) it can make you a better educator, and (b) it can make you a better scientist. For educators, GER provides empirical evidence about which teaching strategies are more effective at helping learners overcome common misconceptions, master scientific practices, and build their sense of self-efficacy as geoscientists.  For geoscience researchers, GER provides insights into how your mind perceives and interprets aspects of the world. No matter what other tools you use to do your science, the single indispensable tool of every scientist is the human mind. 

GER sits within the broader field of discipline-based education research, along with Biology Education Research, Chemistry Education Research and so on. GER researchers have been particularly impactful in studying those aspects of science where geoscientists' ways of seeking truth tend to differ from the experimental sciences.  These include spatial thinking, temporal thinking, systems thinking, and field-based research. Spatial thinking involves drawing inferences from spatial configurations and relationships. For example, one thread of the speaker's research examines how experts and novices interpret map-based data visualizations, turning blotches of color into inferences about process and mechanism. Temporal thinking involves drawing inferences from information about timing, rates, and sequence. An emerging area of research in systems thinking is how do experts and novices conceptualize positive and negative feedback loops. Field-based research places students in physical and social situations far different from the typical academic milieu.  An active area of research is how to make such learning accessible to students with mobility limitations and comfortable for students whose upbringing did not include time in wilderness settings.      

This talk will present an overview of the development of this young field, illustrated with examples that showcase the kinds of questions that GER is capable of addressing, along with the variety of techniques in use.  The goal of the talk is that audience members will be inspired to seek out geoscience education research findings relevant to their own areas of interest, and use them to become more effective educators and more insightful scientists.