Geocognition is just beginning to emerge as an authentic area of research in the domain of Earth sciences. Traditionally, research related to people’s understanding of the Earth was lumped into the domain of “geoscience education”, a catch-all that indiscriminately places together researchers and practitioners across a number of settings and populations. Geocognition is the study of how people perceive and understand Earth and Earth processes.
This is a critical time for geocognition, and we sit at a crossroads of vital importance to the intellectual development of the research community. Other science disciplines have already experienced an emergence of education research communities with differing degrees of entrenchment within the discipline. Both chemistry and physics have a longer tradition of discipline-based science education research than geosciences, and biology has an emerging education research community as well. Much like these other science domains, geologists have, until recently, had little understanding of the significant research potential in geoscience education. Geoscience education researchers generally focus on the direct links between classroom experience and learning outcomes. While of significant benefit to the instructional community, recognition of the broader questions answerable by cognitive science can eventually lead to more meaningful insight about learning overall. The infusion of cognitive science into geosciences is gaining traction within the geoscience education research community.
The activities of geoscientists that are generally recognized and disseminated within the community can be divided into two broad categories: observation and interpretation. Ultimately, geologists are interested in understanding modern Earth, gaining insight into how the Earth has evolved and changed over time, and building predictions about changes that will occur in Earth’s near and distant future. The acts of observing and interpreting allow geologists to answer significant questions about the Earth system and Homo sapiens’ role and impact on Earth. Geologists spend significant time and energy observing the natural world, whether in authentic settings in the field, in the laboratory with assistance of technical equipment, or through observation of information, such as seismic data, filtered through a mathematical lens. The science of making geologic observations is well developed, and robust methods exist for making, documenting, and reporting observations. Similarly, geologists spend significant time making interpretations of natural phenomena and building predictive or backwards models. The role of an expert geologist is to separate the important sources of information from background noise inherent to complex Earth processes, and to recognize how disparate data sources can be organized to build understanding. Inherent to both the acts of observation and interpretation is the cognitive filtering that occurs, the unconscious decision-making that goes into any interaction between mental processors and the natural world. The role that cognition plays in our understanding of Earth has until now gone generally unrecognized, although cognitive filtering is likely as important to the nature of scientific models as observation and interpretation themselves.