This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Exploring and Measuring the Teaching and Development of Earth Systems Thinking Skills in Undergraduate Geoscience Courses




Soltis, Nicholas

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



The understanding of the development of Earth systems thinking (EST) is a major challenge in the field of geoscience education. Major questions exist relating to systems thinking teaching practices, student conceptions of complex Earth systems, and the assessment of systems thinking skills in the context of the Earth system. This research integrates these three strands through three individual studies representing an aspect of each strand. The first study aims to quantitatively build on this work done on EST teaching practices by employing structural equation modeling to understand the current state of EST-teaching as shown by the 2016 iteration of the National Geoscience Faculty Survey (n=2615). Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses were conducted on survey items to understand and develop three models, one for EST-teaching practices, one for course changes, and one for active-learning teaching practices. Analyses revealed that reported EST-teaching practices relate to four EST frameworks proposed in the literature. The three models explored in this study were used to build a full structural model, where it was hypothesized that active-learning teaching practices would predict EST-course changes and EST-teaching. However, the model revealed that EST-course changes mediate, or bring about, the relationship between active-learning teaching practices and EST- teaching. This implies the need for continued efforts to provide professional development opportunities in both active learning teaching practices and EST, as active-learning practices are not sufficient to implicitly teach EST skills. Results also revealed that the teaching approaches that emphasize modeling and complexity sciences had the weakest relationship to the broader EST-teaching practices, suggesting a need for more professional development opportunities as they relate to systems modeling, quantitative reasoning, and complexity sciences in the context of the Earth sciences. The second study explores student conceptions of how the spheres of the Earth system are linked through the biogeochemical cycles that move matter and energy through the various parts of the Earth system. This study aims to fill a gap in the literature by examining how undergraduate students perceive fluxes and reservoirs of important elements within the Earth system: namely carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Through interviews and concept drawings undergraduate students’ conceptions and alternate conceptions about the Earth System and biogeochemical cycles were collected. These data were analyzed to provide a more complete understanding of what students know, do not know, and what they think they know about both the Earth System and biogeochemical cycles. This study revealed that undergraduate students across disciplines tend to hold a “bio-centric” view of the carbon cycle and have more limited conceptions in terms of detail and breadth of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Additionally, conceptual drawings revealed a notable absence of the hydrosphere in students’ mental models of all three cycles. Students who took more STEM courses and were in more interdisciplinary fields (i.e. geology, science education) tended to have more nuanced (though not necessarily complete) conceptions of these cycles. Implications for this study involve the improvement of teaching biogeochemical concepts across disciplines, but also inform our knowledge about using these cycles in the context of systems thinking. This work also provides a baseline for future work on developing learning progressions for biogeochemical cycles and complex Earth systems and in assessing systems thinking abilities through student knowledge of biogeochemical cycles. The third study documents the development process of the Earth systems thinking concept inventory (EST CI). Evidence of validity and reliability was accrued using elements of both classical test theory (CTT) and item response theory (IRT). By using these two approaches to validity and reliability in a complementary fashion, we were able to take an iterative approach to provide robust evidence for both validity and reliability. Additionally, the instrument is semi-customizable as language regarding feedbacks can be shifted between using ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ or ‘reinforcing’ or balancing’ terminology, with the later resulting in better reliability among a largely novice audience.