Kim Anne Kastens

2009 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

Kim Anne Kastens received the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the Joint Assembly, held 26 May 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The award honors “a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education by a team, individual, or group.”


We honor Kim Anne Kastens this year for pioneering work educating journalists about the geosciences; for playing a foundational role in establishing geoscience learning as a field of research; and for her work with teachers and teaching materials to improve geoscience education.

Kim began her work in geoscience education a little more than 15 years ago, a time when widespread interest in education among geoscientists was just around the corner. We understood the importance of our public face and were working hard within our professional societies to improve the ability of geoscientists to talk to the media. In a move that demonstrates her characteristic blend of creativity and practical insight, Kim imagined how we could use courses for journalists to improve this communication. In collaboration with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she established a program in Earth and environmental sciences journalism that complements our efforts to learn to talk to the public, by preparing journalists to be ready to talk to us. Graduates of this program can be found writing for such publications as Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Earth (formerly Geotimes), Audubon Magazine, Caijing magazine in China, Scientific American, and even our own Eos.

Kim was a marine geologist for 15 years before she was a geoscience educator. It should be no surprise that with this background, as she turned her attention to education she started to explore scientifically the challenges that students face in learning geoscience, particularly in visualizing geoscience features and data. This approach led her into collaborations with cognitive scientists. She was one of the first people in our community to understand the relevance of cognitive science research to geoscience education and the need for research into those aspects of learning that are particularly important in geoscience. Bringing together her understanding of the nature of geoscience thinking and their understanding of the workings of the mind, she and her collaborators took on questions such as how children learn to read and interpret maps, how climate forecast maps are understood by policy makers (and the misconceptions that arise), and how experts (geoscientists) and novices (students) visualize geologic structures.

Recognizing the value of this research and the importance of its results, Kim worked hard to encourage others to engage in this type of work. She has participated extensively in workshops, sessions, and conferences that bring together geoscientists, cognitive scientists, and educators; encouraged her colleagues in cognitive science to engage with geoscientists; and written a string of articles aimed at providing the information that geoscientists need to make use of cognitive science, and that cognitive scientists need to research geoscience. Through these efforts, Kim has been instrumental in catalyzing a new field of research, geoscience learning research. The success of this effort, by Kim and others, can be measured by looking at the growing range of offerings each year at AGU meetings addressing aspects of geoscience thinking and learning.

New research, however, is not enough to transform geoscience education. Bringing research results into widespread use is as challenging in geoscience education as it is in other parts of our field. Here, too, Kim has been a pioneer, working with a variety of different strategies. The results of her map study were incorporated into the educational software product Where Are We?, which has been shown to improve students’ map-reading skills. Her course “Teaching and Learning Concepts in Earth Science” brings these results to students obtaining advanced degrees in geoscience or teaching. Kim has also worked directly with geoscience researchers to bring her understanding of educational theory to the development of teaching activities where students extract insights about the Earth from geoscience data. Reaching even more broadly, Kim developed a community-based system for evaluating and annotating teaching materials for use in geoscience education digital libraries.

In sum, Kim models the ways in which the creativity and rigor that come from the study of geoscience can be applied to geoscience education, from conceptualization and experimental design to the practicalities of implementation and convincing your colleagues of what you have learned. We congratulate her on her accomplishments to date and on being the recipient of the 2009 AGU Excellence in Geophysical Education Award.

—CATHRYN A. MANDUCA, Carleton College, Northfield, Minn.


Thank you very much to the American Geophysical Union for the recognition symbolized by this award. I appreciate both the recognition of my own work and the recognition of the importance of geoscience education and geoscience education research. When I attended my first AGU meeting, in 1979, education reform and education research seemed to be nowhere on the radar screen of the organization or of most of the attendees, including me.

But now, in contrast, the early 21st century is a golden age for work in science education innovation and research. AGU has now given 14 education awards, for a wide range of contributions by individuals and groups. All around us, colleagues are finding new and effective ways to build a citizenry that knows more, understands more, and cares more about the Earth and its environment. Geoscientists, learning scientists, and cognitive scientists are reaching across the gulfs between our disciplines, working collaboratively to figure out how humans think and learn about the Earth. Our human minds evolved to think about timescales from a moment to a day to a season to a lifetime, but geoscientists stretch our minds to think about millennia. How do we do this? And how can we help students do it? Our minds evolved to think about spatial scales that we can hold in our hands or walk across in a day. Geoscientists stretch our minds to think on the scale of a mountain range, a continent, or the solar system. How do we do that? How do our minds wrap around a complex system such as the Earth, with multiple intertwined causality chains and multiple interacting feedback loops? As graduate students we were taught how important it is to understand how our tools work, how they were calibrated, what their limits are. I submit that our most important tool as scientists, the tool we all share regardless of subdiscipline, is the human mind. The fascinating field into which I have ventured is trying to understand how this tool works for understanding something as big, old, and complicated as the Earth system.

I got to where I am today through a very convoluted route, through coastal processes, deep-sea marine geology, Global Positioning System geodesy, educational technology, instructional materials development, science journalism education, and research on thinking and learning. At each step and turn, I’ve been blessed with extraordinary friends, colleagues, students, and mentors, who encouraged me to try something new, to plan a yellow brick road but be prepared to deviate from it, to follow my interests and intuitions. Thank you all. And thank you especially to my family, my parents, Merritt and Anita; my daughters, Holly and Dana; and my husband, Dale.

—KIM ANNE KASTENS, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, N. Y.