Newswise — Some students spend years honing their observational skills, especially those that involve pattern recognition and spatial-thinking. But students who use American Sign Language (ASL) are often already adept at this 3-D thinking, and it may give them an advantage when grappling with the intricate networks of geologic fault systems.

University of Massachusetts Amherst geologist Michele Cooke contends that students who are well-versed in ASL, an inherently spatial language, have ideal skills for becoming structural geologists. By introducing deaf students to the ins and outs of structural geology, Cooke—who has been partially deaf since birth—hopes to motivate some of the students to pursue careers in science. But she also wonders if those who are trained in a spatial grammar aren't especially well-suited for careers in which thinking in 3-D is an asset.

So she and her colleagues have connected with six high schools for the deaf from across the country. Through a combination of sandbox experiments, earthquake modeling and field trips, deaf students from North Carolina to California are getting a taste of the geologist's life. The project is part of the outreach component of Cooke's $420,000 five-year National Science Foundation CAREER grant to study the evolution of geologic fault systems and the SOAR-High Project, which connect students and teachers in distant classes to study earth system science.

Cooke will discuss the project in Salt Lake City at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America on Oct. 17.

Cooke's team began by developing a curriculum for examining fault evolution in the classroom. Students learned basic terminology (words like thrust, contraction and fault) and skills (such as how to measure fault angles). Then each school built two sandboxes designed by Cooke's team and conducted experiments that simulated fault growth by exploring compression and extension of sand layers. Plexiglas walls allowed the students to watch faults form in the colored layers of sand, while looking down on the boxes from above gave the "map view" familiar to geologists. Following the experiments, Cooke and the students discussed the results via videoconferences.

The evolution of fault systems has been Cooke's research focus for some time. Traditional approaches to the question of how faults form tend to look at critical periods of stress on the blocks of rock. But Cooke takes a larger view, working from the premise that faults evolve to minimize the energy in a system and therefore will grow along the path of least resistance. By looking at the entire system one can often understand fault formations that don't make sense when you just look locally, she says.

Cooke's enthusiasm for such questions certainly may motivate these students to embark on their own careers in the sciences. But when it comes to inspiring a life-long interest in geology, little compares with getting out in the field. Armed with the knowledge from the classroom experiments, 20 of the students and their teachers went on a geology field trip through Utah with Cooke and her team last spring. The students learned how to identify formations in rock that are key to finding faults and saw first hand how water, wind and salt shaped the landscape. They measured faults, recording and discussing their observations. The troupe explored the 60 million-year old Moab fault, learned how tectonic compression and plate collisions formed the Rafael Swell and glimpsed dinosaur bones in Big Hole.

Students were also introduced to the tools of the trade including hallmarks such as the Brunton Compass. The device combines the principles of a surveyor's compass, a prismatic compass, a clinometer, a hand level and a plumb, all into one tool. Among other things, it allows measurements of a rock layer's strike—the rotation from north—and its dip—the rotation from horizontal.

"When I teach hearing students how to use this tool it usually takes them a couple of hours to figure it out—it took one student all semester," says Cooke. "Of course, there's variation in any group of students—but the deaf students were up and making measurements in 15 minutes—they so got it."

The evidence suggesting that ASL users are better equipped cognitively for careers in structural geology is largely anecdotal, says Cooke, but she hopes the idea will be explored further by researchers in the cognitive sciences. Still, studies have shown that that spatial reasoning can be improved by training, and there is little doubt that being able to think spatially—infer processes from structures, for example—are assets to the structural geologist.

In efforts to quantify this link between spatial reasoning and structural geology Cooke and her colleague Chris Condit are investigating using hand gestures as a teaching tool in their introductory geology class at UMass Amherst. During some of the lectures the class will be split—half will be taught the content only with spoken words, the other half will also learn what Cooke calls "effective gestures." Students in the gesturing class will have to repeat the hand motions of their professor, forcing them to visualize in 3-D the difference between a strike, slip or normal fault, for example. Later the students will be tested on how well they grasped and remember the content.

"This isn't just about some politically correct inclusiveness in terms of the deaf-community," says Cooke. "I really do think there is something else to take away from this."

Project details and photos can be found at

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