Two weeks ago I went on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. In addition to hiking and exploring one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, I loved learning about the geology of the area and the earth science involved in the creation and continued evolution of the Canyon.
One of the coolest educational bits of my trip was a walk along the Trail of Time. This 2.8 miles interpretive walking timeline trail winds along the Southern Rim and every handful of steps there were pieces of rock layer or vistas with stories to explain their place in the timeline and how the Grand Canyon formed. Every meter of the walk signifies one million years, and my journey through the trail helped me to understand the magnitude of geologic time.
These sorts of exhibits are powerful educational tools to teach scalable large or small concepts. The American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium has a similar walk – Scales of the Universe – where the SIZES of very very big very very small objects are put into perspective through comparisons along a 400 long walkway. In my college Astronomy class, my professor used objects like tennis balls and the length of our lecture hall to give us a combined idea of the vast sizes and spaces between planets and solar systems in our universe.
One mechanism behind the effectiveness of these tools is embodied cognition (an idea that Karin expands upon in this post). While many models of human thinking over the past half century have focused on a model of abstract thought, recent cognitive learning science and neuroscience research has shown overwhelming evidence that cognition is inextricably tied to perception. Therefore, grounding learning in perceptual experiences, thought modal simulations, bodily states, and situated action can increase students’ deep understanding of concepts. Perceptually-grounded cognition research has indicated numerous ways to make learning more meaningful by embedding it within the ways a learner interacts with her world, integrating learning with experiences (Black, Segel, Vitale, & Fadjo, 2012). Embodied cognition models prescribe learning environments where motions and actions are congruous with mental processes. The trail of time uses human motion to drive in the concept of vast periods of time and sensory tactile and visual experiences to help learners better understand the look and shape of the geologic formations. After sweating through a long walk across the millions of years of geologic formation, one can begin to truly understand how long it took for the earth to form the beautiful canyon below.