Enacting frames of reference in geoscience education? (After Rollinde, Decamp and Derniaux, 2021)

I just read a super interesting article by Rollinde, Decamp ad Derniaux (2021) on “Should frames of reference be enacted in astronomy instruction?”. Frames of reference are an important concept in the geosciences, and one that is difficult to grasp as we’ve noticed when teaching about Coriolis force and how trajectories look differently depending on whether we observe them on the rotating table from the lab’s frame of reference, or via the co-rotating camera. So what Rollinde et al. propose here is intriguing: Using embodied cognition to teach about frames of reference? The idea is that when students use their bodies to represent movements of e.g. planets in the solar system, it becomes easier to switch between different frames of reference, and understand that they are just different ways of describing the same motion, even though speeds, distances, shape of trajectories depend on which representation one chooses.

In the article, the goal is to teach about the movements or the Earth, Mars, and the Sun over a day or a year. Those are investigated from three different frames of references, a terrestrial, a geocentric, and a heliocentric one. Students investigated the movements by using either a printed model on which they trace the movements with their fingers, or a large version drawn on the ground, which several students walk on, representing the different objects. I find this idea intriguing — I know that in the one case where I’ve used a similar embodied experience before (to explain why sound is refracted towards the areas of lowest speed, or why waves turn towards the beach), it has left a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, the authors did not have a classical “non-embodied” control group, so we don’t know whether their two approaches work better than any of the classical ones. But what they do find is that both seem to work well, and that — contrary to their expectations — the large one where students actually walked on the diagrams did not work better than the smaller ones. They suggest that there might be several reasons for this: having to coordinate the whole body and with other people might constitute a high cognitive load, drawing resources away from otherwise processing what’s going on. Also having other people, and especially the teacher, looking at their bodies might make them self-conscious, again drawing capacities away from where they would be best allocated for learning.

But in any case, I find the suggestion of using embodied learning in such a way in geoscience education fascinating. It seems quite unusual, and might not be feasible in all cases, but it’s definitely something that I’ll keep in mind as one possible strategy to be considered in the future!

What do you think? Would that work for your topic and your students?

Rollinde, E., Decamp, N. & Derniaux, C. (2021). Should frames of reference be enacted in astronomy instruction?. Physical Review. Physics Education Research, 17(1). (pdf here)

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