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Most environmental issues involve near-surface earth systems that often exhibit complex spatial characteristics and dynamics. Conceptual understanding of complex earth systems influences the development of effective policy and management strategies. Students, like all people, organize knowledge and reason about environmental issues through manipulation of mental models. A mental model is a relatively enduring and accessible, but limited, cognitive representation of an external natural phenomenon. The nature of near-surface earth systems may present major cognitive difficulties to students in their development of authentic, accurate mental models of earth systems. These cognitive difficulties include conceptualization of natural earth environments as systems, understanding...

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