Modern earth science pedagogy is increasingly based on an integrated systems framework, where all of the major earth systems, including lithospheric cycles, are interlinked and dependent on each other through feedback loops. Most secondary school and introductory college-level geology courses present the concepts of plate tectonics and rock classifications. However, many instructional approaches fail to integrate these topics within an earth systems viewpoint, where supercontinent cycles are viewed in both spatial and temporal dimensions, and the classification of rock types is intrinsically dependent on the tectonic, as well as the depositional environment in which they were formed. This contribution presents new tectonic animations and images that allow students to investigate supercontinent cycles (e.g., the assembly and breakup of Rodinia, and the Paleozoic interactions of Laurentia, Gondwana, and Baltica) and integrated Wilson Cycle and Tectonic Rock Cycles that equate rock genesis with tectonic and environmental settings. Central to these visualizations is the concept that processes of rock genesis have evolved, and will continue to evolve, through geologic time. We discuss the conceptual and historical background for each of these visualizations, and follow this with detailed descriptions of, and educational uses for, the images and animations.

To be of optimal instructional utility, the animations and images consider the visual domain as a primary, rather than secondary instructional tool. As such, they are designed to function optimally in an inquiry-driven educational setting. They take into account the complex cognitive interactions between visual and verbal representations in learning environments by providing rapid interchange between these two domains. Where factual information is of interest, e.g., when introducing a topic or relaying important background information, the typical verbal primacy is observed. But in instances where spatial and temporal relationships are of interest, such as in the Rodinia and Pangaea supercontinent cycles, and the “No Rock is Accidental” tectonic rock cycle, the visualizations assume the primary role, with text-based annotations or verbal discussion as secondary.

We conclude with discussions on the importance of inquiry-based educational approaches and effective ways of evaluating educational visualizations. We suggest that to best utilize the available media (digital and paper based), the level of cognitive engagement of the learning task should be closely tied to a taxonomy of visualizations that encompass detailed, integrated representations and animations. Inquiry-based interfaces, such as we present in this paper, promote more mindful articulations of the desired learning tasks and an increased retention of the subject material outside the bounds of the classroom. Teaching a systems-based understanding of the Earth and the concepts of evolving tectonic and rock cycles provides students with holistic foundations from which they can better evaluate, and make decisions about, their living environment.

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