Geological-reasoning training as preparation for the “thinking warfighter” in the next-generation military

  • Alexander K. Stewart St. Lawrence University


On the modern battlefield, unimagined missions occur faster than military schools can prepare their forces.  Militaries, therefore, would be better served if recruits entered the armed forces preconditioned with an intellectual agility that will help them execute missions using limited time, resources and support.   Geological-reasoning training at the high school and college level could be the answer.

Militaries have realized that they need to train and equip a modern thinking force; however, they are not prepared to train the critical-thinking skills needed. This dilemma can no longer be ignored, for counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine expects troops to have an adaptable and flexible mindset with the ability to constantly learn and adapt. Training in geological reasoning, therefore, may be a key to helping alleviate the problem of a ready-to-go, “thinking warfighter.” Kastens et al.[1] suggest geological reasoning is unique and founded in four areas (which support COIN expectations): a) deep-time thinking, b) understanding the Earth as a complex system, c) using the field environment as a learning tool and d) the requirement of spatial thinking.  This multivariate approach to problem solving is paramount in solving tactical and strategic problems, which rarely have a “correct” answer.  As a foundation, geological-reasoning training at the high-school/college level can be vital in preparing recruits to be ready-made critical thinkers.  Recognition of the importance of geology training as a tool to help develop problem recognition and solution development has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. government.  For over 50 years, NASA has required their astronaut corps to undergo extensive classroom and field-based training in geology for the sole purpose of developing observational skills and problem recognition and solution.[2] Most recently, soldiers (geoscientists), as a part of small, specialized, COIN teams, such as the joint U.S. Army-National Guard Agriculture Development Teams have demonstrated to command personnel the potential of a tactical, thinking warfighter.  These thinking warfighters make quality observations and interpretations in restricted spatio-temporal environments where data are lacking and, probably most importantly, are able to effectively communicate the results to their commanders for strategic use.

[1] Kim A. Kastens, Cathryn A. Manduca, Cinzia Cervato, Robert Frodeman, Charles Goodwin, Lynn S. Liben, David W. Mogk, Timothy C. Spangler, Neil A. Stillings and Sarah Titus“How geoscientists think and learn.” Eos, Transactions.  American Geophysical Union 90 (2009): pp. 265-272.

[2] Dean B. Eppler, Andrew Feustel, J. Mark Erickson, Kip Hodges, Laszio P. Keszthelyi, Mark Helper, William R. Muehlberger, William Phinney, Art Snoke and Barbara J. Tewksbury. 2008. “Apollo/Constellation geologic training workshop: reviewing Apollo’s accomplishments and preparing a new generation of geologic explorers for Lunar field geology,” (Paper presented at the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America, Houston, Texas, October 5-9).

Author Biography

Alexander K. Stewart, St. Lawrence University

Dr. Stewart, retired from the U.S. Army, is a veteran of the Cold War and three foreign wars; 20+ years of experience and life-changing events make him a unique professor.  His experiences in the Army in Alaska directed his interests to obtain a PhD in glacial geology and be a glacial geology/geomorphology professor from eastern Kentucky to western Texas and north to St. Lawrence University.

Research Notes