“Our country, and indeed the whole world, is facing some serious problems. Many of these problems are in the realm of our interactions with our planet. With a population of seven billion people that is doubling every 30 or 40 years, we now consume well more than a planet’s worth of resources, in fact, we have for decades. By current estimates, we’re probably at about a planet and a half’s worth of resources, so we’re borrowing against a very limited supply.
Humans are by far the largest geologic force on our planet. We use 40% of the planet’s surface to raise or grow our food alone. The number of animals, and that includes fish, mammals, reptiles, birds, whatever, is half the number now than it was 40 years ago, which is staggering... And yet most people have no sense of the power that humans now have on our planet.” — Dr. Michael Wysession
Earth Science Jumps the Shark
As a teacher, there are very few opportunities to feel like a superhero. Yet, as Earth Day 2015 approaches (April 22nd,#EarthDay2015), science curriculum aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is beginning to develop a new breed of superhero in classrooms across the country.
For a long time, Earth Science was at the bottom of the science education barrel. For a long time, Earth Science was at the bottom of the science education barrel. Most of us were taught Earth Science with curricula based on a 120 year old framework — a framework that, for all intents and purposes, could not possibly take into account the significant changes the planet would experience over the next 100 years and our urgent need to address catastrophic, environmental problems.
Dr. Michael Wysession (Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the NGSS) believes that teaching science curricula based on a framework that is 120 years old has had a significant, negative impact on the global and geophysical problems that the world now faces. In a recent podcast interview on Hold That Thought (full recording below), Wysession takes us down the complicated and fascinating history of Earth Science education in the US and how it jumped the tracks:
“There was a very influential educational report back in 1893, the Committee of Ten report. It was Charles Elliot, the President of Harvard University, and nine other university presidents got together and said, “College science is having a rough time because there are no standards for students coming out of high school. We need some standards for earth science education in high school.” The idea was wonderful actually. Their recommendations were not so much in what students would know, but in what they would be able to do.
They recommended one day a week’s high school students should be outside learning about the natural world. This was all great. Their recommendation though was that the three years of high school science should be biology, chemistry, and physics. Physical geography was to be taught in middle school and no astronomy anywhere in middle school or high school. Well plate tectonics wasn’t even discovered until 1967. In 1893, geology was really a disparate jumble of separate facts without a real framework to put them all together.
Well somewhere in the next 120 years, earth science became a complex, complicated, interconnected, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, quantitative, computationally-focused science, but nobody knows that, because what do we get? Some physical geography in middle school. We memorize the names of the countries. Only 7% of Americans come through getting any earth science at all in high school. We have a real disconnect here. We have a situation where there are significant problems and challenges that face the survival of our species and we don’t know how to solve these problems.” — Michael Wysession (Hold That Thought)
Simply put, a lack of Earth Science education may be one of the key reasons why so many Americans are illiterate when it comes to the realities and repercussions of global climate shift, over-taxing natural resources, and the importance of Earth Science research. And while Wysession’s warnings may seem like dramatic hype to many who refute the very idea of global warming, the actual facts about our ever-changing world are far more sobering and much harder to ignore.
Consider these shocking Earth Science facts:
- It is estimated that 50% of all plants, animals, and birds will die off by the year 2100, with lead scientists calling the current loss of life, “The 6th Extinction.” (National Geographic)
- Runoff from agriculture has affected oceanic phytoplankton, which is changing our atmosphere (Nature)
- Scientists expect that clean water will be unavailable to 2/3 of the population by 2080. (NBC News)
- Over the last 250 years, the surface acidity of the ocean has increased 30%, which is literally dissolving creatures like shellfish and plankton. (Environmental Protection Agency)
- Chlorine and Bromide pollution are damaging the atmosphere, causing increasing UV saturation. (Planet Earth Herald)
- Since 1990, half of the world’s rain forests have been cut down, an estimated 18 million acres. (Live Science)
- It is estimated that, by 2050, there will be no fish left in the ocean. (BBC)
- It is estimated that the surface of the Earth could rising in temperature between 2º and 6º by the end of the 21st Century. (NASA.gov)
- The world population has tripled over the last 60 years, growing from 2.5 billion to 7 billion since 1950. (Scientific American)
The Planet Herald lists the Top 10 Environmental Issues Facing Our Planet as: population, climate change, loss of biodiversity, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, water, oceanic acidification, pollution, ozone layer depletion, over-fishing, and deforestation. And, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then this featured article at The Guardian, Overpopulation, Overconsumption – In Pictures (a photo-essay documenting the affects of overconsumption on our planet), speaks volumes.
Yet, the public is still largely unaware of these threats to our existence and how our behaviors and consumption accelerates these problems. As Wysession plainly puts it, indeed, we have a real disconnect here.
Haters Gonna Hate
The resistance in Earth Science education isn’t just in the classroom. Earth Science has become a fiery, front-and-center, topic in politics impacting local, state and even presidential politics. Despite the pressing environmental issues facing the planet, Earth Science still has its fair share of detractors and naysayers.
The general devaluing of Earth Science as a discipline was highlighted in a recent Capitol Hill NASA funding debate where Senator Ted Cruz (an opponent of Earth Science funding) suggested that “almost any American would agree” that NASA should spend money on space exploration instead of earth-related research. NASA Director Charles Bolden‘s rebuttal and defense of supporting funding for NASA’s Earth Sciences mission was sharp and unapologetic:
“It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth’s environment, because this is the only place that we have to live. We’ve got to take care of it, and the only way to take care of it is to know what’s happening. We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy space center goes underwater, and we don’t know it. That’s understanding our environment.” — Charles Bolden (NASA)
Earth Science is not only at the forefront of passionate, political debates involving billions of dollars in corporate money and research funding, but there is an internal debate among Earth Scientists about the risks, rewards (and potential dangers) of being in the field. Minda Berbeco (National Center for Science Education) recently wrote an eye-opening post outlining the very real concerns that Earth Scientists have and the dangers of their jobs (from threats, to harassment, to being discredited in Op-Ed pieces).
The research being done in the Earth Sciences is reverberating far beyond the field and research labs. The need to provide accurate, thought-provoking research that continues to challenge what we know and what we think we know is imperative. The need to prepare students for the realities of Earth Science careers is, also, crucial. Read a thorough recap of the Capital Hill debate by Tom McCarthy (@TeeMcSee) at The Guardian (Scientists Shoot Down Ted Cruz After Attack on NASA’s Earth Sciences Mission).
Giving Science Teachers Superpowers
Despite the challenges that lie ahead in saving our planet, all is not lost. There has been a growing movement among science educators to change the way that science — especially Earth Science — is taught. The Framework for K-12 Science Education (co-authored by scientists and educators like Wysession, Cary Sneider, and Arthur Eisenkraft) was created to replace the 150-year old framework, with one that is current and relevant to today’s complex world, based on real research and science, and adequately prepares students to be 2st-century, problem-solvers (who will solve the problems listed above, among others).
The emphasis of this new Framework? Hands-on, scientific exploration and inquiry. Not content. Doing. Not memorizing. And, most importantly, real-world problem-solving using real-world scientific methods. As it turns out, and according to recent research, this is the secret sauce in science education success. Explains Wysession, “Science education research has shown that students [using project-based, NGSS-aligned curriculum] will not only enjoy science more and value it more, they will actually retain the information more if they try to learn about less, but delve into it in a more deep manner with a variety of scientific practices.” See Ingfei Chen’s KQED’s Mind/Shift article: Can Project-Based Learning Close Gaps in Science Education?
Save Planet, Get Paid
Of course, none of these arguments or statistics matter if, after graduation, students can’t get jobs in the fields in which they earn degrees, or if they can’t even imagine that there is a future for them in those careers. Many students and parents would be surprised to learn that there is a dire need for earth scientists and high-paying jobs waiting to be filled by graduates.
The fact is, the geoscience workforce is aging and retiring and, as a result, there is now a very strong demand for new geoscientists:
“The majority of the geoscience workforce will be retiring over the next decade and data from federal sources… indicate this growing imbalance in the profession’s age demographics. Because of increasing pressure to address issues such as energy supply, climate and other environmental concerns, and as seen with the Japan disaster, hazard mitigation, it is estimated that there will be 23% increase in geoscience jobs over the next decade on top of a wave of nearly 50 percent of existing geoscientists retiring during the same time. The U.S. is beginning to see the loss of fundamental technical skills in the geoscience workforce, both within academia and in the applied sectors.” (“Why Choose Geology” Western Washington University)
Closing this gap between perception and reality is crucial for guiding students towards the Earth Sciences in school and professionally after they graduate. The urgent need to address ecological challenges, coupled with the immediate need for a new army of earth science graduates to fill vacant jobs, brings into sharp focus the need for schools to embrace the new Framework. The 150-year old framework still used widely simply does not prepare students for these jobs at a time when the field needs them more than ever.
So, Why Should Students Study Earth Science?
In an Education Insider interview for Earth Science 2014 (Earth Day 2014: Science Instructional Specialist Amanda Wilson on Teaching Climate Change), science educator and IAT Professional Development Trainer, Amanda K. Wilson (@AKWStardust) explains what she believes is the goal of every Earth Science educator:
“You can teach reading and mathematics and history through the lens of science but science shouldn’t be about reading someone else’s epic adventure. Science should be about students embracing their own epic adventure and having their own epic adventure.”
And, in this case, the epic adventure just might, literally, save the world.
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