Bring the Earth inside!

Why is Earth System Science so irrelevant in our academic landscape?

Academics, funding agencies, the government, politicians, teachers – society generally agrees that science is important. Good people can argue about specific ideas, but the last two centuries of medical, technological, and engineering advancement  – society’s movement from a world of subsistence to a world slowly marching towards equality and access – are clearly underlain by the Herculean efforts of scientists and engineers.

In the U.S. and many countries, science is a foundational subject in the school curriculum. The newest iteration of the U.S. national science standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), strives for universal themes that cut across disparate sciences, acknowledging the importance of process and causation, energy and matter, and change and response in scientific reasoning.

Science is, of course, not a single entity. Look at any Big 10 campus or business directory and you will see tens or even hundreds of different activities that can be categorized as part of the scientific endeavor. Three sciences dominate our school curriculum – Bioscience, Chemistry, and Physics. The fourth science, Earth System Science, encompasses all things Earth: the study of the interactions within and between the physical planet (geoscience), oceans (oceanography), air (atmospheric science), space (planetary science), water (hydrology), etc. In many ways, Earth System Science is concerned with how chemical, physical, and biological phenomena manifest on this and other planets over temporal scales from seconds to eons, and over spatial scales from atoms to galaxies.

Although we all live here, often the Earth only comes to life when we are faced with direct and irrefutable evidence of nature’s power. Natural hazards force us to really see the planet on which we live – certainly, natural disasters are an important part of the news most likely because 1) many have an immediate and real impact on human life and economies; 2) natural hazards can cause visually stunning damage; and 3) some hazards are visually stunning themselves. Look at any recent news cycle and you will see articles either about hazards or warning about future hazards from landslides, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, and tornadoes.

Why then is Earth System Science relegated to the back burner within our school curriculum? Perhaps because of its relative youth among it’s bigger brothers, perhaps because of the narrow focus of many geoscience departments nationwide, perhaps because geologists simply aren’t as good at lobbying for power and money. Regardless of the reason, Earth System Science is given short shrift across formal education in all levels of schooling as well as during teacher training. For example, while Advanced Placement (AP) exams exist in biology, chemistry, and physics – physics in fact has a whopping FIVE exams – the only exam that is even remotely related to Earth System Science is the environmental science exam. This exam covers topics related to human-environment interactions, which is certainly one part of Earth System Science, but really does not cover the broader range of atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and gesosphere interactions that our students really need to learn about. The inclusion of Earth System Science in the  Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) may make a difference, although Earth System Science was a part of the last iteration of national standards (for example, the AAAS Benchmarks) and we still have a serious deficit in teachers qualified to teach Earth System Science.

I have a simple request for anyone on the ground, those teaching in the K-12 system, those teaching undergraduates, or those working with in-service teachers: Rethink how you teach science. Teach science in context, where context is the Earth. This isn’t a request to privilege one science over another – this is a request to see school curriculum make science come alive within the context of our planet. How powerful would it be for students to understand force in the context of the mudslide that devastated a town in Washington, see chemistry revealed as gasoline leaks from old filling stations, and watch biology respond as ecosystems struggle to rejuvenate from a shattered landscape? Would students exposed to such science grow up to be adults who can reason in the face of a world filled with natural hazards, able to decide if the long term risk of a flood, tornado, mudslide, earthquake, drought, volcanic eruption, or hurricane is something they want to take on when buying a house or sending their kids to school? Natural hazard risk is everywhere and our citizens deserve access to tools – knowledge and reasoning – that they need to decide if risk is simply too much. Perhaps people in 2030 will look back at the 192 billion dollars and more than 21,000 lives lost to natural disasters in 2013 alone and shake their heads in puzzlement. This is a call to rethink our curriculum, to encourage our teachers to bring an entire planet into the classroom.

Citations and impact? Who says your research is valuable?

I cannot stress enough how much I DISLIKE the focus research universities place on journal impact factors and ISI citation counts. Both of these are really the work of one organization, Thomson Reuters. The Science Citation (and Social Science, etc) indexes offered a great service to researchers before web-based and open access publishing hit the planet in a big way. Rather than being one of many resources for identifying related bodies of work, however, ISI citations and journal impacts are being used to make and break people’s careers, as might be the case at Northeastern. Although impact factors and ISI citation counts really are only two sources of data about the impact of research on the local and broader community, these metrics are being used to decide whether or not research is valuable. This is extremely problematic for several reasons:

1. Not all good journals are indexed by Thomson Reuters. This means that good publication is deemed “not-so-good” simply by virtue of not having the Thomson Reuters special seal of approval. This is funny, since people have been pointing out for years that Google Scholar offers a more accurate, holistic view of scholarly impact.

2. Disciplines are not equally indexed by Thomson Reuters. Way back in 2010, Larsen and von Ins (2010) noted that the Science Citation and related indexes simply do not provide the kind of coverage that open access indexes like GoogleScholar can offer. The traditional sciences have more coverage than the social sciences, and disciplines that use alternative publication venues are highly underrepresented. For example, this means that computer science, which has great traction with conference proceedings AND is ahead of the curve on open access publishing, use of Creative Commons, and innovative strategies for getting research out, is “not valuable” if the lens of Thomson Reuters citation counts and journal impact is the de facto metric.

3. Most people who publish, including some pretty important journal editors, see journal impact factors as a poor way to assess research value. Or, as the DATA PUB blog would say, impact factors are a broken system. All sorts of web-based alternatives exist, but somehow aren’t being valued by the administrators, granting agencies, and other people who make decisions based on “research impact”.

4. Most frightening, organizations like the Association of American Universities (AAU) are setting a precedent that gives Thomson Reuters power over the kinds of research universities are willing to invest in. AAU is considered to be pretty elite; their website explains that “AAU member universities are on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to the nation’s economy, security, and well-being.  The 60 AAU universities in the United States award more than one-half of all U.S. doctoral degrees and 55 percent of those in the sciences and engineering.” Getting into or falling out of the AAU is a BIG DEAL. Look what happened when University of Nebraska was kicked out, and the jealousy other schools felt when Georgia Tech was let in.

How does AAU decide if an institution is elite enough to be a member? They have a very nice membership policy document published in Nov. of 2012 that you can download from their website. AAU puts universities through two stages of analysis.  The first, more quantitative stage looks at four metrics – to directly quote AAU:

1. Competitively funded federal research support.
2. Membership in the National Academies (NAS, NAE, IOM).
3. Faculty awards, fellowships, and memberships.
4. Citations: Thomson Reuters InCitesTM.

Phase 2 metrics are more complicated, but let’s be clear: ONE of only FOUR criteria used to initially decide if universities are elite enough to be in the AAU is based on…Thomson Reuters’ metrics. Let’s think about this logically:

1. Universities want to be in the AAU, much like college football teams want to play in the Rose Bowl.

2. To be in the AAU, universities have to get lots of federal grants; employ people who are in the National Academies; employee people who receive awards, fellowships, and elite memberships (apparently, there is a list of such things that count); and must be affiliated with publications that are indexed by Thomson Reuters.

3. Universities that want to get into (or stay in) the AAU must increase their metrics. Faculty at research institutions already seek and receive federal funding, National Academy membership, and awards. Faculty also publish – but not necessarily in so called “ISI journals”.

3. Thomson Reuters indexes a fraction of all of the articles published each year.

4. Universities seeking to increase AAU ranking may be tempted to treat ISI publications as more valuable than publications in venues not indexed by Thomson Reuters.

Which means that: Research universities could fall into a trap of allowing Thomson Reuters to indirectly set research agendas! How on earth did we reach a point where a third-party company has such power to control the types of research that are valued, funded, and supported by our academic institutions?

I wonder how things would change if Thomson Reuters dropped the evaluation process for journals and simply started indexing everything? Oh, wait – Google Scholar already does that.

I should note that I publish in both ISI and non-ISI journals. Since my work is interdisciplinary, my personal decision on where to publish reflects which communities I want to reach, and I often have to make a judgement call based on where the work will have the most impact. This is not impact as reflected by some outside metric, but impact as I think it should be viewed: Who needs to see my research? What other scholars could be impacted by my research? Which community will have the greatest impact on related future work? In essence, I need to figure out with whom I want to have a scholarly conversation, and publish accordingly. I would be ignoring many valuable colleagues and groups if I limited my publication to ISI journals, so I have always simply refused to allow my publishing decisions to be dictated by an elitist metric.

The need to train Earth Science teachers

As the Next Generation Science Standards move into broader use, many pre-service teacher training programs, as well as programs geared towards teacher professional development, are rethinking how and what they teach. Unfortunately, this rethinking will do little to address a serious issue facing the United States: the lack of qualified Earth Science teachers. Although physics, chemistry, and biology classes are generally taught by teachers with at least a minor and often a major in the core science, earth science teachers may have little or even no qualifications in earth science. I am astonished that 40% of ESS courses offered in secondary schools are taught by teachers without any science coursework whatsoever! This research report by Horizon, Inc., published in 2002 and likely similar to the situation today, paints a stark contrast between the Earth Sciences and other science disciplines:

Horizon Research, Inc. (2002b). 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education: Status of Secondary School Earth Science Teaching.

This is not a “new” realization – many people have recognized the shortage of Earth Systems Science teachers, and a number of calls to action have been made (such as this one).

Which leaves me wondering – what will we as a community dedicated to the teaching and learning of Earth System Science do to remedy the situation? How can we hope for a future citizenry that can tackle tough issues related to climate, water, energy, and sustainability if we can’t even offer our students teachers trained to think about the Earth?

A number of programs, many funded through the GEO-Teach or GK-12 programs,  are addressing this issue. Perhaps one of these programs has the answer for training the teachers of Earth System Science that we need for the future. A few examples:

http://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/master-of-arts-in-teaching

http://distance.msstate.edu/geosciences/tig/home

http://web.utk.edu/~gk12/research.html

http://earthref.org/SCC/

 

 

 

 

On DBER

Discipline-based education research, or DBER, has received a lot of attention lately. In 2012, the National Research Council published a report on DBER. The report suggests that DBER is both broadly focused on a wide array of sciences (“physics, biological sciences, geosciences, and chemistry”) and narrowly focused on undergraduate settings. Other disciplines, although not discussed in detail, are acknowledged – this is good since education research within math and engineering has a long history in undergraduate settings. Overall, I think the report suggests that DBER is: 1) focused on undergraduate teaching and learning; 2) grounded in deep understanding of natural sciences; and 3) grounded in the science of teaching and learning.

I suggest that DBER is both more and less than the work described in the report. More – DBER scholars already investigate learning in settings far afield from colleges and universities. Less – DBER scholars still struggle to build from pre-existing research paradigms or build new valid and reliable research theories/approaches.

This may sound silly, but I really do love the definition of “education” offered up at dictionary.com: “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” This definition encompasses the classroom, but does not require it, and in fact recognizes that learning occurs as a normal part of maturation and simply living. I would argue that limiting DBER to undergraduate settings fractures a community of scholars. Under this model, researchers of learning in undergraduate science are embraced by DBER scholars. In fact, DBER communities often include only those scholars who study undergraduate science learning within Colleges of Science. Other researchers of learning in higher education coalesce around higher education groups, such as the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Those people who study science learning in K-12 settings will find an intellectual home among traditional science education scholars housed in Colleges of Education (see NARST, for example), other communities embrace scholars studying museum learning (ASTC), or learning in parks (VSA), or even the scientific literacy of the general public (a journal example).  Each of these communities then works mostly in isolation from each other – it would be far better to build a larger community that embraces each of these sub-fields. The very similar research questions and methodologies suggest that these groups might be better off working together, recognizing the commonalities of scholarship in these different fields rather than re-inventing the wheel. This working together would naturally require building a common set of theories, research methods, and analytical techniques that all communities can value.

I leave with some questions: What does it mean for a field to have emerged as a new research discipline? Has DBER actually emerged as geophysics once did, or is DBER still, much like a butterfly in its crysalis, struggling through a metamorphosis?

EarthLabs paper in press

Our latest paper stemming from a collaboration with TERC is in press with the Journal of Geoscience Education:

Ellins, K.K., Shapiro-Ledley, T., Haddad, N., McNeal, K., Gold, A., Lynds, S., and Libarkin, J., in press, EarthLabs: Supporting teacher professional development to facilitate effective teaching of climate science: Journal of Geoscience Education.

Learn more about EarthLabs through the EarthLabs site!

New chapter in AGU book on the Anthropocene

A new chapter on assessment has been published in an American Geophysical Union book focusing on the anthropocene.

Libarkin, J.C., 2014, Evaluation and Assessment of Civic Understanding of Planet Earth. In G. Roehrig, D. Dalbotten, & P. Hamilton (Eds.) Future Earth: Advancing Civic Understanding of the Anthropocene, p. 41-52.

http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118854306.html

 

Two chapters in new geoscience education book

We are pleased to announce that two chapters have been published in a new book on geoscience education published by Springer.

Libarkin, J.C., 2014, The role of scholarly publishing in geocognition and discipline-based geoscience education research. In V. Tong (Ed.) Geoscience Research and Education: Teaching at Universities, p. 69-76.

Libarkin, J.C., Jardeleza, S.E., McElhinny, T., 2014, The role of concept inventories in course assessment. In V. Tong (Ed.) Geoscience Research and Education: Teaching at Universities, p. 275-297.

http://www.springer.com/education+%26+language/science+education/book/978-94-007-6945-8