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.


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