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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

October 2000

Political Scene

What Johnny Really Needs to Know:
A View From the Hill

Eileen McLellan

Editor’s note: McLellan has returned to teaching geology at the University of Maryland this fall after completing a year working on the Hill as the American Geological Institute’s annual Congressional Science Fellow. She joined about 30 other scientists, funded by other societies, who worked as science advisers to congressional or committee staffs. McLellan worked on the staff of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

On Jan. 28, 1986, we watched the space shuttle Challenger explode. That day, I stood before a class of University of Maryland students, preparing to teach stereographic projections. But their attention was fully consumed by the Challenger explosion.

A young teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was aboard that shuttle, and over the next few weeks I found myself thinking about her oft-quoted statement: “I touch the future: I teach.” What lessons would students take from my class into the future, I wondered? I began to realize a disconnect between the material I was teaching and the world the students would enter; between geoscience as I practiced it in my own research and the way I taught it in class.

To effectively prepare our students for life beyond the degree, we should help them think about geologic problems in a policy framework.

After working a year on the Hill, as I prepare to resume teaching at the University of Maryland, I am even more convinced that educators need to do a better job of explaining our science to nonscientists and why it is important in everyday life. In the past year I have met legislators, congressional staff, scientists, lobbyists and citizens. Most had attended college, but few had any knowledge of geology beyond a sense that it involved the study of rocks. Most expected science to give clear-cut answers to difficult questions, and were frustrated by its ambiguity.

A thirst for scientific understanding is out there but remains unexploited. Many congressional staff, on learning that I was a geologist, wistfully stated their desire to know more about science in general and earth science in particular. Most staffers have nonscience backgrounds, but they are aware of the importance of science — and intimidated by it.

Several staffers wanted to take science courses but couldn’t enroll in full-time graduate programs that emphasize research. They were eager to take evening classes relevant to their work. A potential market exists among federal and state employees for a graduate certificate program in earth science. Indeed, one or two universities have offered part-time  graduate programs that have attracted large enrollments.

Such a certificate program would help policy-makers understand how science works, and might diffuse the pressure for science to provide definitive answers to what are, after all, political questions. The key is to show that science is an ongoing process of discovery. The program might include a general course on the nature of scientific inquiry and the limits of scientific knowledge, together with courses in geology as applied to public policy. These courses could include discussions of the importance of geology in managing land and water resources, assessing waste disposal options, and balancing the need for energy and mineral resources with the environmental impacts of their extraction

The integration between geology and public policy must work both ways. Just as educators must help policy-makers understand the importance of geology, they must help geology students appreciate public policy.

I realized how inadequate my own education had been when I was handed a 600-page environmental impact statement and was asked to prepare a one-page, nontechnical summary of the pros and cons of a particular proposal within 24-hours — and then to defend the senator’s chosen position in debates with lawyers. Thinking back to the classes I’ve taught, I noticed a huge gap between the research questions I and my students pursued — What is the impact of forested buffers on preventing nutrients from reaching streams? — and the questions I needed to answer as a congressional staffer for making public policy — How do we compare the environmental impacts of losing a given acreage of old-growth forest in a certain condition with the protection of a certain number of miles of salmon-bearing stream in a certain condition?

To effectively prepare our students for life beyond the degree, we should help them think about geologic problems in a policy framework. Many undergraduates will be employed by agencies or by consulting firms, where they will be expected to solve applied geologic problems in a regulatory framework.

We teach students how to model groundwater flow, but we send them out to work on Superfund sites with little appreciation of the history, successes and failures of the law. Regardless of their employment, most of our students will be citizens with the attendant rights and obligations, yet we have usually done a poor job of encouraging them to put their professional knowledge to work in solving policy problems in their own communities. From land-use planning to water rights to waste disposal, most communities are struggling with policy choices that geological knowledge can help clarify.

Senior geology undergraduates should take a course in science and public policy, one that includes a review of some basic civics, an overview of relevant laws, analysis of case studies and a project engaging the class in a local issue. Such a class might be appealing to a broad range of science students, and could be taught by a team of faculty from different disciplines, including the social sciences.

Of course, knowledge alone will not bridge the gap between science and policy. To be effective in the policy world, young scientists need to learn analytical and communications skills that are relevant to that world. My time on the Hill taught me that the ability to critique an environmental impact statement is an essential skill and useful as an exercise in critical thinking.

Although my students would routinely rank “to learn critical thinking” very low in a list of learning goals, my time on the Hill has confirmed for me that it is, in fact, the most important skill of all.

We must also teach communication as a skill. The content-rich, dispassionate writing of academia has no place in public policy, where the emphasis is on making a few well-chosen points with stylistic flair and where most communication occurs in meetings or via telephone. Learning to write short summary statements and effectively defend positions in debate is a skill that would be of value to science and nonscience students alike. Students pursuing business or journalism degrees are more likely to appreciate the relevance of the material in geology class if asked to present it in a context with which they are more familiar: the news article they must finish in an hour, or the shareholder report due the next day. Geology majors who are able to communicate appropriately with their audience, whether at a professional scientific meeting or a school board debate on evolution, are more likely to see their expertise used.

Science courses for science majors and nonscience majors should challenge students to write about science, as a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, or as one-page, non-technical summaries of research. I have challenged my students to debate on policy topics such as geologic hazards and resource use. The process not only engages them, but it also helps them process facts in a way that encourages learning and shows them the connections between geology and the rest of their lives. They move away from simply stating facts to analyzing the weaknesses of an opponent’s argument. One of my greatest challenges with undergraduate students is to move them from a position of passively accepting facts to a position of asking and answering questions.

As I stood before my class on the day of the Challenger accident, I learned the importance of relating science to real life. This fall, I’m teaching a class in the Judith Resnick Memorial Hall, named for a Maryland alumna killed in the explosion. The hall also  hosts a model of the Challenger. Coming to this classroom after a year on the Hill, I am more aware than ever of the responsibility to convey the excitement and importance of geoscience. “I touch the future: I teach.”

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