(No) Earth Science in Texas
Edward C. Roy Jr.

For nearly two centuries, citizens of the State of Texas have relied on Earth resources to support the state’s economy and to provide opportunities for employment. Understanding the Earth and the benefits that are derived from it has allowed the state to thrive economically. Petroleum, water, coal and soil are only a few of the Earth materials that have led to the growth and development of Texas. To take advantage of the development of these resources, the people in the state must have a good understanding of Earth and its processes.

It is no surprise that the state of Texas has more practicing professional earth scientists than any other state, as well as more than 40 colleges and universities that offer degrees in various specialties of the earth sciences. But Texas schools are a different story.

Today, the children of Texas are not receiving an adequate education in earth science, and tomorrow it may be worse. In Texas schools, earth science is primarily taught in middle school and sometimes in grades eight or nine. None is required beyond that point and is rarely available. A July vote by the Texas State Board of Education seeks to continue that inadequacy or perhaps make it worse.

The July vote not to make earth science a graduation requirement culminates events that started in 1998. Then the Texas legislature mandated the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills curriculum, meant to outline what students must know to function in society. The Texas Education Agency has since been creating a test that will match the 1998 curriculum.

Starting with the 2003-2004 school year, 11th graders will need to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to graduate. The science requirements on this test are biology and integrated physics and chemistry, the courses students must take to graduate. Earth science is an elective.

In 1996, the National Research Council (NRC) released the National Science Standards, developed by leading scientists and science educators in the United States. The Standards conclude that earth science be a core subject from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The State of Texas is ignoring that call by not including earth science as a recommended course for graduation.

On July 6, Marcus Milling, executive director of the American Geological Institute (AGI), and I, as chair the AGI Education Advisory Committee, acted on behalf of AGI and wrote a letter to the chair of the Texas State Board of Education about this de-emphasis of earth science in the high school curriculum. We expressed our concern over the omission and with the fact that earth science assessment has been essentially eliminated from the high school exit test. In our opinion, these actions are a step backward for the State of Texas, particularly in light of the NRC’s Standards.

AGI strongly supports the Standards, and it believes they provide a basis for improving science literacy in U.S. public schools. Many states, including Florida, California, Ohio, North Carolina and New York, have embraced the new science standards and have incorporated a strong earth science component into their curricula.

As an integral component of the Standards, earth science provides students with a better understanding of the world around them and affords a context for an improved appreciation of issues dealing with the development and utilization of natural resources, mitigation of natural hazards, and options for improved management of our environment. It is critical that all students gain a better understanding of these issues in order to develop informed opinions based on science as they become voters.

The state’s economy and the infrastructure over the past century have fundamentally been supported by the production of natural resources. Whether it is oil, natural gas, coal, water, minerals or stone, these resources have provided for economic development as well as billions of dollars for public education. Earth scientists play a critical role in the discovery, development and conservation of these resources. The omission of earth science as a recommended science course is a disconnect from the needs of the citizenry and the economy of the state.

In a recent letter to the Texas State Board of Education, Kate Miller, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), strikes at the heart of this issue:

“We also play a major role in training UTEP undergraduates to be responsible and informed citizens of the state of Texas by training them in the basic science behind the multitude of environmental issues that face our city in its location on the U. S.-Mexico border. … However, we do not reach every undergraduate and we cannot reach those who do not make it to college at all. Thus many students will come through the region’s education system with little knowledge about the Earth’s processes, its environment and natural resources unless this material is taught at the high school level.”

High school students in Texas should be encouraged to study earth science as a science course required for graduation. Earth science should be in the curriculum of every middle and high school in Texas and in every other state.

The state of Texas, the United States, and all of the nations of the world depend on the natural resources and the environment for maintaining and improving our standard of living. Earth science is the discipline in which students learn about Earth’s processes, its environment and natural resources.

Roy chairs the AGI Education Advisory Committee and teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio.

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