Cornerstones of the Revolution in Earth Science Education
Michael Smith

A wide range of institutions that support formal and informal science education for kindergarten through college are actively engaged in expanding opportunities for earth science education. National organizations have published standards that have fueled the inclusion of earth science in state educational frameworks and testing programs. These programs have in turn spurred increased federal funding for earth science education and created demand for new programs to support both teacher professional development as well as innovative approaches to making earth science accessible to all students.

The year began with the release and widespread dissemination of Blueprint for Change: Report from the National Conference on the Revolution in Earth and Space Science Education. This conference, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), designed a blueprint for reforming how earth and space science education are taught. The goal is to harness changes within the fields of earth and space science — such as the growing use of remote sensing images — that make these fields ideal platforms for innovation, quality education and successful science education reform.

The Revolution Blueprint outlines strategies to ensure that earth and space science are taught throughout the United States in K-12 classrooms and are accessible to all students. It has already sparked discussion and helped in creating effective partnerships. For example, the Revolution Blueprint provided an important framework around which to center discussion during this year’s Coalition for Earth Science Education Meeting in Greenbelt, Md.; the third annual meeting of the Digital Library for Earth Systems Education in Ithaca, N.Y.; and planning conferences for the EarthScope Education and Outreach Program in Washington, D.C., and Tucson, Ariz.

EarthScope is the proposed $35 million project to comprehensively instrument the North American continent so that earth scientists can
use the instrument network to study the continent over time (Geotimes, April 2002). EarthScope will include an education and outreach component to ensure that advances in earth science fuel advances in earth science education. The EarthScope education and outreach program plan, expected later this year, will outline the suggested mechanisms for linking the scientific research of the four major EarthScope programs with universities, classrooms, museums, parks and other partners.

This revolution also calls for shifts in teachers’ methods and in their understanding of science content. The path through which to influence and support teachers is to establish professional development programs. The American Geological Institute (AGI), which publishes Geotimes, has outlined a five-year plan to provide leadership training, teacher institutes and teacher workshops throughout the nation. AGI is working with the education research and development organization TERC on an NSF-funded professional development project called “Earth Science by Design.”

The program engages middle school science teachers in designing and testing curriculum units that focus on the “big ideas” of the earth sciences that help students to think of Earth as a system, and that integrate visualization tools — such as geographic information systems — into classrooms.

Web-based professional development is another cornerstone supporting the revolution. Through AGI’s Professional Development Web sites, teachers will be able to download videos on setting up experiments as well as captioned images and slideshows that they can fold into their classroom instruction. Or they can subscribe to discussion boards and timely delivery of recent news and data sources to support student inquiry.

K-12 teachers can also enroll in online earth system science courses that feature student-centered, knowledge-building virtual communities through the Earth System Science Education Alliance (ESSEA). Sponsored by NASA, ESSEA is an alliance of organizations that each offer courses for groups of 20 to 25 teachers, led by a master teacher who serves as a mentor and an earth system scientist to facilitate content. High school teachers might for example, investigate the destruction of a coral reef and analyze the problem from an earth-systems perspective. The inquiry-based pedagogy and assessment of the course models the approach to earth science education called for in national standards.

Inherent to the national education reform documents and Revolution Blueprint is the tenant that every student should have access to earth science knowledge. Through funding from NASA, Nancy Lightbody of the Maine Center for Assistive Technology and Sharon Locke of the University of Southern Maine have created Access Earth, a program for ninth- and tenth-grade students with disabilities and for high school teachers. Based at the University of Southern Maine and the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, Access Earth is an intensive summer institute that allows participants to understand interactions among the land, oceans and atmosphere through hands-on inquiry and field-based activities. The program gives teachers strategies and tools for encouraging students with disabilities to enter careers in earth system science. Also, a sub-committee of the American Geophysical Union’s Committee on Education and Human Resources is actively exploring ways that scientific societies can coordinate their efforts to improve diversity in the earth sciences.

The earth science community has an unprecedented opportunity to expand and enhance earth science education. Excellent mechanisms are in place to facilitate rapid progress on multiple fronts: teacher enhancement, bridging the scientific and education communities and diversity, to name a few. The three C’s of collaboration, cooperation and communication, will be instrumental to our community’s success in creating citizens who understand their planet.
Smith is Director of Education for the American Geological Institute. E-mail

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

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