Earth Science in Texas: A Progress Report
Edward C. Roy Jr.

In 1998, the Texas State Board of Education approved a new curriculum that removed earth science courses from science courses that would meet graduation requirements in Texas high schools. This action drastically de-emphasized earth science in the curriculum of a state that has historically benefited from earth resources.

In a column in Geotimes last September, I pointed out that earth resources have an important impact on the economy of Texas and that, as a result, the students of Texas and the citizens of the state need a basic understanding of earth processes and 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,” I wrote.

Many other geoscientists agreed with me. With the help of the American Geological Institute (AGI), I initiated a letter-writing campaign in the state to call attention to the de-emphasis of earth science in the state’s curriculum. The Texas State Board of Education received letters voicing concern about the lack of earth science in the curriculum. Many of these letters expressed the need to have an educated citizenry at a time when resources and the environment are critical issues for the state, the nation and the world. The letter writers were individual geoscientists and professional societies from around the state. The campaign was positive, and the chair of the State Board of Education invited geoscientists to give testimony to the Board’s Committee on Instruction.

A steering committee — composed of University of Texas-Dallas professor David Dunn, AGI Executive Director Marcus Milling, Dallas-based professional geologist Stanley Pittman, and me — undertook the task of soliciting people who would be willing to go to Austin to speak on behalf of earth science in the Texas curriculum for kindergarten through high school. To provide a balanced presentation, we invited people from the diverse cultural and geographic areas of the state as well as from many professional disciples in the geosciences. We invited 28 people, and they all accepted the task of speaking before the Committee on Jan. 10.

Those who testified are firmly convinced that including earth science in the curriculum of Texas high schools is critical to the intellectual development of our students as well as to the economic growth of the state, the nation and the world. They represented leaders in their respective fields at the state, national and international levels. Present were individuals and corporate representatives who explore for and produce oil and gas, coal, stone, aggregate materials and minerals. Also present were researchers who study water resources and environmental and soils issues, as well as those who link Earth and space, including astronaut and geologist James Reilly. Representing the education community were university faculty and administrators from some of the state’s finest institutions, a number of dedicated middle and high school teachers, and two college geoscience students. Two educators from other states presented their views on geoscience education, providing a national perspective.

The common thread that binds those who testified is their passion for seeing that the school children of Texas receive a proper earth science education, particularly
during high school.

For example, Rodger Bybee, executive director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and a major player in the development of the National Research Council’s (NRC) National Science Education Standards, pointed out that the NRC standards include earth and space science as content to be taught separately from the other sciences, and that they should be part of science in all grade levels: elementary, middle and high school.

Michael Smith, Director of Education at AGI, stressed that both the Standards and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, call for science literacy for all students, the improvement of science instruction, and the inclusion of earth science throughout K-12. According to Smith, 49 states have developed science content frameworks connected to the national reform documents in some way, including Texas. Thus, it appears that the current K-12 curriculum in Texas does not adhere to its own or to the national standards.

Speaking about what our future citizens need to know, Arthur Green, chief geoscientist at ExxonMobil Exploration Co., stressed that effective citizens need a basic understanding of Earth’s processes if they are to make informed decisions about their lives and are to vote intelligently on complex issues that are increasingly global. Sharon Mosher, the William Stamps Farish Chair in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and the immediate past-president of the Geological Society of America, said that her children and their friends suffer from a lack of earth science education in high school. Hence, she said, they are not being prepared for the future, in which many decisions and issues will require a basic understanding of earth science.

As Reilly said: “There hasn’t been a moment when I had a chance to look down on our planet from orbit where I haven’t been amazed at how geology has played a significant role in the development of humankind.”

Next step: the Earth Science Taskforce

The members of the Committee on Instruction were impressed by the testimony. The result was that the chair of the committee, Geraldine Miller, instructed the Texas Education Agency to form an Earth Science Taskforce to investigate and suggest ways to include earth science in the curriculum of Texas high schools. The taskforce will consider two important points: what earth science courses will meet the graduation requirements for science; and the inclusion of earth science in the high school assessment test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).

The formal appointment of the taskforce did not happen immediately. Dunn and Pittman held several meetings with Miller to discuss appointments and logistics. Dunn, Pittman and I met with the Texas Commissioner of Education, then Jim Nelson, in March to further discuss the taskforce. However, the commissioner left that post a week after our meeting. Dunn and Pittman later met with the new commissioner, Felipe Alanis, to update him on our initiative and seek his support. His support helped to facilitate the appointment of the taskforce.

The Texas Education Agency appointed the members of the Earth Science Taskforce June 28. The members include five geoscientists, two earth science teachers, two educators who are not earth scientists, and three members of the Texas Education Agency staff. I am chair and Dunn is vice chair. We held our first meeting in Austin on July 22 to begin the process of developing the recommendations that we will submit to the Committee on Instruction in the spring.

The new state-mandated curriculum also removed the middle school assessment test, further reducing earth science in the curriculum. The new federal education act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind Act, mandates a middle school assessment in science by 2007. The taskforce, therefore, will also study the earth science curriculum and assessment in middle school.

The taskforce would not exist without the efforts of the dedicated geoscientists who wrote letters, testified to the Texas State Board of Education and met with public officials. Personal visits to key people in state government were critical. A coordinated effort by many people made the difference. Geoscientists became involved in public policy in order to effect a change that will ultimately benefit thousands of school children in Texas. We have a long way to go to achieve our ultimate goal, but we feel confident that we will succeed.

Roy is the Pryon Distinguished Professor of Geology at Trinity University in San Antonio. E-mail

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