Why We Need Public Education in Earth Science

December 1, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director.

From the AMS project, Living on the Real World

Early in the Bush administration, sometime during the winter of 2001-2002, I got to sit in on a remarkable conversation. Three of us were meeting with the president’s new science advisor, John H. “Jack” Marburger, III, in his office. He was just getting his feet on the ground, and reaching out to different sectors of the science community. We were there to speak a bit to the contributions atmospheric science had made to the country, and how these contributions would not have been possible without steady government support, sustained for several decades. We weren’t there to ask for something; we were there to express thanks for past support, from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

At one point Jack invited us to each say something about the work of our respective organizations. I’d been at the American Meteorological Society only a year or so, and felt I’d rather say something about the work of our Education Program rather than my own policy interests. So I described how Ira Geer and his staff had constructed a wonderful Ponzi or pyramid scheme. Many science education programs focused on getting practicing scientists in the classroom; the idea has been that somehow these scientists could convey the excitement of the research bench. Some university faculty have proved better at this than others, but the results have been checkered at best. Ira and the AMS came at this from the opposite direction: public school teachers knew how to relate to the school kids; so why not give these teachers the resources they’d need to teach Earth science content? The AMS focused on reaching into the classrooms of education departments at universities and community colleges. They also chose to work closely, over a period of years, with a small cohort of public school teachers, who in turn would return home each year, and establish and maintain further cohorts (of cohorts) in their home states. In this way, Ira, his successor Jim Brey, and their staff of ten or so have reached 100,000 teachers and ten million students. Good numbers!

Marburger thought so too. He had been polite all along, but now grew animated, leaned forward. “American kids care about three kinds of science,” he said, “space, dinosaurs, and the weather.” He then recounted a story from his Brookhaven National Laboratory days. “We had an open house every year,” he said.

“One year, looking for ways to boost public attendance, we realized we had a National Weather Service Forecast Office on our [extensive] Brookhaven premises. We added them to our open house. The good news was that attendance shot way up! The bad news was everyone flocked to the Doppler radar. No one wanted to see our particle accelerators.”

What does this say? Public education in the Earth sciences provides the United States a badly-needed twofer. First, if educational statistics are leading indicators of the future place of the United States in the world, then our slippage relative to other countries in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education augurs poorly. More emphasis on Earth science education offers a way out of our dilemma. As kids are drawn into Earth science, they quickly realize they need to learn a little physics, a little chemistry, a little biology – and top it all off with some mathematics. That childhood fascination with snowflakes and winter storms; thunder and lightning, downpours, and rainbows; with hurricanes and tornados? Earth sciences tap into this. They are a portal, a doorway, inviting kids into the world of science and technology more broadly.

Second, these school kids, when they reach adulthood, are going to be consulted frequently, through polling, through the voting booth, through their daily viewing choices on television or websites about their environmental preferences. What do they want their elected officials and leaders to decide and do relative to resource use, environmental protection, land use, building codes, preservation of habitat and biodiversity? High school may be the last chance to many to obtain the educational grounding they’ll need to make wise choices.

Sadly, most state educational standards struggle to include Earth sciences in any robust way. The tendency is for Earth sciences to be crowded out by physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Understandable! These subjects are basic – they offer great employment opportunities going forward, and many of the same political challenges. But ideally, educators would use Earth sciences curricula as bookends in the secondary schools. The Earth sciences should be introduced at some point in middle school, to motivate students to learn the science and mathematics that are coming through the rest of the high school years. But then it should be re-offered, at a greater level of complexity and thoroughness in the senior year, when students can see how the physics, chemistry, and biology that they’ve been learning come together in order to explain how the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface work.

Easier said than done? Absolutely. But worth it if we hope to sustain our quality of life on the real world.