Earth Science Education: Left Behind and
Looking for Advocates (01/08)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Paul J. Schramm III is reprinted from the January/February 2008 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

The importance of a basic understanding of Earth processes is championed within the geoscience community, but rarely recognized in our broader society. In the United States and elsewhere the general population remains uninformed about how the Earth works and shapes our everyday lives. This lack of understanding is primarily due to a lack of any introduction to geology in public schools, popular culture, or daily activities that are increasingly out of touch with the natural environment. The geoscience community needs to be more involved in advocating for proper Earth science education in order to ensure the public realizes its importance.

The geoscience community in particular would like to see children learn about Earth and geologic processes in their schools through a rigorous yet interesting geoscience curriculum. Unfortunately, the United States' primary public education system lacks a consistent methodology for teaching and testing Earth science. Many K- 12 students are unaware of the basic geoscience that would help them understand natural hazards, water availability and quality, weather and climate change, or the processes that form coal and oil. Earth science education, and science education in general, varies wildly from state to state. For example, only North Carolina requires high school students to take an Earth science course, and only 11 states allow an Earth science course to be used as an elective towards science requirements for high school graduation. Unlike biology, chemistry, and physics, Earth science is not considered a core science that should be taken by students preparing for college. In addition, some universities will not accept Earth science as a core science course on college applications. Despite the lack of an Earth science requirement, 30 states still include some Earth science material on yearly assessment examinations. In contrast, some states, such as South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota, have no science material whatsoever on assessment exams.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was passed in the early days of the Bush Administration in 2001, took a step towards standardizing American education. The act promotes education reform that uses tests to monitor the progress of students in math and reading. However, NCLB currently does not require the teaching or testing of any science curriculum. Starting with the 2007-2008 school year, science testing will be added for grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10- 11. Simply adding general science to the curriculum may not solve the problem. Earth science is not specifically mentioned in NCLB, and may still be left off the curriculum in most states. Problems with standardized testing have also been an issue with NCLB. Teachers are often forced to teach a narrow curriculum in order to improve performance on assessment tests. In addition, critics argue that NCLB is not fully funded under the Bush Administration.

The 110th Congress is likely to reauthorize NCLB this year and will probably include science testing, which is a positive start to ensuring that children understand how the natural world works. The American Chemical Society and the National Science Teachers Association asked Congress to ensure students receive an adequate science education by including science testing in public schools every few years. During a hearing that the House Science and Technology Committee held in June of 2007, Representative Judy Biggert (RIL) noted that the NCLB Act is "pretty dismal," and added that the U.S. is "not going to attract kids to science and math if [it] does not give them basic education and the will to learn." Alan S. Blinder, a witness at the hearing and former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, agreed with Biggert, stating that the U.S. needs to "move away from 19th century educational practices" such as standardized tests, and focus on getting children to "play with ideas" and "use more creativity." It is clear that changes need to be made to NCLB, especially in the arena of science education.

There are other indications that Congress is serious about changing the state of science education in this country. In May of 2007, the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education held a hearing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Subcommittee Chair Brian Baird (DWA) stressed that it is important to figure out "how to attract more students to careers in science and engineering." He mentioned that agencies such as NASA, NOAA, NIST, EPA, and DOE need more funding for programs that can "make science and math captivating to young people." Congress is also working on competitiveness legislation that would provide more funding for science and math education. The "10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds" Science and Math Scholarship Act (H.R. 362) overwhelmingly passed in the House by a vote of 389 to 22 in April of 2007. The bill was sent to the Senate and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which has yet to act on the measure. The bill would increase scholarships for undergraduate students majoring in STEM fields and establish a teacher education program at the National Science Foundation to encourage improvements in the teaching of math and science. Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN), who sponsored the bill, has long been a promoter of science education.

The idea of collaboration between various federal and private entities has also been promoted as a way to improve science education. Michael Lach, Director of Mathematics and Science at Chicago Public Schools, has noted that Chicago Public Schools collaborate with local museums, universities, and Argonne National Laboratory to improve science and math education. Van Reiner, President of the Maryland Science Center, has also stressed the need for "informal education" as a means of connecting the general public with science and technology. Reiner has indicated that science centers should increase collaboration with federal agencies. At a hearing in April, he professed that "there is nothing like the face of a student, who, interacting with an exhibit, suddenly gets it." He also relayed a story of a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist who came in to the Maryland Science Center as part of a day where various scientists discussed their jobs with middle school aged children. A seventh grader approached the geologist and said, "You really like what you're doing, don't you? And they pay you for that?" This informal education that includes the participation of geoscientists, when combined with increased standards for formal education in public schools, could vastly improve the level of geoscience literacy and interest in the geosciences among America's students.

In addition to congressional action to improve science education in general, federal agencies are also working to improve Earth science education in particular. The USGS has multiple education programs aimed at various age groups. It provides scientific information to help educate the public about natural resources, natural hazards, and geospatial data, and maintains online resources for children and K-12 teachers. The USGS also provides substantial monetary support for Earth Science Week each October, which the education department at AGI organizes. Earth Science Week activities promote public awareness of the importance of Earth science in education and society.

Overall, the state of Earth science education in the United States could be improved, but this will require the help of the federal government, the interest and concern of the general population, and the advocacy and communication of the geoscience community. While it is clear that the 110th Congress is serious about fixing basic problems with NCLB and STEM education, such as ensuring that a rigorous and interesting science curriculum is taught, there are still major hurdles for ensuring a strong Earth science component in public education. The continued and expanded involvement of the geoscience community in teaching and education advocacy is essential to ensure that Earth science is taught. Fewer and fewer Americans are being made aware of the importance of Earth science education. The geoscience community must speak up or be left behind.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted December 3, 2007

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