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What should all citizens know about geoscience?

Basil Tikoff, Geoscience, Univeristy of Wisconsin - Madison

The problem

I'll just put it out there: The way we teach science at the introductory level is doesn't work.

For the last 100 years, we have known that there is a fundamental problem with teaching science, specifically to non-scientists. Despite the fact that US universities have been the world leaders in scientific discoveries, the science community has failed to provide citizens with a foundation of scientific literacy. Belief in pseudoscience, rejection of scientific theories and claims (evolution, human-induced climate change), and lack of understanding of ongoing scientific research (such as the significance of peer review) are widespread among the general population and college graduates. The decline in science understanding in the US population has been documented in a variety of ways, most vividly in the "Rising above the Gathering Storm" report by the National Academy of Sciences. Despite the clear indications that we live in a scientific age – including the internet and global communications – most people do not embrace, or even understand, basic scientific attitudes and worldviews. They are turned off by how it is taught, and they end up carrying a distaste of science for the rest of their lives (Seymour, Elaine and Hewitt, Nancy, Talking About Leaving, Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, 1997).

Even students majoring in science and engineering fields continue to be frustrated in overwhelming numbers by the substance and approach of these introductory courses. They report (among other things) curricula that are "overstuffed with material and delivered at too fast a pace for comprehension, reflection, application or retention." (Seymour, Elaine, "Testimony before the Research Subcommittee on the Committee on Science of the U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing on Undergraduate Science, Math, and Engineering Education: What's Working?" March 14, 2006.) What most students learn from an introductory class – including some of our best students – is that they don't want to study science. If students with a self-professed aptitude for science struggle with typical undergraduate science teaching, it is not surprising that our courses fail dramatically to meet the needs of non-science majors, i.e., those studying business, law, nursing, and education or with majors in the humanities or social sciences.

Even if a specific class was done superbly with the best teaching practices, there is still a structural problem with the entire organization of introductory courses. Introductory courses teach material that is isolated by discipline. Chemists teach chemistry, botanists teach botany, and – of course – geologists teach geology. Our students, however, need to know more broadly about a variety of different subjects and how they relate to each other. The disciplinary structure of the university — departments operating in silos isolated from one another — is a significant impediment to holistic learning, especially for our non-science majors.

Yet it is essential that students know some aspects of the geological sciences: This will be the century of the geological sciences. The reality (and ominous threat) of climate change, decreasing material resources, increasing demands for fresh water, and a host of other issues will be essential to understand for any citizen of a democracy. This is major and urgent challenge for us, now.

A possible step forward

While there are many ways to deal with this problem, this is the approach that I've been working on with colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We are proposing a three-part introductory science sequence (the "Science Illuminated" series). These courses are: (1) Deciphering the Past; (2) Investigating the Present; and (3) Predicting the future. A major conceptual breakthrough in conceptualizing these courses was the integration of physical, biological, and earth science in each class. The educational philosophy of courses is straightforward: Learning about the methods of scientific knowledge production across disciplines is more relevant to future citizens than the particular subject matter of any one discipline. Each class focuses on how science is done, not on memorization of disciplinary knowledge.

These courses will enable students to function as informed citizens in an increasingly scientific world by: 1) Engaging in the practice of science and understanding the construction of scientific knowledge; 2) Understanding and using scientific reasoning; 3) Assessing, applying, and communicating science knowledge; and 4) Clearly distinguishing between science and non-science, and articulating the difference. The emphasis will be on hands-on activities that relate directly to how science is done.

Relevance to this workshop

The big question that this approach requires answering is this: What should all citizens know about geoscience? The answer probably needs to be split into: 1) Content objectives; and 2) Methodology objectives. I have a hard timing breaking away from my own training; I do think it is necessary that we teach some content objectives. I think, for example, people should know that the earth is 4.6 billion years old, life has been around since ~3.5 billion years and life-as-we-know it has been around since the Cambrian, plate tectonic describes the first-order deformation of the earth (and explains most earthquakes), and what is the water cycle (where is fresh water from and why is it so precious). But, really, the methodological approach is far more important.

It turns out that any field that is studying the past uses the same "bag of tricks". There are, as I can determine, only really three ways to determine the natural history: 1) space-for-time substitutions, 2) radioactive "clocks", and 3) historical records. Astronomers do it, Evolutionary Biologists do it, and – of course – geologists do it. Moreover, the data for astronomers, biologists, and geologists is mostly based on observation of a natural system without the ability to manipulate it (how can you manipulate a star?). None of these scientific disciplines heavily employs "the scientific method" that is taught in high school, which exclusively involves experimentation. There is more than one methodological viewpoint that scientists use to address problems.

Bill Bryson to the rescue

I can't say things as well as Bill Bryson (my apologies for those who find him irritating, but I really like his writing). But, he really gives a good justification for why you would want to study methodology of science. So, here is a heavily edited passage from his introduction to the book A short history of nearly everything.
"My own starting point, for what it's worth, was an illustrated science book that I had as a classroom text when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook - battered, unloved, grimly hefty - but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing a quarter of its bulk.

"It's hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of steams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden 4,000 mile high cliff running between central American and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers ending in the center with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun.

"Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before dinner - an action that prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right - and, starting with the first page, I read...

"...And here's the thing. It wasn't exciting at all. It wasn't altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn't answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal inquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the middle of planet? And if it is burning away down there, why isn't the ground under our feet hot to the touch? ... And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?"
So – there is it. We need to engage the young Brysons of the world, if we have any chance of living sustainably on this planet. The answer, as he points on, is on methodology and – in his own example – is geological. We just need to meet these students were they are and I think methodology might be the key.

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