Using the Science Literacy Documents to Guide Instruction

Monday 1:30pm-4:00pm Ogg: Phillips Lounge
Afternoon Mini Workshop


Don Haas, Paleontological Research Institution
The Essential Principles and Big Ideas from the different documents listing Earth Systems Literacy Principles (for ocean, and atmospheric science, geology (a.k.a., Earth science), climate and energy) represent important consensuses about the most important ideas within each discipline, but also represent a challenge to educators. Collectively, they include 38 ideas and 247 concepts, that educational and scientific experts in each of these disciplines believe every American should understand. This workshop will look across the different sets of principles and concepts and share a synthesizing framework with associated strategies and resources that facilitate learning and instruction across a range of educational settings. Participants will work with resources and engage in discussions that use the literacy principles to foster interdisciplinarity and teaching about systems.


What are the most important Earth science ideas for everyone to understand? How do these ideas connect to the structure of your course and your program? In one way or another, most Americans have been taught most of these ideas, but it is fairly clear that most Americans don't understand the Earth sciences in ways that practically inform their lives, their work, and the fulfillment of their duties as citizens.

Why? There are no examples of creating a thick description of what everyone should understand about any topic that has led to wide swaths of the population understanding the target content, in spite of countless attempts to do just that throughout human history. While that's true, it doesn't mean that such exercises are frivolous endeavors. It's a valuable exercise for experts to consider the most important ideas for everyone to understand, even if the following holds generally true:

"90% of your students forget 90% of the content of your course within 90 days of finishing the course."
Don Weinshank (personal communication)

Weinshank's approximation of educational outcomes carries with it at least two important implications:

  • We should work to change the system of education so that the statement is no longer true; and;
  • We should think very carefully about the 10% of the content that students hold onto after our courses are complete.

We'll consider both of these implications.


Participants will:

  • Analyze and discuss the most important big ideas within their own courses and develop strategies to nurture students' durable understandings of these ideas.
  • Compare, contrast, and synthesize different sets of Essential Principles and Big Ideas for a range of disciplines within the Earth sciences.
  • Begin development of course materials that are reflective of a coherent, accessible, and retainable (as appropriate to the course level) conceptual framework.


Note that some selected resources have been added to this page, below the program schedule.

1:30 Welcome and Introductions

1:45 Big Ideas Overview

2:00 Adapting Feynman's question to the Earth sciences:

Feynman's Question:

"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?" (Feynman, 1963)

Tweaked for the Earth sciences:

"If all understanding of Earth science was lost except for a few sentences, what should those few sentences say?"

Sharing ideas and discussion

2:30 Mapping Our Ideas Onto Essential Principles and Big Ideas

3:00 The Rainbow Chart of Earth Science Bigger Ideas

3:15 Applications to course and program design

General discussion
  • Know that it will take time to make this shift.
  • And, other big shifts in teaching.
  • But do it. It's better to do the right thing clumsily than to do the wrong* thing beautifully.

3:55 Workshop evaluation

4:00 Adjourn

Some other resources mentioned:

*"Wrong" isn't really the right word here, but it's not an unreasonable approximation.