Initial Publication Date: July 13, 2016

Closing the Gap: Geoscience Education and Education Research to Bring Together Science and Society

Juliette Rooney-Varga, University of Massachusetts Lowell

My education and training lie primarily in the areas of biogeochemistry, microbial ecology, and related sciences. Throughout my scientific career, I have engaged in research related to the carbon cycle, atmosphere-biosphere interactions, and climate change. Beginning in the early 2000's, as evidence of anthropogenic global warming mounted, the role of microorganisms in both amplifying and offering potential solutions to climate change became of increasing interest to me. At that point, my scientific research focused on reinforcing feedback loops between climate change and carbon cycling in Arctic peatlands, as well as the use of anaerobic soil microbial communities to generate carbon-neutral electricity through microbial fuel cells.

While this research was both intellectually stimulating and rewarding, as the scientific evidence for the potentially devastating consequences of anthropogenic global change continued to accumulate, I increasingly found myself trying to assess the 'bigger picture' and to understand research beyond my narrow area of scientific expertise. E.g., How significant was the threat of climate change to human society? What was the role of reinforcing or balancing feedbacks to amplify or dampen our impact? How was society responding to the growing body of scientific knowledge about climate and other global change? As a young student, I was drawn to environmental science because of a belief in the potential for science to inform and guide human decision-making. Yet, as a more seasoned scientist interested in global change, it became clear that the gap between science and societal decision-making was vast and appeared to be growing. My interest in geoscience education and geoscience education research grew out of a desire to understand and contribute to closing that gap. STEM education, writ large, includes science communication and decision support that occur beyond the walls of a classroom. Geoscience education research has also made it clear that some of the most effective educational approaches used in the classroom involve engaging, interactive communication and active decision-making by students. Thus, I view my current work as occurring at the interface of communication, education, and decision-support.

Funding for geoscience education innovation and research is essential to creating opportunities to pursue this work. In my own case, funding from NASA's Global Climate Change Education (GCCE; currently ESTEEM) program and NSF's Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) programs have enabled me to pursue my interests. Also essential to this work is an ability and willingness to work across disciplines and, therefore, to expose your own vulnerabilities (i.e., areas in which you are lacking expertise or understanding). Lastly, it has become increasingly clear to me that traditional academic disciplines (and the natural sciences in particular) have strong cultural norms that can both help and hinder our ability to bring science to a broader societal audience and to our own students. Being aware of those norms, willing to question them, and open to the norms of other disciplines may be a first step towards closing gaps between science and society.