A Call for Improvement

In 2001, NSF funded a national conference to consider the changing nature, growing importance and implementation challenges of K-12 Earth science education. This pivotal forum included scientists, educators, state and federal policy leaders, publishers and industry. The participants unanimously called for a Revolution in Earth and Space Science Education. In particular, this Revolution calls for three key elements:

  1. There should be a greater emphasis on Earth as a system. Students need to learn about Earth as a dynamically interconnected whole, not just as discrete components and processes. For example, instead of learning about oceanography for a few weeks and then weather, students need to devote more attention to understanding the interactions, such as the flow of energy in the oceans and how it feeds into hurricanes and other weather systems.
  2. Students should use real-time data, satellite images, and other visualizations to explore Earth in powerful new ways. Virtually all high schools, even the poorest schools, have some access to computers and the internet (NCES, 2003 ). NOAA resources enable students to see live images of weather, explore animations of ocean currents, and go on virtual expeditions to the depths of the ocean floor. Visualization and data analysis based on these resources could help students understand complex concepts and processes more easily.
  3. Environmental literacy is vital for responsible decision-making on local, regional, national, global issues. As a nation, we need to understand the complex issues of energy resource utilization, water management, precision agriculture, weather forecasting, emergency preparedness, and global climate change. Earth science courses focus attention on these topics, helping students to think responsibly about the various perspectives on these issues, and the underlying concepts of systems, models, data analysis, and scientific problem solving.

National discussions of science education confirm the need for this revolution. Earth science education (we use "Earth science" to embrace both Earth and space science) is one of three essential domains in the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996 ). The Standards underscore the central importance of Earth science as a rich base for developing the "unifying concepts and processes" like systems and models, understanding issues of "science and society" and applying new technologies. The AAAS Benchmarks (Benchmarks On-Line (more info) ) similarly support the centrality of Earth science.

Earth science is also part of all state standards. In a NOAA-funded project, TERC studied science education frameworks in each state to determine the nature and scope of Earth science (Hoffman, 2006). Our review confirms that Earth science is in every state's standards (except Iowa, which does not define state standards). Yet, there is much variation in their nature, depth, scope and grade levels. In New York, Earth science has long been an element of high-school education, including a strong Earth science Regents exam, while other states are not as deep or comprehensive. Nevertheless, each state does establish a base of Earth science content and in most cases, refers to systems thinking, problem solving, data, visualizations and inquiry. So, the states are also asking for excellent Earth science education.