Creating a Compelling Lab Course

We are faced with a remarkable disconnect. Earth science education is vital for our nation's future, but it suffers from its history as an underwhelming high-school science course. Thus, establishing Earth science as a rigorous "lab science" (in policy, perception, and reality) has emerged as the dominant challenge in revolutionizing high-school Earth science education.

In fact, Earth science should be the premiere lab science! The NRC study, America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (NRC, 2005 ), defines laboratory experiences as

"...opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or data drawn from it), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science."

In a well-implemented Earth science course, students investigate the world, collect and analyze data from study sites, monitor weather with real-time satellite images, experiment with physical models of plate tectonics, investigate chemical reactions in rocks and minerals, determine changes in the environment and climate over geologic time, analyze circulation patterns in the oceans, forecast hurricane strength based on ocean temperatures, search for supernova using data from the Hubble telescope, compare Earth and Mars based on data from robotic spacecraft, monitor crucial indicators of climate change and do quantitative analysis of various models for abating greenhouse gases. These experiences align with the recommendations of America's Lab Report, as well as with the lab science requirements of many states, including our partners in this project (California, Texas, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina).

While this vision of Earth science as a rich, challenging, important high-school lab science is compelling, we have no reliable data on how much this differs from actual practice. Certainly many teachers implement this caliber and scope of Earth science. Yet the perception of Earth science as "less than" other sciences is likely based in part on a disappointing reality and a self-fulfilling cycle of lower expectations. Labs in Earth science courses often focus on cookbook-like activities with known outcomes rather than open-ended investigations that challenge students to think, explore and apply their learning. We need to break the mold and establish a new model for Earth science as a premiere lab science. We need a new vision of the learning experience, transforming it into a true 21st century "lab science." The goal of this project is to demonstrate this vision in an exciting set of inquiry based, rigorous laboratory experiences that can be used widely in high school Earth Science.