Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Executive Summary

Executive Summary

The Earth and space sciences are in the midst of a major revolution. New insights into the dynamics of the Earth system and the relationships between its many subsystems make this an exciting time of new discovery. The pathways and interfaces between the disparate parts of the Earth system are being explored thoroughly the collaborative effects of scientists from all of the Earth and space sciences. We are coming to understand that all of humanity impacts, and is impacted by, the Earth system. This emerging awareness of the interrelationships between natural and social systems makes it imperative that all people have a fundamental understanding of the Earth system.

At the same time, science education is undergoing major reform. We now recognize that the health, security, and economic well-being of our society largely depends upon a scientifically literate citizenry. Creating such a citizenry is one of the major challenges of the coming century. The Earth and space sciences have a central role to play in this educational mission, particularly with regard to natural hazards, resource use, and environmental awareness. We simply must do a better job of providing high quality science education to all students in K-12 and beyond. To do so, we must implement instruction based on new research in human learning. Effective instruction should engage students in genuine inquiry, capture the excitement of discovery, and provide students with the opportunity to experience the process of doing science. An integrated Earth system science approach, incorporating all disciplines in the Earth and space sciences, provides the knowledge base, methodologies, and global context that can make science accessible, relevant and meaningful for all students.

This report puts forward a plan for a coherent educational mission encompassing all of the Earth and space science disciplines. Undergraduate education was selected as a focus because of its central role in the continuum of educational experiences. Forty-eight educators drawn from throughout the Earth and space sciences community contributed to the development of this report. The participants met in November 1996, at a workshop sponsored by the American Geophysical Union, in cooperation with the Keck Geology Consortium. Participants formed panels which addressed seven fundamental questions: Why use an Earth system science approach to education? What should be taught in an Earth system science curriculum? How should we teach Earth system science? How should we integrate research and education? How can we change the academic culture to promote reform? How can we increase the diversity, recruitment and retention of students in the Earth and space sciences? How can we promote life-long learning in K-12 education, professional training, and outreach to the public in the Earth and space sciences? The recommendations of these panels to faculty, campus administrators, NSF and other funding agencies, professional and educational societies, and to government and industry form the body of this report

Despite the diversity of the participants and the different topics addressed by each panel, four major themes emerged:

  1. Earth system science provides a unifying context to demonstrate the interrelationships between all components of the Earth system and humanity. We recommend that the Earth system science approach be adopted by all institutions in one or more of the following ways:
    • Infuse the Earth system approach into existing courses in the Earth and space sciences;
    • Develop new Earth system science courses at all levels of the curriculum;
    • Set up new integrated degree programs in Earth system science;
    • Reach consensus across sub-disciplines on an interdisciplinary Earth system science perspective.
  2. New Earth system science courses and curricula must implement best teaching practices to educate all constituencies, including groups currently under represented in science. We recommend that:
    • All educators become familiar with research on learning and implement effective teaching strategies at all levels; educators reaffirm the importance of classroom, laboratory, and field activities that encourage active inquiry and discovery, critical-thinking, proficiency in written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, and life-long learning skills;
    • New instructional methods and materials be broadly disseminated through print and electronic media; training programs and ancillary support are essential for faculty to develop and implement new instructional materials and techniques;
    • Educational technology be used to complement, supplement, and extend, rather than replicate, activities that are available to students in field and laboratory exercises;
    • Research and teaching not be viewed as separate endeavors; students at all levels be encouraged to get involved in research; faculty incorporate professorial research into courses, through lecturing and developing laboratories using research results, instrumentation and techniques;
    • The goals, strategies, and outcomes of Earth science education be critically evaluated, with rigorous assessment of classroom materials, pedagogy, and student learning.
  3. The Earth and space science community must change its academic culture to actively support reform of science education, and promote a recognition and reward structure that values excellence in the education of all students. We recommend that:
    • Faculty, department chairs, and administrators work together to create an environment of trust, support, and encouragement for faculty to promote excellence in the teaching of undergraduate students;
    • Reward systems be established that explicitly recognize and value effective teaching;
    • The academic culture place equal value on education and research.
  4. The conclusions presented respond to and affirm the recommendations of three important publications on science education published in the last year: Shaping the Future, New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF 96-139), From Analysis to Action: Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (National Research Council, 1996), and the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). The entire Earth and space science community is encouraged to implement these recommendations as they apply to Earth system science education:
    • All students should have access to supportive, excellent programs in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and all students should acquire literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry. ([link/shapingfuture/bibliography.html#shaping1996 'Shaping the Future'], NSF 1996, [link/shapingfuture/bibliography.html#analysis 'From Analysis to Action'], NRC, 1996)
    • We must recognize the unique opportunities provided to the Earth and space science community through the [link/shapingfuture/bibliography.html#nses1996 'National Science Education Standards'] (NRC, 1996), and move quickly to implement the recommendations at all levels of instruction.
There is strong consensus among all who contributed to this report, that a responsible citizenry capable of meeting the problems of the 21st century must have a thorough understanding of the Earth system. The Earth and space science community can make a significant contribution towards this educational goal through reform of both the content and methods employed in teaching science at the undergraduate level. In view of the national importance of this effort we make two general recommendations:
  1. To the National Science Foundation

    An Earth Science curriculum initiative should be supported by NSF. A multi-year, multi-institutional effort is recommended, similar to the mathematics and chemistry initiatives sponsored by the Division of Undergraduate Education, to implement the recommendations articulated in this report.

  2. To Funding Agencies, Institutions of Higher Education, and All Earth and Space Scientists

    A recommendation is made to engage a coordinated effort to conduct research on effective education in the Earth and space sciences. What are the most effective methods and materials that can be used in Earth and space science education, and how can we best measure student learning? What are the needs of diverse student populations, and how can we engage students' diverse learning styles? What strategies can we borrow from other disciplines, and what techniques will best serve instruction specific to the Earth and space sciences? It is critical to our educational mission that these questions be addressed in a systematic manner to facilitate and validate the changes that must be made in Earth and space science education.