Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Introduction


Creating a scientifically literate population is one of the major challenges of the coming century. Our nation's health, security, and economic well-being largely depend upon such a citizenry. However, producing such a population will require major changes in the focus and methodology of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SME&T) education. Undergraduate education is especially important in this enterprise because it provides science education for the general public, professional training for K-12 teachers, professional training for the industrial sector, and preparation of students for advanced SME&T degrees. In 1996, the National Science Foundation, in concert with the National Research Council (NRC), conducted a comprehensive review of undergraduate SME&T education. Its findings, released as a report from the Advisory Committee to the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, set forth new expectations for science educators:

"The goal - indeed, the imperative - deriving from our review is that: all students have access to supportive, excellent undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and all students learn these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry. America's undergraduates - all of them - must attain a higher level of competence in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. America's institutions of higher education must expect all students to learn more SME&T, must no longer see study in these fields solely as narrow preparation for one specialized career, but must accept them as important to every student. America's SME&T faculty must actively engage those students preparing to become K-12 teachers; technicians; professional scientists, mathematicians, or engineers; business or public leaders; and other types of 'knowledge workers' and knowledgeable citizens."

Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF 96-139, 1996)
The Earth and space sciences must play a central role in responding to these new expectations. The Earth system serves as a natural laboratory that is intrinsically interesting and readily accessible to all students; it effectively demonstrates applications of fundamental principles of the physical and life sciences, mathematics, and technology; and it is integrally connected to the personal and communal lives of students and society in general. Most importantly, the Earth and space sciences directly address the interrelationships between humanity and the Earth system. A basic understanding of these relationships is a critical aspect of scientific literacy and fundamental to good government at all levels. In teaching about the Earth system, scientists from all subdisciplines in the Earth and space sciences have something to offer, and as a community, we all have much to gain through the development of an integrated and coherent educational mission.

The Call For Reform

A national mandate for the reform of undergraduate science education has been laid out over the last decade in a series of publications that broadly represent the scientific community. The NSF has persistently called for increased emphasis on undergraduate SME&T education. The National Science Board's (NSB) 1986 publication, Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education (NSB 86-100) recommended that NSF assume leadership "to advance and maintain the quality of undergraduate education in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences." Subsequent reports, National Science Foundation Disciplinary Workshops on Undergraduate Education (NSF, 1989), A Foundation for the 21st Century (NSF, 1992), NSF in a Changing World: the National Science Foundation Strategic Plan(NSF, 1995), and Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF, 1996) emphasize the need to incorporate inquiry-based learning and research experience for students, and address the programmatic and instructional needs of science majors.

The NRC has called for similar reform in its report From Analysis to Action: Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NRC, 1996). This report documents a broad-based, national dialogue on undergraduate science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES; NRC, 1996) recommend standards of knowledge, skills, pedagogy, professional development, and outcomes which will impact undergraduate education, particularly in its responsibility to train future K-12 teachers. Its recommendations include a focus on scientific inquiry and a major curricular component of Earth and space sciences.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recognized early the importance of scientific literacy for all Americans in its publication Project 2061: Science for All Americans (AAAS, 1989). Similarly, Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) calls for an inquiry-based methodology for improving K-12 science education.

The Earth Science Revolution — Earth as a System

At the same time that there is a general need to reform undergraduate SME&T education, there is a revolution taking place in the Earth sciences. The fields that make up the Earth and space sciences are currently undergoing a major advancement that promotes understanding the Earth as a number of interrelated systems. An exciting realm of scientific investigation is emerging through the study of the connections and interactions between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, solid Earth, and near space. Furthermore, scientists are recognizing the extent and magnitude of human impact on the entire Earth system. This understanding is placed in context by our growing knowledge of processes on other planets.

This exciting broadening and integration of the Earth and space sciences is a revolution in thinking like that produced by plate tectonics 30 years ago. Each of the traditional disciplines that make up the Earth and space sciences provides an important component of knowledge and an important perspective on the Earth and its place in space. Our new understanding requires that we move away from traditional, compartmentalized thinking. As our science moves toward an integrated, interdisciplinary Earth system approach, so too should our educational efforts. New curricula are needed across the Earth and space sciences that focus on the interfaces and pathways between the different parts of the Earth system, in addition to the processes operating within the individual subsystems.

Like the plate tectonic revolution, understanding the Earth as a system excites great interest and offers tremendous possibility for teaching Earth science from a new perspective. Redirection of our educational mission using an Earth system approach also provides opportunities to implement "best practices" in instruction by engaging students in hands-on, inquiry-based experiences that capture the excitement of the new discoveries in the Earth and space sciences. The Earth system approach also demonstrates the relevance and importance of the Earth system to our personal and communal lives. This report strongly urges that Earth and space scientists unite behind this new paradigm for Earth science education as a way of providing an understanding of the Earth system to the broadest possible audience.

A Start on the Future

Much action has already taken place in improving undergraduate Earth science education nationwide. The NSF has shown its support with significant investments in Earth science: its Division of Undergraduate Education alone provided $11.2 million in support of course and curriculum development, faculty enhancement, and instrumentation and laboratory improvement between 1990 and 1995. Many similar projects have been supported by the Division of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education, and the Division of Research, Evaluation, and Communication.

The Directorate for Geosciences has supported facilities improvements that have materially contributed to undergraduate education. The Directorate for Geosciences also participates in NSF-wide programs such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates, Research in Undergraduate Institutions, Research Opportunity Awards, and the Faculty Early Career Development that have invested in human resource development. A long-term strategic plan for educational activities in NSF's Directorate for Geoscience has been formulated in a report by the Geoscience Education Working Group of the Directorate's Advisory Committee for Geosciences.

A good start has been made by many of the professional and scientific societies such as the American Geological Institute (AGI), American Geophysical Union (AGU), American Meteorological Society (AMS), and Geological Society of America (GSA) through their education and outreach programs. In 1994, the AGU convened a Chapman Research Conference on undergraduate geoscience education and published a report entitled Scrutiny of Undergraduate Geoscience Educatio: Is the Viability of the Geosciences in Jeopardy?(AGU, 1994). This conference identified numerous areas of geoscience education that warranted further consideration by the Earth and space sciences community: curricular issues (expansion, contraction, or deletion of materials), use of technology, relations with K-12 education, and diversity issues. The Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI) issued a workshop report entitled Undergraduate Programs in Ocean Sciences (JOI, 1992). A closely related workshop was conducted in 1996 by the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE) on K-12 ocean sciences education.

The National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT) offers workshops on effective and innovative teaching in the geosciences at both GSA and AGU meetings. The NAGT Distinguished Speaker Program has brought the topic of reform to more than 50 campuses in the last 2 years. Project Kaleidoscope and the Keck Geology Consortium convened a workshop in 1996 on "Innovative Approaches to Teaching Earth and Planetary Sciences" and will convene a second workshop on "Reforming Earth and Planetary Science Curricula: What Works?" in the fall of 1997. An NSF funded workshop in 1996 entitled "Teaching Mineralogy" challenged over 70 participants to rethink the purpose, audience, and teaching methods for one of the mainstays of most geology curricula. The Keck Geology Consortium has an ongoing series of workshop for its faculty on teaching various topics in the Earth sciences.

Shaping the Future

While significant progress has been made, it will take the combined efforts of all the disciplines that make up the Earth and space sciences to meet the formidable challenges that confront us. Exploration of the Earth system and its place in space now unites our disciplines in scientific inquiry utilizing the special tools and perspectives of each discipline. It is in this context that we urge the entire Earth and space sciences community to engage in a common educational mission focused on the Earth system.

As a science integrated with other scientific disciplines, Earth science has unique opportunity to reach out and link with those disciplines to convey the interrelated nature of science to students and to the public. The Earth system approach highlights the unique contributions of Earth and space scientists through our perspective on dynamic global processes, concepts of deep time, and the impacts of natural processes on humanity. The Earth system approach emphasizes the real way that scientists work with colleagues in related disciplines to understand and solve the pressing questions of our science. We encourage the Earth and space sciences community to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the emerging discoveries about the Earth system, and to move quickly to take a central, leadership role in SME&T education for all students.

This report puts forward a coherent plan for creating an integrated vision of undergraduate Earth science education for all students. It represents the combined thinking of 48 faculty members, department chairs, deans, and government representatives drawn from research institutions and universities, comprehensive universities, liberal arts institutions, public and private colleges, and community colleges, spanning the breadth of disciplines in the Earth and space sciences. The plan is organized around seven basic 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 lifelong learning, K-12 education, professional training, and outreach to the public in the Earth and space sciences? An agenda for action is given in the form of recommendations to all of the stakeholders in undergraduate Earth science education.

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 system 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 many of 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 in a coordinated effort to conduct research on effective education in Earth system science. What are the most effective methods and materials that can be used in Earth system 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 Earth system science? 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 science education.