Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Panel 1

Panel 1

Why Use an Earth System Science Approach to Education?

Jim Hays (Chair),
Paul Berkman,
Rick Hazlett,
Mary Jo Richardson,
Martha L. Sykes,
Richard S. Williams


It is critical that the world's citizens thoroughly understand the relationship between humanity and the Earth system, including the impacts of natural processes on human health and safety, the dependence of all people on Earth resources, and the consequences of human activities on global processes. The Earth system approach, which views the Earth as a single integrated system, is a powerful tool for providing this understanding. It is currently used by scientists researching the relationships between people and the Earth, as well as those studying different parts of the Earth system, because it has remarkable parsimony of representation, provides greater precision in stating hypotheses, and allows us to deal more responsibly and rationally with regional and global environmental issues.


Earth system science provides an important tool for understanding the relationship between humans and the Earth. From the Earth system perspective, humans are a part of the Earth system, dependent on it, impacting it, and responding to its variability. The Earth system has been in dynamic equilibrium for billions of years, cycling matter and energy through a set of complex reservoirs (atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, solid Earth, and the near space environment). During the last few thousand years, humans have assumed an ever larger role in Earth processes. Consequent detrimental effects on our environment are forcing us to change our role, but how? Only through a new synthesis derived from the integration of social and natural science knowledge, and close scrutiny of our cultural values can this question be addressed. It is the most important question facing humanity as we move into the next century. Earth system science provides the scientific context to address this question.

Earth system science conveys the complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties of the processes that control and shape the planet. The world is viewed as a multi variate, nonlinear, and sometimes stochastic system. Studies in this field range from interactions among small components of the system to an holistic view of the Earth system and its place in space. At some levels, the system's behavior is predictable, while at others it is not and may never be. The Earth system approach allows students to understand not only the interconnected nature of the system but also how these connections add uncertainties to predictions.

Complex system behavior is not limited to the Earth system—it is also manifested by engineering and social systems. Earth science is an excellent tool for conveying ideas about systems in general because the Earth system is familiar. As a part of the system, we interact daily with system processes. Some inspire strong emotions such as the danger of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions. Others evoke pleasure, such as the mineral and agricultural bounty of the system or the exquisite beauty of system components, e.g., snowflakes, butterflies, and thunderheads. Weather phenomena can be used to introduce atmospheric processes and their variabilities—short-term (hourly), day-to-day, and longer-term variations. For example, El Niño represents a response to oceanic forcing, which produces unusual weather phenomena, affecting tropical and possibly extra-tropical agriculture. In this way temperature, rain, and wind can be used to introduce complex system behavior.

Global environmental and resource issues transcend national boundaries. Earth system science provides a scientific framework for international cooperation in resolving resource and environmental problems. The globalization of markets, especially mineral and agricultural markets, link Earth resources to resource users. As these markets have aided the development and distribution of resources, so also must efficient ways be found to deal with shortages and to protect the system from damaging exploitation. Only through an understanding of resource renewal and consumption rates, and a reassessment of cultural values can necessary balances be developed. Earth system science provides a scientific context for understanding this global issue in which we all have a stake.

The famous geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The organizing power of the evolutionary paradigm, so clearly recognized by Dobzhansky, is paralleled by the organizing power of an Earth system perspective. Evolution explains current biological processes as well as how they came to be the way they are. Similarly, most aspects of the Earth are explainable in the context of the Earth system operating over time.

Climate variability is a good example of the clarifying power of the Earth system approach. Climate is influenced by the solar flux, our distance from the Sun, and properties and processes in various parts of the Earth system. The climate can be changed on different timescales by different processes in the Earth system. For example, human-induced changes in atmospheric composition may cause climate change on the 10-100 year timescale; while on the 10,000-100,000 year timescale, changes caused by orbital variations may dominate. On the 100,000-100,000,000 year timescale, changes in the distribution of continents and oceans may be important. On the billion year timescale, interactions between the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and solid Earth have produced major modifications of these subsystems, while feedback among them has resulted in remarkable climatic and environmental stability. The Earth system approach provides the context for understanding the relationships between timescale and system components that result in climate change. A systems view of the Earth, like an evolutionary view of biology, provides explanatory power, enhancing our understanding of the planet and improving our capacity to survive.


Earth system science provides a powerful, coherent framework for instruction in all the Earth and space sciences. We recommend:

To Faculty

  1. Infuse the Earth system approach into existing courses in the Earth and space sciences. (Joint recommendation with Panel 2)
  2. Develop new Earth system science courses at all levels of the curriculum. (Joint recommendation with Panels 2 and 3)
  3. Consider setting up new integrated degree programs in Earth system science. (Joint recommendation with Panel 2)
Earth system science represents a major change of perspective in the way we think about the Earth and presents a formidable pedagogical challenge. Innovative changes are needed in instruction, in methods of presentation, and in the expectations for learning about the Earth system and its place in space by students and the community at large. We recommend:

To the National Science Foundation and Other Funding Sources

The National Science Foundation, in cooperation with other funding sources, is urged to fund high-quality projects that explore:
  1. How data, visualizations, models, and other tools can best be used to convey key Earth system science concepts.
  2. How instructional and assessment practices should evolve to respond to the multidisciplinary nature of Earth system science.
  3. What information and media will be most useful to the instructors of the next century in their efforts to accurately convey the concepts of Earth system science.

To Community Leaders

  1. Foster meaningful dialogues among government, science, industry, university, and local decision-makers for the purpose of designing and implementing strategies that allow for sustainable development of communities throughout the world; individual Earth and space system scientists should actively participate in this community outreach.
  2. Develop partnerships among university, government, and industry that sponsor and fund community education forums that include the Earth system perspective in addressing local, regional, and global problems.
Access to information about the Earth system is needed for students, instructors, and the general public to understand and interpret the world around us. Earth system science is relevant and meaningful to all humanity, and thus it is imperative that information about the Earth system be broadly disseminated in creative and innovative ways. We recommend:

To Educational and Scientific Organizations

  1. Submit proposals to public broadcasting organizations (e.g., Annenberg Foundation and Corporation for Public Broadcasting), with potential funding from federal scientific agencies (e.g., National Science Foundation and U.S. Geological Survey), to create a video/television series about the Earth system and global environmental change. This series should:
    1. explore the most significant linkages and cycles in the Earth system;
    2. stress the dependency of civilization upon these Earth system elements and their sensitivity to human activity;
    3. be suitable both for introductory college teaching as well as prime time television audiences; and
    4. have a companion book or topic-specific booklets as resource guides for students and teachers. A fully expanded telecourse may be envisioned as well.
  2. Sponsor a study and implement a pilot program to explore ways to make Earth system science information on the Internet more available to students, teachers, and researchers. Dissemination of materials, curricula, student assignments, career materials (including promotion of education as a career track in the discipline/profession), and notices of research and outreach opportunities can be done effectively and efficiently through electronic media. The Internet is an important resource for Earth and space scientists, yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate high-quality information. There is an immediate need for a central facility in which librarians and information specialists would develop systems to search, locate, catalog, index, abstract, and review web sites containing Earth system science information. The product of this work will be a searchable web site available to the teaching and research communities. This site can also serve as a showcase for exemplary instructional material. (Joint recommendation with Panels 3, 4, and 5)