Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Panel 2

Panel 2

What Should Be Taught in an Earth System Science Curriculum?

Donald R. Johnson (Chair),
Lawrence W. Braile,
Thomas W. Gardner,
Dorothy J. Merritts,
Lauret E. Savoy,
Richard A. Wahle


In undergraduate education, students should develop an understanding of Earth and space sciences and the Earth as a system. Achieving such understanding requires that educators recognize and address the interdisciplinary nature of Earth system science.


Curricula in Earth science must embody the holistic concept that Earth is a system. Within that concept, the following elements are important:
  • The subsystems: atmosphere, biosphere, cyrosphere, hydrosphere, solid Earth, and near space environment;
  • Interaction and evolution of these subsystems on different temporal and spatial scales involving the flow of matter and energy;
  • Nature of human interactions with the environment;
  • Relevance of the Earth system to the individual and to society;
  • Natural hazards and natural resources; and
  • Nature of scientific knowledge and its historical development.
Periodic reorganization of the undergraduate Earth and space science curricula is essential in response to advances in scientific knowledge and understanding. Just as new models and unifying concepts associated with plate tectonics spurred changes in undergraduate science curricula in the 1960s and 1970s, so too have new models of coupled dynamic systems and bio-geochemical cycles impacted research and teaching in the 1990s. In both cases—plate tectonics and Earth system science—the new ideas provide global perspectives on what once seemed to be disparate concepts and phenomena.

Faculty and administrators might wonder how to incorporate Earth system science into the curricula. In teaching Earth system science, an emphasis on links among systems—not specific parts—provides a framework for curricular material. Although the Earth system framework itself provides coherence, there are infinite possibilities to include systems, processes, or links in any particular course or program. For example, a course in Earth system science for nonscientists might focus on water, following its flow from one system to another. This course could provide in-depth discussion of topics such as seasonal to decadal changes in snow-line altitudes and stream discharge and the impact of diversion of water for irrigation projects. In another example, an entry-level course might introduce major Earth systems and then focus more in depth on topics linking volcanic emissions and their effect on atmospheric composition, global and regional temperatures, and human lives.

Educational institutions are diverse in their missions, resources, and student needs, and their approaches to incorporating Earth system science in their educational programs will vary. Each institution and faculty group will choose a different approach to incorporating an Earth system perspective in their curriculum. At least three approaches are envisioned, all of which already exist or are being implemented.

  1. Development of a single interdisciplinary science course or modification of an existing one, for all students or as an entry point to a traditional major;
  2. Infusion or incorporation of an Earth system perspective and science content throughout a traditional science major; or
  3. Development of a new Earth system science program.
The interdisciplinary nature of Earth system science at all levels provides an unusual opportunity for developers of curriculum materials to introduce significant and relevant applications of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and technology. Interdisciplinary applications enhance students' communication and interpersonal skills and their quantitative, analytical, and problem-solving abilities.

Earth system science education also provides an excellent opportunity to consider the broader interrelationships among the natural and social sciences, humanities, and arts. Our understanding of the Earth system is formed by inquiry that extends beyond specialized scientific disciplines to a larger human experience. It provides a framework to explore personal and societal values in relation to the Earth. Earth system science examines the interconnections between the Earth systems and human existence through time and space, from societal levels to the individual and from global to local scales. Such knowledge is necessary for humans to make informed political, economic, and social decisions as citizens.

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of Earth system science, the content of Earth system science curriculum should accommodate the needs of students pursuing different goals. This includes not only students seeking scientific careers but also those seeking careers in education, management, business, public policy, and others for which Earth system science training is needed.

Few, if any, departments can meet these needs alone. Educational institutions should forge collaborations with research communities, government agencies, corporations, and foundations to provide resources to meet students needs. Success of incorporating Earth system science into curricular offerings will also require continued financial support from agencies to initiate courses, to develop educational resources, and for faculty exchange. It is especially important that faculty collaborate to cover a range of Earth system science disciplines, and to provide future educators training in both Earth system science content and teaching methods.


Educators are encouraged to explore the connections and interfaces among the components of the Earth system. The Earth system perspective provides a unique opportunity to restructure what we teach and how we teach it by emphasizing themes of common interest to all disciplines in the Earth and space sciences. We recommend:

To Faculty

  1. Initiate individual and collaborative innovation to develop and disseminate Earth system science curricula.
  2. Communicate across the many subdisciplines in the Earth and space sciences to reach consensus for an interdisciplinary Earth system science perspective. (Joint recommendation with Panel 1)
  3. Demonstrate to administrators the benefits and importance of an interdisciplinary Earth system science approach that will enhance the overall effectiveness of academic programs.

To Administrators

  1. Recognize the importance of Earth system science to the changing needs of the student body.
  2. Provide the means and resources to facilitate cross-departmental collaboration in developing and offering Earth system science programs or courses.
  3. Recognize the dynamic nature of Earth system science and the need for a strong, sustained institutional commitment to quality in the development, implementation, assessment, and revision of undergraduate courses for both science and nonscience students. (Joint recommendation with Panel 5)

To the National Science Foundation and Other Funding Sources

  1. Assign high-priority to faculty development. Few academic faculty have backgrounds and training in Earth system science. Training programs and ancillary support are essential for the development of new Earth system science courses and modification of existing curricula. Fund professional development through pedagogical workshops, released time or summer salary for curricular development, and collaboration between predominantly undergraduate institutions, two-year, and research institutions. (Joint recommendation with Panels 3, 4, 5, and 6)
  2. Establish flexible categories of support that allow for a wide variety of institutional approaches to course development in Earth system science. Developing new courses in Earth system science requires a level of interdisciplinary collaboration that is unprecedented in the sciences. Many faculty wishing to develop new integrative, team-taught courses encounter substantial institutional barriers at traditional departmental boundaries. (Joint recommendation with Panel 5)
  3. Assist in the development and dissemination of new material by sponsoring Earth system science educational workshops, and by providing resources to faculty to develop innovative techniques and new course materials, including textbooks, lab manuals, computer simulations, Internet web sites, interactive hyper media modules, and other electronically delivered information. Such resources should help faculty trained in a single Earth or space science discipline who are in need of expertise and resources to appropriately teach Earth system science. (Joint recommendation with Panels 1 and 3)