Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education > Panel 3

Panel 3

How Should We Teach Earth System Science?

Bill Prothero (Chair),
Mark Ghiorso,
Mohan Ramamurthy,
Randy Richardson,
Jack Stanesco,
Rob Sternberg,
Dorothy Stout,
Barbara Tewksbury


We can improve the teaching of Earth science at all levels by incorporating new teaching methods using collaborative work, active learning strategies, computers, and large Earth and space science data sets.


The process of acquiring knowledge and understanding is complex and subject to much debate among science educators and science education researchers. However, our understanding of how students learn has improved considerably in the past two decades. It is now established that students are most effective in acquiring science knowledge when they use a range of cognitive processes, including posing questions, using knowledge and scientific principles for solving problems, and conveying understanding of complex issues to others. Effective learning goes beyond the memorization of facts.

In view of these findings, SME&T education should be designed to effectively educate students by: (1) Building genuine inquiry and the excitement of discovery into all courses, and (2) Giving students experience in the process of science. Typical science courses to date do not do this and are instead characterized by the prevalence of passive rather than active learning, emphasis on factual knowledge without experience in the process of science, cookbook rather than inquiry-based labs, and a lack of relevance of course material.

Science courses typically not only fail to produce a citizenry literate in science issues and processes, but also fail to meet the work force needs of the community. In particular, most courses do not successfully give students the communication and teamwork skills that are desired by employers.

The Earth and space science community needs to address both the shortcomings of how courses in the Earth sciences are taught and what skills are taught to students. We first need to broaden the goals of instruction in Earth system science to go beyond coverage of a certain body of content. Earth system science instruction should not only incorporate genuine inquiry and hands on experience but also teach communication skills, teamwork, critical thinking, and lifelong learning skills.

Innovations that promote this broader perspective on student learning should be integrated into all courses in Earth system science. Such innovations include decreased emphasis on fact- focused, lecture-style courses, increased emphasis on actively engaging students during class time, integration of research and research-like experiences, emphasis on improving oral and written communication skills, and working in teams to solve problems.

Courses in Earth system science are also uniquely suited to drawing connections with societal issues and making science relevant to all students. Field studies are vital in connecting Earth system science content to students life experiences and should involve students in questioning, data gathering, and interpretation. Computerized virtual field trips can be used to help students understand a field area in a larger context and to focus' students attention on particularly important observations.

Earth system science courses should take advantage of the revolution in multimedia and information technology. Computers allow students access to large spatial and time series databases. This requires user-friendly display and analysis tools for students. Modeling and simulation software provide unique opportunities for students to study systems thinking and to compare model output with real data. Furthermore, appropriate use of the burgeoning volume of multimedia materials will be critical in Earth system science courses. Communications technology allows for collaboration and sharing of observations and ideas over large distances, and networking and computing infrastructure must be created and available to all students.

The time required for development and testing of innovative strategies is a barrier to change, and faculty should take advantage of each other's successes. Successful models for innovation can be adapted from various areas of the Earth and space sciences and from other areas of science. Effective dissemination of ideas requires active effort on the part of successful innovators to share via departmental seminars, journals, presentations at professional meetings, workshops, and electronic discussions.

Evaluation of innovative techniques is a difficult but important task. Faculty must be encouraged to clearly articulate course goals in terms of expected mastery of content, methods, and outcomes and to develop appropriate, innovative assessment methods to measure student learning. Assessment is critical to demonstrate whether student learning has been improved and course goals have been achieved.


The dynamic Earth system provides an ideal context for creating dynamic learning environments in accordance with the new expectations for SME&T education. New approaches to Earth and space science education must consider the ways in which students learn best, what skills students must develop in addition to what they need to know, and what instructional practices will be most effective to promote student learning. We recommend:

To Faculty

Curriculum and Instruction

  1. Reaffirm the importance of classroom, laboratory, and field activities that encourage active inquiry, and illuminate societal issues and the connections between scientific and nonscientific disciplines. Decrease the emphasis on fact-focused, lecture-style courses. Emphasize in-depth understanding of a few fundamental elements in the disciplines and the development of critical-thinking skills. (Joint recommendation with Panels 1 and 5)
  2. Incorporate advances in learning theory to promote genuine inquiry, critical thinking, proficiency in written and oral communication, and life-long learning skills into courses at all levels.
  3. Recognize that the use of innovative teaching techniques can be accomplished incrementally in existing classes.


  1. Use computers to complement, supplement, and extend, rather than replicate, activities that are available to students in field and laboratory exercises.
  2. Provide students with computer exercises involving both modeling and the analysis of large spatial and/or temporal data sets.
  3. Use information technology to enhance communication among students and between students and faculty.


  1. Move to a more rigorous evaluation and assessment of classroom materials, pedagogy, and student learning. (Joint recommendation with Panel 5)
  2. Evaluate student performance in ways that recognize and accommodate academic, cultural, and learning-style diversity. (Joint recommendation with Panel 6)
  3. Maintain an ongoing dialogue with students to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching practices.
  4. Critically evaluate the goals, strategies, and success of teaching practices by taking advantage, where appropriate, of expertise from others within and external to Earth and space science departments who are experienced in innovative teaching techniques.

To Administrators

  1. Encourage the faculty to integrate and incorporate writing, quantitative reasoning, communication, and teamwork skills in Earth system science and across the curriculum.
  2. Provide access to information technology for all faculty members, staff, and students. Encourage the use of computers, laboratory instrumentation, and information technology within Earth system science curricula. (Joint recommendation with Panels 4 and 5)
  3. Support team teaching as a way to train new faculty in innovative teaching techniques.
  4. Encourage innovative scheduling to optimize the use of physical space and resources, and promote the renovation and new construction of classroom and laboratory space that support active student learning.

To the National Science Foundation and Other Funding Sources

  1. Extend and improve the information technology infrastructure, especially at two-year and four-year institutions. (Joint recommendation with Panel 6)
  2. Support partnerships and collaborations among educators, scientists, and developers of innovative educational materials. (Joint recommendation with Panels 2 and 7)

To Government and Industry

  1. Fund information technology infrastructure and classroom facilities that promote active learning at colleges and universities. Develop platform-independent computer software for Earth system science education. Increase student and faculty access to information technologies through grants and partnerships with government agencies, businesses, and community organizations. (Joint recommendation with Panel 6)
  2. Help academia to identify skills and knowledge needed by graduates to be effective in the workplace and as responsible citizens.

To Educational and Scientific Organizations

  1. Encourage web-based publication of articles, courseware, and other materials pertaining to science teaching and Earth system science education.
  2. Publish articles on science education in traditionally research-oriented journals, including research outcomes in teaching and book reviews on science education and pedagogy. (Joint recommendation with Panel 4)
  3. Offer short courses, workshops, and education sessions at conferences on innovative and effective ways of teaching, including general education, educational research, and specific discipline areas. Relax the one-paper rule at professional meetings to encourage presentations on science education. Invite research faculty who do not normally attend educational sessions and faculty from two-year institutions to participate. (Joint recommendation with Panel 5)
  4. Implement the National Science Education Standards for Earth science education. (Joint recommendation with Panel 7)

To Publishers of Print and Electronic Media

  1. Continue to foster both an appreciation for high-quality, innovative teaching and the dissemination of effective and innovative ideas.
  2. Continue to publish articles on effective and innovative teaching strategies in the Earth sciences and on Earth system science pedagogy.
  3. Seek out and publish, or disseminate electronically, materials on integrating the Earth system perspectives into Earth science courses at all levels.
  4. Encourage publication of articles that include a section describing evaluation of outcomes and the success of the strategy described in the article. Promote wider readership for the Journal of Geoscience Education and Journal of College Science Teaching by assuring that its articles reflect the increasing rigor of educational scholarship. (Joint recommendation with Panel 5)