Americans are missing a key stratum of modern knowledge

Updated at 4:50 p.m. on May 4, 2022

There are three things I remember from my high school Earth Science class: the swirling pink cover of the study book designed to help us pass the New York State end-of-year test, the football player who seemed more intent on torturing me than teaching me, and a nagging feeling that what I was taking wasn’t “really” science.

The idea that earth science barely counts as science is so ingrained in the educational landscape that it can feel like a truism rather than a choice. My high school, for example, offered advanced-level courses in biology, chemistry, and two variants of physics, but at the time there were none for earth sciences. And, notes Mika McKinnon, field researcher and geophysicist, this derision of the subject is found throughout popular culture – on The Big Bang Theory, The simpsonsand even college campuses, where introductory geology courses are often given the dismissive nickname “Rocks for Jocks.”

I first became interested in how we are educated in earth science because, as a climate journalist, earth science is a fundamental part of my work. I need to understand the interaction between ice poles and sea level rise, and how temperature changes in the ocean can lead to changes in the atmosphere (see: hurricanes). And that experience of needing not only to understand science but also to explain it to other people made me feel like the education system has failed so many of us. Personal experiences and anecdotes are no substitute for data, but when I delved into this issue, what I found was, frankly, grim.

At its most basic, Earth science, also known as Earth system science, is the study of the planet Earth. As a discipline, it is often divided into five broad categories. The biosphere is the part of the Earth occupied by living organisms. The atmosphere is the envelope of gases surrounding the planet, which is rapidly warming due to climate change. There is the lithosphere, or the highest part of the earth’s crust; the hydrosphere, which takes care of all the water on the Earth’s surface; and the cryosphere, the frozen water portion of the Earth system. These broad categories can be broken down even further. Oceanography is part of the earth sciences; the same goes for meteorology, paleontology, and the loosely named field of human geography, which examines the relationship between humans and the Earth’s surface. Earth sciences encompass all of these systems and their interactions. And these days, a basic understanding of these things is pretty crucial.

“Some of the biggest issues facing society are climate change, energy, land use, food, etc. And all of them are deeply rooted in Earth science,” Don A told me. Haas, director of teacher programming at the Paleontological Research Institute Climate change, for example, is rapidly transforming the relationship between humans and the Earth’s surface. [an Earth-science] education to live with our changing dangerous environment. I really believe it,” Jazmin Scarlett, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, UK, told me. This knowledge can help people better understand the changes they see in the environment and how to deal with these changes.

But the fact that I studied earth science makes me kind of an anomaly. In the US, only 7% of high school students take earth science courses, according to a 2010 study. (Scarlett said earth science education in the UK isn’t much better.) And I couldn’t take AP Earth Science in high school because the course didn’t exist at the time. Today, the College Board offers two AP courses related to earth sciences: environmental science and human geography. High school in particular is important because many of us stop taking science classes after that. Yet earth science usually disappears from the school curriculum after college.

Nationally, 32 states require students to take a life science course (usually biology) for high school graduation. Twenty-six states require a physical science (usually chemistry or physics). But only two states require a one-year course in earth or environmental science. In New York, where I studied earth science in first year, students report that they must also pass a science exam as a condition of graduation. In addition to the big three — biology, chemistry, and physics — Earth science fulfills the requirement, leading more children in the state to take the subject than the national average. It’s no coincidence, then, that in 2008 New York City was home to more than 20 percent of certified K-12 Earth science teachers.

All of this raises questions about whether science education as currently structured gives people the information they need to be educated members of society. It’s not lost on me that I learned the Krebs cycle, or how cells get energy, at least three times. But as far as I can remember, I was never taught that the climate system – and by extension, the weather system – is based on temperature gradations. But once you understand that weather and climate depend so much on the difference between hot and cold, you’ll probably have an easier time understanding why the reduction in temperature differences caused by climate change can lead to delusional. Not understanding how the Earth works creates a broken framework with which to make sense of a rapidly changing, dramatically changing world that we need to act on rather quickly.

“Yet we reject Earth science almost everywhere in the country,” Haas said.

In some cases, the education system even seems to dissuade students from taking earth science courses. Years ago, Dane Schaffer, associate professor of science education at Minot State University in North Dakota, was teaching high school in the Midwest when she learned that one of her students, “a young bright enough man”, was not eligible for college. engineering program he had in mind. According to college calculations, he had not completed the required four years of science. Chemistry, physics, and biology all counted, but “they didn’t count earth sciences,” she told me.

They managed to make the class count by showing the college the depth of the curriculum and changing the name of the class from “earth science” to “advanced earth science,” but “from this revelation, I found out that when I went to Purdue University, they also didn’t count my earth sciences,” Schaffer said. “We’re basically taking a discipline that’s very important to us and downgrading it. We pretend it’s low-level science when it’s not.

And without an earth science education, people have a harder time grasping the scale of the damage they face. During presentations, “I always have to give some sort of basic context, like ‘This is how the Earth works’, ‘This is why it’s getting warmer’, to make sure we’re on the same page” , Sean Dague, a climate advocate who organizes with a local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby in New York, told me, “You can’t take this for granted from your audience, even for people who are not opposed to it. Earth science was also one of the gaps in his education, which he had to fill on his own in the years after learning that climate change was a problem. “, he said. “Not all the kids who went to college learned earth science.”

Discipline has not always been so neglected. “In the 1950s, earth science was considered for gifted students,” Beth Lewis, associate professor of science education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told me. “It was this brilliant new science.” The emergence of the theory of plate tectonics, the discovery of the mid-Atlantic ridges of the ocean and the spreading of the ocean floors, and the feeling that after so long there was a unifying theory of geology , it all added up to a massive shift in thinking – the kind of exciting scientific discovery that students of everything levels should learn. “But unfortunately it just plateaued.”

There are several theories as to why the field has declined in importance, but Lewis thinks part of the problem is that arguably the biggest science award in the world doesn’t recognize it. There is no Nobel Prize for Earth Sciences.

And that impacts not only the public’s ability to understand climate change, but also who studies earth science in college and, by extension, what kind of solutions are researched. . In the United States, only about 10% of earth science doctorates are awarded to people of color, compared to about 25% for physics.

And according to Scarlett, this lack of diversity can have practical consequences for helping us adapt to climate change, in part because “marginalized communities come from different environments. And so they experience things a little bit differently,” she said. “That’s why we need those diverse voices and perspectives, because if we get the full picture, we might be more likely to find the solution that we think is the most optimal,” she added.

There has been a push to rectify the gap between Earth sciences. The Next Generation K-12 Science Standards, developed by states to improve science education, “treat earth science on an equal footing with life science and physical science and engineering,” Haas noted. But states can choose how they implement the standards. Nor is it the first push to better integrate earth science into education: “The National Science Education Standards, which came out in 1996, also expected earth science to Earth are on an equal footing with biology, chemistry and physics.” Haas said. “And that hasn’t really changed that much across the country.”

There’s another benefit to teaching Earth science that I didn’t fully grasp until Earth reporting became my full-time job: the Earth is beautiful. For a while I used to upload photos that NASA had taken during flights over the polar regions. The purpose of the flights, as part of a mission called Operation IceBridge, was to better understand how the poles affect the Earth’s climate system. But that’s not why I was looking at the pictures. The images are breathtakingly beautiful. Endless expanses of ice bordering cerulean seas, mountains shrouded in wispy clouds – they are simply pleasing to look at, especially when you realize how important they are to human life on the planet. An understanding of Earth science can help instill in people, long after they have forgotten the names of geologic formations or cloud shapes, an understanding of Earth’s rarity and rarity. And why we should fight to keep our place there.


This article originally misstated Dane Schaffer’s title.

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