The Importance of Teaching Earth Science
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2018 Issue
By Adam Stone
Earth science has long been the poor cousin of STEM programs. It takes a back seat to technology and even among the straight sciences, rocks and rivers get short shrift alongside the physical sciences—properties of matter, motion, gravity.
“It’s the least glamorous, it requires the least specialized equipment, it’s not as shiny. And the modern applications of it are less straightforward and less clear,” says Michael Walker, a high school teacher at the Village School, a 1,200-student K-12 institution in Houston.
Walker is among those calling for a bigger role for earth science in the STEM curriculum. “Our students have to start making decisions about how we use our resources, and that means they have to know what is there, how is it used, and what are the consequences,” he says.
Let’s look at ways to implement earth science in the K-12 classroom.
Make It Hands-On
From a pedagogic point of view, earth science has a big advantage in that it is inherently tangible. The very opposite of abstract or theoretical subjects, it can be talked about in practical terms: water, air, rock. Oceans, meadows, volcanoes. These are the basics of the shared human experience, and teachers can leverage that edge to get kids excited.
“A lot of the topics that are part of an earth science curriculum are relevant to a person’s daily life,” says Jacqueline Huntoon, provost at Michigan Technological University. She has been helping to develop the new middle school science curriculum Mi-STAR, for Michigan Science Teaching and Assessment Reform.
Her approach relies heavily on hands-on experience.
“In the past students would be asked to memorize fifty different minerals or some set of chemical formulas. That’s not really intriguing or interesting to every kid on the block,” she says. “We like to start with something tangible and concrete, so that all the students can have a shared experience. We’ll look at those ‘helicopter’ seed pods, for example. When you drop them, they spin. Why do they spin? You can make a model of that. You get the kids to figure out as of much of this on their own, with the teacher as a guide, before you start lecturing about the concepts.”
Look at Processes
Earth science can be more than just a summation of facts: it can be a descriptor of processes, a way of understanding how complex actions and interactions unfold in the natural world.
A professor of earth sciences in the School of Science at Indiana University, Gabriel Filippelli has taken this approach in working with high school students and teachers to incorporate earth science into the STEM classroom. He counts the effort a success if kids leave knowing three core processes:
- How climate change causes ocean acidification and what that does to coastal regions;
- How lead poisoning impacts neurological development, as seen by following lead through the environment and learning how the body processes it;
- Elemental synthesis in stars as a marker of the age of the universe.
Taken together, these processes incorporate much of the nature world: physics and chemistry, ecology and
astronomy. By teaching processes, he’s encouraging kids to synthesize all that they are learning, to begin to develop a large-scale vision of the interrelationship of scientific ideas.
Moreover, the process-based approach helps students to ground the earth science ideas in their own experiences.
“You want to teach the theory, but you also want to show them why these things matter in nature. So you show them how, as the ocean warms, the amount of oxygen in the ocean goes down and what the consequences are of that. Those are the things that students remember in the long term,” says Filippelli.
Even a modestly funded school can find ways to introduce earth science processes. “One easy thing is species presence or the timing of species arrival, or the timing of first buds. Right there in the school yard they can observe and measure. When I sit here, how many amphibians do I see? What bird species do I see? The teacher then can keep this going over time, and that becomes the core of citizen science. They can reflect on how it changes from year to year,” he explains.
Observe the processes near at hand, then connect these to larger processes. From there it’s a short leap to core concepts of earth science, which in turn can be connected to other topics across the sciences.
Just as Filippelli talks about “processes,” Walker likes to emphasize “systems” as a way to make earth science come alive.
How do rocks form, change, shift over time? How does water enter the ecosystem, where does it go? “By looking at entire systems, it gives you a useful tool for taking any large, complex idea and breaking it down into manageable components,” he says.
“When you first learn about something like plate tectonics, that is a big concept, thinking that the entire surface of the Earth is always moving and being transformed. When students try to think about these big ideas it can be a little bit overwhelming. Turning it into a system makes it a little more accessible, a little less intimidating,” he notes.
He’ll let the kids throw in their own ideas: consider the “system” of soccer, or of a banana, for example. Almost anything can be slotted in to the basic format, with students asking where it comes from, how it may grow and change, what kinds of outcomes it may generate.
“You can apply the systems approach at multiple scales. One system can be nested within another system. So within the rock cycle you can break down sedimentary rock into a smaller system. Or you could scale up, to see how the rock cycle fits into the formation of the solar system. It’s all the same basic kind of thinking,” he says.
Dig in the Dirt
“One of the best ways to put earth sciences into any STEM program is to provide students with opportunities to garden,” says Donna Grim, principal of Green Valley Elementary School in Danville, CA.
“Calculating the rate of growth and the many variables found in the growing cycle is an excellent way to incorporate earth science vocabulary, and meaningful hands-on activity,” she advises. “Tools and approaches used can vary but students allowed to experiment can use cameras for documentation, create graphs to compare growth, make iMovies to explain lessons learned, and more. The use of technology should be a natural extension of the earth science experience.”
Huntoon extends this idea of connectedness, encouraging teachers to help kids interface with their own local ecosystems as a way to engage in earth sciences.
“We have really focused on a place-based approach. We want to make everything we teach relevant to students’ lives, so we focus on their local areas as much as possible. This helps to connect them, which helps to make them more informed about how science can help us make good decisions,” she says.
In this way, earth science becomes a doorway into a wider understanding of science as a foundational pursuit. “Kids need to use science as a tool to look at problems in their local communities. That’s really powerful. Now they know what science is all about and just how powerful it can be as a force for making good decisions,” she notes.
Not surprisingly, the internet offers a range of valuable tools to help educators introduce earth science into the STEM classroom. A few select examples:
- ClimateSim offers a web-based climate change simulator. Advanced high school students can tinker with emissions levels and watch greenhouse gas levels rise. For more on the topic, Explaining Climate Change offers a range of teaching materials.
- For the zoological side of earth science, National Geographic Kids offers video clips of animals and a detailed exploration of prehistoric life for use with K–12 students.
- Virtual Earthquake introduces students to the concepts of seismology, showing how scientists graph and measure seismic activity.
- At Grades of Green, educators can tap into 40+ hands-on activities and projects highlighting environmental stewardship.
- NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab offers a number of online resources, including teaching tools to help explain the rising seas and a variety of classroom activities built around space topics.
Advocates say these and other tools can play a vital role in getting kids to explore their surroundings. The tools of earth science can take students beyond the textbook, relating basic STEM learning to tangible outcomes and practical experience.
“I don’t have anything against pure theoretical chemists, but most of us have to deal with the nuances in the real world,” Filippelli says. “When you spill a chemical and it goes into the ground water, organisms take it in at a certain rate. That requires an understanding of how biology and chemicals and earth materials work together—and that is exactly what we do.”
Adam Stone is a seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience. He covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.