Misfit no more!
The geosciences – which have typically never shared an equal seat in the classroom compared to biology, chemistry and physics – are now being fully included in many K-12 curricula across the nation.
Finally recognized as a relevant body of sciences that affects everyday life, the geosciences can now open students’ eyes to a multitude of important principles and careers rarely considered earlier than college.
Yet, difficult challenges lie ahead for the geosciences:
- A lack of awareness of geoscience-related subjects at the college level.
- The need for geoscience professionals with field experience.
- Rampant federal cuts in geoscience funding.
- An increasing demand for geoscientists brought on by the rapid retirement rate of geoscience professors and professionals.
Infusing the geosciences into K-12 classrooms may be the first step to ensuring the nation maintains the expertise and momentum to support the innovation that, in turn, supports the country, said Chris Keane, director of communications and technology and of the Workforce Program at the American Geosciences Institute (AGI).
Bigger Kid On Campus
After several years of careful consideration, a consortium of educators from 26 states, along with stakeholders in science, science education, higher education and in the industry developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) – an internationally benchmarked set of standards based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education released by the National Research Council in 2011.
The NGSS calls for direct attention to the geosciences (or “earth and space science,” as they are called in the NGSS) for all students grades K-12, and altering the way the science is taught.
According to an API 2014 Status of Recent Geoscience Graduates report, 46 percent of those who graduated with an undergraduate geoscience degree took an earth science class in high school.
“For a long time, geoscience education was sort of considered subordinate or less important. The NGSS really changes the role of the geosciences in school curricula,” said Ed Robeck, director of education and outreach and of the Center for Geoscience and Society at AGI. “Geoscience is now considered on par with physical science and life science areas.”
Part of the reason for the change is a realization that the geosciences play an important role in the world, Robeck explained.
Events such as earthquakes, volcanic activity, energy needs, tropical storms and climate change appear regularly in the news.
“These are events that force people to pay attention to critical issues in geoscience, and they realize that geoscience does matter,” he said.
Furthermore, as the U.S. economy shifts to one that is more energy-based, the geosciences are playing an increasingly crucial role in the nation’s need to produce skilled and innovative geoscientists who can continue the shale movement, Keane noted.
Another reason for including the geosciences into curricula is to introduce students to a world of specialized sciences and career opportunities at an early age. Rather than stumble upon geology, geophysics or geomechanics in their freshman year – likely because a geoscience course is required or is chosen as an elective – students can enter a university with knowledge of the many options on the academic shelf.
Making it Happen
The NGSS is not a federally required program, so it is up to individual states to adopt it. To date, roughly 15 states have adopted the standards in their entirety, while others are using modified versions.
Unlike the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum that encourages students to excel in those subjects and pursue them as careers, the NGSS is broader in nature and introduces students to subjects to which many have never been exposed, including:
- Earth and space science.
- Earth materials and systems.
- Plate tectonics and large-scale system interactions.
- Roles of water in earth surface processes.
- Natural resources.
- Natural hazards.
The NGSS provides a carefully designed sequence for introducing geoscience topics in the kindergarten through grade 12. At the high school level, students will see the geosciences made more distinctive in required classes as well as in breakout classes, such as earth and space courses, which will emphasize geology.
When studying geology, however, students may not find themselves memorizing rock and mineral names.
“They will explore how we can understand geology in a way that helps us to do things like mitigate hazards and decide where to construct buildings, for example,” Robeck said. “They will learn about the material that comes from the earth and the minerals we use to make things. There will be discussions about how geology impacts humans and how humans impact geology.”
Furthermore, teachers will begin to teach science differently. They will expect students to approach science from a problem-solving perspective. Students will learn to ask questions, investigate, analyze data and design solutions for problems, according to the NGSS.
“Our society is based on innovation,” Robeck said, “so we need to encourage students to think innovatively in the classroom.”
However, as schools begin to integrate the NGSS into their curricula, the largest missing piece at this time is, ironically, geoscience teachers.
Majoring in Geoscience
In order to get colleges to produce geoscience teachers, the seed for geoscience education as a career also must be planted in elementary, middle and high school.
According to the AGI report, less than 10 percent of geoscience graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees enter the field of education. The NGSS might be the key to encouraging more geoscience majors to pursue careers in the classroom.
“It needs to be impressed upon students that this is a new and burgeoning field, and teachers are needed in the K-12 classrooms,” said Carolyn Wilson, a data analyst in the Workforce Program at AGI.
First things first, however: prior to entering college, students must understand that the geosciences exist, and that is one aim of the NGSS.
In addition to majoring in subjects they were exposed to in high school, many students choose fields that promise large paychecks, such as engineering and pre-medicine, Keane said.
The oil and gas boom that’s been taking place in the United States has opened many students’ eyes to geology, despite its historical second-rate status in many classrooms.
Many geology graduates are receiving job offers in the energy industry with good salaries without a master’s or doctorate degree, Keane said. For example, starting salaries are in the $50,000-$60,000 range, which is slightly lower than salaries offered prior to the 2014 economic downturn.
As geology graduates apply for jobs, more are finding that potential employers prefer candidates with field experience, Wilson said.
“Nowadays, employers expect you to have field experience going into the application process for jobs,” she said.
Yet, 43 percent of geology graduates with bachelor’s degrees attend a field camp, which is defined as an academic program lasting four or more weeks and primarily focuses on field tools and methods, according to the AGI report.
Fieldwork allows students to know and understand rocks firsthand. While some might view field experience as less necessary with today’s highly technical computer modeling, there is no replacement for what is learned in the field, Keane said.
If the NGSS sparks an interest in geology or other geosciences in students at early ages, it is likely they may be more inclined to attend field camps and courses in college, Wilson said.
Biting the Hand That Feeds You
Because the NGSS underscores the importance of the geosciences in the nation’s schools, many question why funding for research in the geosciences continues to be cut.
“Research funding for the geosciences is substantially dried up,” Keane said.
The budget of the National Science Foundation for the geosciences has been slashed in the past and will face additional cuts – 8 percent, to be exact – if the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, which dictates how much federal money should be allocated toward federal research, is approved.
Current funds are largely used to fund ongoing research, so additional cuts in the budget impact the ability to make new awards, Keane explained.
It is not uncommon these days for post-doctorate candidates and faculty members to apply for 10 or more grants before receiving funding for geoscience research, as only 10 to 13 percent of proposals are funded, Keane said.
Cutting research funds in the geoscience fields coupled with efforts to boost the geosciences in the primary and secondary education system is nothing less than contradictory.
Keane said he is hopeful that the emergence of the NGSS and pressure from geoscience societies can be successful in pushing Congress to restore financial support for the geosciences that have kept innovation in the nation alive.
As funding is whittled away from federal budgets, a large number of experienced geoscientists are coincidentally leaving the workforce to retire. This leaves a mere handful of mentors for younger generations joining the industry.
“The retirement of the Baby Boomers that work in the geoscience fields in private industry is most concerning,” Wilson said, “because we are losing a wealth of knowledge.”
The same holds true for geoscience faculty members whose funding has dropped, leaving fewer opportunities for new researchers, Keane added.
If the NGSS can plant solid roots in the nation’s school systems, open up new career opportunities to students, and elevate the importance of the geosciences in Congress, the cycle that has placed the geosciences at the bottom of the stack of textbooks just might be broken.