The big news in science education standards in the United States looks like good news for the geosciences.
To date, the recently developed Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have been adopted by 18 states, the District of Columbia and dozens of individual school districts, and have attracted interest from at least 22 other states.
You can find details about the NGSS at nextgenscience.org.
These standards set out a suggested approach to science teaching in three primary areas or disciplinary cores: Life Science, Physical Science and Earth and Space Science.
Having Earth science in a core area of study encourages geoscience teachers, who often feel they are playing second fiddle to other, more emphasized science subjects.
“One of things really prominent in those standards is that Earth science is at the same level as chemistry and biology, and that hasn’t always been true,” said Anne Egger, president of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers.
Egger, who will serve in the elected post through October, is associate professor of geological sciences and science education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., and director of the university’s Office of Undergraduate Research. She earned a doctorate in geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University.
The lack of K-12 Earth science exposure compared to other sciences, especially at the high school level, naturally has had an effect on students going on to university studies in the geosciences.
“Many students show up in college having not had a course in geoscience since sixth grade. We’re starting at a deficit,” Egger said.
Julie Mitchell, a geology teacher at Erie High School in Erie, Colo., is the 2017 AAPG Foundation’s Teacher of the Year. The teaching award, funded and presented annually by the AAPG Foundation, honors and encourages excellence in geoscience education.
Mitchell, who has taught high school Earth science for more than 20 years, was chosen as the top teacher by a panel of national judges.
In her teaching experience in and outside of Colorado, Mitchell said she’s found that geoscience is less frequently recommended by school districts and administrators than other, more-favored areas of study.
“This is true not just in Colorado. It’s true in New York. You would have an honors biology. You would have an honors chemistry,” she said.
Geoscience “should be something everybody is exposed to at this level of high school,” she said. “It’s been my one-woman mission to make that happen.”
General education in the United States has placed an increased emphasis on studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM.
However, much of the attention seems to have been directed toward math, tech and engineering courses, at the expense of general science. The NGSS could produce a broader and more integrated approach to science education.
Achieve, a nonprofit educational standards organization, undertook development of the new science standards with the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a consortium of 26 states.
At the high school level, the NGSS Earth and Space Sciences core concepts include five broad areas of study: space systems, history of the Earth, Earth’s systems, weather and climate, and human sustainability.
Although Colorado has not adopted the NGSS, those and other suggested standards have influenced the way the state devises its K-12 science programs and curriculum, Mitchell said.
“A lot of what are the Colorado standards are similar to the proposed national standards. It’s pretty powerful in terms of getting kids into the STEM, sci-tech piece,” she noted.
Science of Learning
Science education has seen a number of other advances in the past 10 years or so, especially in research into the ways students learn.
“There has been a lot of growth in the last 15 years in geoscience education research, in bringing cognitive scientists together with geoscientists,” Egger said.
She cited the third annual Earth Educators’ Rendezvous, held in New Mexico in July, as an example of a professional meeting for teachers that included a broad scope of investigations and presentations, from preparing for an academic career to several workshops and sessions devoted entirely to geoscience education research at the K-12 and university levels.
“We have some challenging concepts in our science,” including deep time, systems thinking and three- and four-dimensional thinking, Egger noted.
“In the past there’s been this belief that you either have three-dimensional thinking skills or you don’t,” she said.
But research indicates those things can be taught, Egger said, and today’s belief is that all students can benefit from Earth science instruction, even in the most challenging areas.
Adapting to the Times
Mitchell said another change in science education has been the movement away from learning a fixed set of answers, and toward applying information and thought to developing answers.
“I think the piece that’s shifted tremendously is rote memorization,” she said.
“It’s imperative to teach students to know where the information is coming from. I try to hit home with the scientific method, the scientific process,” she added.
At the same time, “I still make my students identify minerals,” Mitchell said. “They still have to know something. They still have to have something in their brains to apply.”
Modern technology has changed students as well as education, as cell phones are now a ubiquitous potential distraction in every classroom.
“To me it’s a challenge. It’s not necessarily their fault,” Mitchell said. “Honestly, I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years and I truly have found that students are more engaged in the real-world environment than they were 20 years ago.”
She’s tried to embrace new technology and social media and has even set up her own Instagram account for the benefit of students, “so they can tag me.”
Egger said, “You can also make use of the fact that everyone in the room has a phone. You can ask questions and see everyone’s response in real time.”
“And then balancing that, we do make completely digital maps now, and you can do a lot in the field with an iPad that you couldn’t do otherwise,” she observed.
All in all, teachers have learned to accept and adapt to the presence of cells phones in class, sometimes with a dose of resignation.
“People aren’t going to turn them off. So, you might as well make use of them,” Egger said.
As geoscience education has broadened its scope and reach, increased interest in sustainability issues, climate change and environmental problems has begun to attract more students to Earth science.
“Where we’re seeing a lot of growth is in climate science, in environmental science. That’s happening a lot in what were traditional geoscience departments,” Egger noted.
“We’re still a relatively small part” of the science education picture, she said. “But I think the expansion of climate science, of environmental science, of system sciences is bringing about an expansion.”
Egger works with university students who are considering a career in geoscience education.
Science teachers are in high demand in most states, but “it’s pretty hard to get a job teaching just Earth science. I advise people to get a dual degree,” she said.
“Within the geosciences we have a really strong teaching community. We have a coherent community that’s very interested in advancing geoscience education,” Egger said. “The big challenge in moving the field right now is funding. A lot of funding is going away. Data sources for research are going away.”
Still, she sees a positive outlook for Earth science at the K-12, university and graduate levels.
“I’m actually at a time of hopefulness” about the future of geoscience education, Egger said.
“I’m incredibly hopeful,” Mitchell agreed. “If we embrace the technology and apply it to the geosciences, the students can take this to any level.