The Importance and the Challenge of Geoscience Education

Here’s a quick story about geoscience education, and how important it is:

Laura Branch lives in Orcutt, Calif., and teaches high school science courses. Branch said she is one of only a few credentialed Earth science teachers in Santa Barbara County and has the only upper-level high school geology class in the county.

She is the AAPG Foundation’s 2019 K-12 Teacher of the Year.”

When her students see the sheen of an oil slick on the beach, they tend to associate it with oil drilling derricks or production facilities, Branch said.

“I tell them the caprock is fractured. The oil is from natural seeps,” she said.

As a geoscience instructor, Branch is able to teach her students about the petroleum system and the seepage of oil and heavy oil in the coastal area.

“Once they know that, they say, “Oh! So that’s why the La Brea Tar Pits are where they are,” she said.

The Challenge

And here’s a quick anecdote about geoscience education, and how challenging it is:

Lauren Birgenheier is an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She received the AAPG Foundation’s 2018 Inspirational Geoscience Educator award.

“We have to do more about getting students excited about geoscience in the first place. We pay a lot of attention to that in our classes,” Birgenheier noted.

“It’s still recognized that students who graduate with a degree in geoscience probably didn’t come to college to do that,” she said.

Image Caption

Laura Branch (right) assists with the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest.

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Here’s a quick story about geoscience education, and how important it is:

Laura Branch lives in Orcutt, Calif., and teaches high school science courses. Branch said she is one of only a few credentialed Earth science teachers in Santa Barbara County and has the only upper-level high school geology class in the county.

She is the AAPG Foundation’s 2019 K-12 Teacher of the Year.”

When her students see the sheen of an oil slick on the beach, they tend to associate it with oil drilling derricks or production facilities, Branch said.

“I tell them the caprock is fractured. The oil is from natural seeps,” she said.

As a geoscience instructor, Branch is able to teach her students about the petroleum system and the seepage of oil and heavy oil in the coastal area.

“Once they know that, they say, “Oh! So that’s why the La Brea Tar Pits are where they are,” she said.

The Challenge

And here’s a quick anecdote about geoscience education, and how challenging it is:

Lauren Birgenheier is an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She received the AAPG Foundation’s 2018 Inspirational Geoscience Educator award.

“We have to do more about getting students excited about geoscience in the first place. We pay a lot of attention to that in our classes,” Birgenheier noted.

“It’s still recognized that students who graduate with a degree in geoscience probably didn’t come to college to do that,” she said.

So Birgenheier and her colleagues try to interest and inspire students about the various aspects of Earth science. Some of those students eventually make the decision to pursue a geoscience degree, some as late as their senior year.

“We start our curriculum with a field experience, and we have introductory courses that involve what some people call the ‘sexier’ topics in geoscience,” she said.

Birgenheier said that includes courses about dinosaurs, earthquakes, planetary science – “We have a Mars course just about Mars science,” she said -- environmental science, natural disasters, natural resources.

Next Generation Science Standards

At the high school level, the Next Generation Science Standards have started to kick in and are shaping K-12 science instruction in many states, including California. NGSS was developed by a consortium of states and professional associations to create a consistent, benchmarked approach to teaching science.

“The good news is, there’s a very large Earth science component,” Branch said.

Earth and space science is one of the four, core science-instruction areas at the high school level under NGSS. In theory, students should go through a balanced and multidisciplinary regimen.

In practice, “we have three years to teach all four years of the science,” Branch said of her school district. That’s because students continue to take a year each of biology, chemistry and physics courses, and Earth science is blended in.

Students are required to demonstrate knowledge and proficiency in all of the NGSS core areas, however.

“The test is really, really hard for this thing. They’re going to test them on every bit of the science standards they should have gotten,” Branch said.

Even when Earth science shoehorned into a curriculum, geoscience teachers generally seemed pleased that students are being exposed to important fundamental concepts.

Branch said she doesn’t expect her incoming students to have much in the way of previous Earth science training.

“Usually what happens is that I get the low-level kids in my science class and the kids I get will have been pulled out of science to remediate in math and English,” Branch explained.

“Basically, the kids might have had some Earth science in the 6th grade, and they wouldn’t get any more earth science” until high school, she added.

Because of where she lives, Branch said, her students are aware that geology is an essential aspect of the oil and gas industry.

“I live in a very heavy oil town. We have a lot of drilling – we definitely have the petroleum,” she said.

Birgenheier also doesn’t expect incoming students at her university to have a lot of background in Earth science education.

“At the college level, I think geoscience is a discipline that most K-12 students have had little exposure to,” she said.

The most she hopes for is that students entering the school will have a good general grasp of science concepts – something NGSS was designed to address.

“Pie in the sky is that they’ve had a solid science background,” Birgenheier said. “Beyond that, it would be nice if they were excited about geoscience and have had experience in it.”

Because incoming students tend to have a limited knowledge of geoscience, introducing them to the various components of the subject is an essential undertaking, she said.

“Our particular challenge is to expose students to the breadth of geoscience,” Birgenheier said. “Our curriculum is based on exposing them to geology, to geochemistry, to planetary science, to hydrology, to natural resources.”

Students today need a broad science background for entering the work world, Birgenheier noted. While computing is a part of undergraduate work, specialized areas like Big Data and analytics become more important at the graduate-school level, she said.

More Funding, Teachers Needed

For both K-12 and college education in the United States, funding has become a critical issue. Teachers in several states have gone on strike for higher pay and more classroom resources. Universities across the United States are reporting budget problems.

Branch said she identifies and secures grants to provide her students with resources instead of relying solely on state funding.

For example, “I set them up on their very own mineral collections, so I have found funding to get them a full set of mineral samples,” she said.

Universities like Utah depend on research funding as a source of support, especially with the recent decline in enrollment in geoscience, Birgenheier said.

“We’re at a healthy but lower level than four years ago,” she said. “Our financial situation is not dire here and that’s because our department is successful in research.”

“Although I am expected to be a great teacher, the way I can compensate myself is through research, and not through teaching,” she noted.

An effort to develop highly qualified teachers in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is ongoing across the United States

Branch cited the 100K in10 network (100kin10.org), an attempt to add 100,000 more outstanding STEM teachers to America’s classrooms by 2021. Birgenheier said the University of Utah is offering a masters in science teaching program.

“That’s where working teachers in the community come to get a master’s degree in the evenings or on the weekend,” she said.

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