Hello planetary pals,
This blog post is going to address recent trends in secondary school Earth Sciences education. In most high schools, much of the focus is placed on the life and physical sciences, i.e. biology, chemistry, and physics. Earth and Space science is often left in the back seat, or in many cases is simply not offered. This is a problem since ESS is such an important topic for students to engage with. First, and most generally, this leads to failure to meet the national education standards outlined by the 2013 Next Generation Science Standards, which puts equal emphasis on the traditional laboratory sciences and geology. Geology is a multidisciplinary field, and this makes it an intuitive way to demonstrate the working of many other sciences. As well, teaching Earth science in secondary schools is important to developing the next generation of geologists; schools should show geology as an active career path in the same light they show engineers and doctors. More generally, an understanding of Earth and Space science is necessary for an informed citizenry to understand their surrounding environment, basic Earth processes, and resource management. Earth science provides fundamental scientific literacy which advises students of important topics such as climate change. A number of reasons can explain this neglect, such as a perceived disregard for the subject by university admissions, a lack of properly qualified teachers, and low enrollment.
New York State is the only state to require a full year course in geology as a graduation requirement; this was my first exposure to this discipline. Topics from astronomy, geography, meteorology, and geology were a part of the curriculum. Although it was taught by a very enthusiastic teacher and was overall a positive experience, it did not pique my interests. It was heavily implied that the “real” sciences still awaited me further on in high school. It wasn’t until well into my undergrad degree that I rediscovered geology and fell in love. This sentiment seems common amongst my colleagues, as shown in figure one, which shows a large proportion of geology students were not well informed of geology as a career coming out of high school. I believe the results would be drastically different if the target of the poll were medical science or engineering students, though I do not have data to back up this claim. This is important because it shows that this discipline is not being viewed in the same light as other STEM careers.
One suspected factor in why many high schools fail to offer adequate Earth Sciences courses is that universities and colleges might not accept these courses for admissions. This belief propagates from the biased view that geology is a lesser science, and that college admissions offices would prefer to see the laboratory sciences on a transcript instead. To investigate this assertion, the American Geosciences Institute viewed the admission requirements of 240 post-secondary institutions spanning all 50 states. What they found refuted the previous assertion: 77.7 percent of institutes accepted Earth Science as a satisfactory laboratory science, while only 5.3 percent rejected it (Fig. 2) (American Geosciences Institute, 2013). Still, many school districts and state education boards use this line of reasoning to justify cutting Earth and Space Science courses. So, if college admissions are not to blame, where else does the problem lie?
Another issue with the perception of geology in secondary school is that the total number of Earth and Space science courses offered tends to be very low. Across the United States, only 7 percent of high schoolers will take an Earth Sciences course (Lewis and Baker, 2010). This limits the access of students to learn about the topic. Only New York State allows a dedicated Earth Sciences course to count towards graduation, while 27 other states require at least one physical science course. As well, there is no Advanced Placement exam explicitly for Earth Science (an Environmental Science examination exists, however over 50 percent of its curriculum revolves around life sciences). Many school districts base their course offerings around the AP exams, and the lack of an explicit ESS exam means that the subject will be disregarded..
The devaluing of geology as a relevant science can also be tied to a lack of proper training of Earth science teachers. In one study, less than half of the Earth science teachers surveyed felt confident in their ability to teach the subject, and only 30 percent viewed the importance of geology as on par with the other laboratory sciences. 36 percent of the surveyed teachers reported as having an above average knowledge in geology (Betzner and Marek, 2014). A 2010 study showed that 1 in five Earth Science teachers held undergraduate degrees in geology (Lewis and Baker, 2010). It is certainly not uncommon for a teacher to be assigned a subject which falls outside of their original degree path, however unfamiliarity with the subject one teaches will often translate to poor comprehension by the students. This disparity in background knowledge, enjoyment, and interest can lead Earth Science teachers to feel uncomfortable teaching the subject. Right from the start there is an issue of bias even amongst geology teachers themselves, as they question the importance and rigor of the very subject they teach. On the other hand, those teachers who do have previous geology experience felt more comfortable while instructing, leading to better comprehension and enjoyment on the part of the students. These results are not unexpected, but still show that a lack of preparedness in Earth Science teachers can lead to an unfavorable bias against the subject. Through better training and qualifying, the Earth Science discipline can become an important part of a school’s curriculum, which will increase public knowledge and awareness.
Although geoscience is viewed as an important subject for secondary school students to learn, the reality of the situation shows that there is a subpar quality of education. Despite this, there are a number of solutions that can bridge this gap. States would do well to adopt similar programs to the NYS Board of Regents. As mentioned, New York leads the country in high school Earth Science education, since it is offered as a graduation requirement; this led to 67% of New York students taking an ESS course, compared to the national average of 7% (Lewis and Baker, 2010). The NYS model is also lauded for its connection to the local environment, allowing students to see firsthand the applications of what they are learning (Fig 3). Certification to teach the Earth Sciences should also be bolstered to avoid issues of underqualified lectures. As well, professional development and geoscience outreach led by those in the profession should be expanded; the more that students are exposed to the Earth Sciences, the more respect it will gain as a discipline and possible career field. This will also work to change the stereotype of geology as a less rigorous subject to biology, chemistry, and physics. As with all other areas of science, the geosciences can bring respect to itself by achieving gender and minority equity. Teaching Earth and Space Science should be prioritized in order to create an informed citizenry on topics such as climate change, resource management, and hazard awareness.