Devotees Seek To Enhance Image Of Earth Science in the Curriculum

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

SHORT PUMP, VA.--With their lunar landing craft in ruins and help more than 200 kilometers away, Jo Ann Mulvany's 9th graders are facing some tough choices as they prepare a list of tools they will need to trek to safety.

Working collaboratively in small groups, most are quick to place "matches'' and "a life raft'' at the bottom of a list of 15 items that might come in handy while crossing an airless, waterless world.

But "parachute silk''?

"There's no wind, so you can't use it,'' notes one student to her companions, who quickly concede the point.

The simulation illustrates the approach that Ms. Mulvany, who teaches here at Mills E. Godwin High School in this affluent Richmond suburb, takes to earth-science instruction.

The lesson is designed, she says, not only to allow students to demonstrate what they have learned about the Earth's nearest celestial neighbor, but also to encourage them to develop habits of mind that could easily be applied to more mundane crises, such as an automobile breakdown.

Many observers would contend that the quality of earth-science instruction here in Henrico County is far above the national average because Virginia, unlike most states, allows earth science to be counted as a laboratory-science course in meeting high school graduation requirements.

They might also add that widespread confusion about just what earth science is and what its value in the science curriculum is has turned the relatively young discipline into a "second-class science'' in most school districts nationwide.

But last month, driven in part by the urge to be players in the national science-education reform movement, a coalition of earth scientists, classroom teachers, and university researchers met in Wisconsin to develop a national strategy for rehabilitating the image of earth science as a cross-disciplinary subject that is well suited to advancing the national goal of improving science literacy.

An 'Everyday' Science

A woman who cheerfully claims to "live, breathe, and eat earth science,'' Ms. Mulvany seems genuinely perplexed when questioned about the value of earth science as a high school course.

She quickly ticks off astronomy, oceanography, meteorology, environmental science, mineralogy, paleontology, and the other fields that come under the earth-science umbrella. All of them, she notes, impinge on students' everyday lives.

Indeed, most practitioners agree that good earth-science teaching should make clear to students that the interrelation of these subdisciplines provides a comprehensive picture of how natural and artificial forces combine to shape the environment in which they live.

Because of her commitment to the discipline, Ms. Mulvany has been named to the national steering committee of the fledgling Coalition for Earth Science Education.

Yet, she admits that early in her 15-year career, when she first taught earth science, she, too, found it dull and unconnected to the lives of her students.

But as teaching materials have improved, and as the discipline itself has matured, she has come to believe that no other single science is more applicable to students' daily lives.

Further, she contends, as do many others in the field, that the multidisciplinary, "real-world'' character of earth science is tailor-made to meet the calls of national reformers for hands-on instruction that is relevant to the experience of a broad range of students.

"What we are going to be doing in the future is teaching transferable skills,'' she says. "I once literally had to walk a student--a very bright student--outside and show him: 'Yes, you can see the moon during the day.'''

But she concedes that, even in Virginia, earth science is seldom accorded the prestige of the "triumvirate'' of biology, chemistry, and physics by the education establishment, parents, and those in university admissions offices.

Advanced Placement courses in earth science are not available in the state, as they are for other sciences, she notes.

Not 'Rocks for Jocks'

The "image question'' was expected to loom large when the members of the fledgling coalition met recently at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wis.

Also high on the agenda was discussion of efforts to coordinate the educational outreach of the diverse groups--from astronomers to paleontologists to teachers--who have a stake in improving earth-science teaching.

"I hope that this coalition will become the equivalent of the American Chemical Society'' and other professional societies dedicated to promoting science education, Edward E. Geary, the coordinator for educational programs with the Geological Society of America, said in an interview.

The Boulder, Colo.-based society has been a driving force behind efforts to take a new look at the role of earth science in the curriculum.

Such a unified front also would be more likely to have an impact on the process of setting standards for science education that currently is being undertaken by an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Geary noted.

The February meeting followed close on the heels of a G.S.A.-sponsored brainstorming session on the future of earth-science education, held at Wingspread in January, that drew together many of the same participants.

But the January meeting also brought home the message that earth-science advocates "have a long road to haul'' to meet their goals, as one participant noted.

Like other areas of precollegiate science, earth science faces a shortage of first-rate classroom materials and a means to disseminate them, inadequate teacher training, and an overreliance on textbooks and fact-based teaching. But perhaps most seriously, as participants at the January meeting agreed, the discipline seems to be having an identity crisis.

In part, they said, that is because earth science, which came into its own as a discipline only in the late 1960's, does not have the pedigree of the three traditional courses that make up the high school science curriculum.

And because it lacks the focus of many high school sciences, earth science often becomes a "catchall'' course and a "soft science'' that is frequently derided as "rocks for jocks,'' they said.

Participants argued that changing the way educators perceive earth science is an important prerequisite to raising its status in the curriculum.

"Earth science is not taken seriously by some administrators today [as shown by] who they assign to teach those classes and who they assign to take those classes,'' noted William G. Holliday, a professor in the science-education department at the University of Maryland.

A 'Schizophrenia'?

Furthermore, it is not at all clear how best to champion the inclusion of earth science in the precollegiate curriculum.

Some argued that efforts should be made to elevate the subject to equal status with biology, chemistry, and physics in the high school curriculum, while others felt the most appropriate niche is at the elementary level, where emphasis would be placed on the interdisciplinary nature of the subject.

"This is a schizophrenia that will continue to exist,'' Mr. Geary of the G.S.A. said. "Is it a science for all students? Or is it a science for college-bound students?''

They noted, however, that even among working scientists, a common, inclusive definition of the term "earth science'' is elusive, as specialists tend to identify themselves primarily as oceanographers, for example, and only secondarily as "earth scientists.''

"We haven't got it clear in our own minds,'' said E-an Zen, the past president of the Geological Society at the Wingspread meeting. "This is not confined to K-12.''

Not everyone agreed, however.

"I'd say there's less confusion about what earth science really is per se as opposed to what it is perceived to be by the general public,'' Mr. Geary said.

Joining the Curriculum

The confusion among professional practitioners has trickled down to the precollegiate level, where many earth-science teachers, although outwardly anxious to highlight the subject's multidisciplinary aspects, more frequently end up singing the praises of igneous rocks as teaching materials.

Lately, however, the leaders in reforming science education nationwide have begun to take notice of earth science.

The Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science Project of the National Science Teachers Association emphasizes earth and space sciences as one of four important components of its reconfigured science curriculum.

Similarly, "Science for All Americans,'' the blueprint for reform of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, includes elements of earth science.

One obstacle in the effort to improve the discipline's status, noted Linda Knight, the president-elect of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is that, because the subject is taught primarily at the middle school level, often by untrained instructors who handle a diverse courseload, "it doesn't have a parent constituency like'' biology and chemistry.

Others agree that there exists no groundswell of support outside of the earth-science professionals themselves for new programs and that, too frequently, "these programs depend on dynamic individuals'' for their existence.

Some cited Ms. Knight as an example of that truism. The teacher at Paul Revere Middle School in Houston used the $7,500 she won as a Presidential Award-winning teacher to found Earth Focus: An Environmental Journal, a national magazine written by students.

For her part, Ms. Knight said that the earth-science coalition should capitalize on students' interest in the environment to advance the cause of earth-science teaching.

"People are putting houses on flood plains and not understanding why there's a risk,'' she said. "Water quality and air quality are what we teach in this subject.''

Reforming Training

Some Wingspread participants also were heartened by the new national effort to improve the quality of the discipline.

John R. Carpenter, the director of the Center for Science Education at the University of South Carolina, was at first skeptical.

"It's all been said before,'' he said gruffly at the Wingspread meeting.

But he later said he was impressed that Mr. Geary obtained a commitment from every participant to take an active role in reform.

Among those tasks, he noted, was a commitment to send a letter to two deans of teacher-training institutions who attended the meeting expressing support for programs that encourage college faculty to take an active role in improving classroom practice in the subject.

Mr. Carpenter's program is one of only a handful that offer a master's degree in earth science. The lack of such teacher-training programs hinders the effort to improve the discipline's image, observers say.

Joseph D. Exline, the lead science specialist with the Virginia Department of Education, noted that in that state, earth-science teachers, like all science teachers, are required to earn 24 hours of academic credit in their discipline, with a distribution across several subjects.

"We have high standard for earth-science teachers in this state, where some states don't,'' he said.

No Lab Credit

One major barrier to upgrading the status of earth science may prove very difficult to surmount.

Currently, neither the College Board nor any other accreditation agency recognizes earth science as a laboratory course for college admissions.

That practice rankles practitioners, who argue it is an unfair and outmoded prejudice.

"The question is: 'What do you mean by laboratory science in the first place?' '' Mr. Geary said. "Do you mean classifying rocks and minerals? And is that different than a biology course, where you learn how to classify leaves?''

Ms. Mulvany said that, while the hands-on activities she assigns may be qualitatively different from a chemistry lab or a frog dissection, they nonetheless cultivate scientific approaches to problem-solving.

She points to the Apple Macintosh computer that occupies one corner of her room as her contact with a wider world of scientific resources that are available through computer networks.

Along one wall of her classroom are images taken from weather radar. Obtained by students from an on-line computer service, they show the course of a recent cold front that swept through the Richmond area.

She also noted that unprecedented amounts of scientific information are available on-line through the Internet, a vast network of networks that links government research laboratories and working scientists around the globe.

Such resources allow teachers in her field to "actually put real-time resources in the hands of the kids, just the same way that working scientists have access to them.''

In the future, she hopes her students will use the computer to create multimedia presentations about the solar system.

"My kids don't sit in front of a box of rocks,'' she said.

Vol. 12, Issue 23, Page 1, 20

Published in Print: March 3, 1993, as Devotees Seek To Enhance Image Of Earth Science in the Curriculum
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories