Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reflecting on Earth science perceptions

It's Earth Science Week again - this time with an energetic twist. Volcanology and energy are certainly linked in the geothermal realm, but I'm going to skip that discussion and discuss an article I found recently. It's called "United States earth sciences, status, and future: How bad, how good?"

ResearchBlogging.orgThe article takes a step back from the process of doing earth science and looks at its situation as a whole, and what we can (and should) be doing to help improve the public's perception of our field. (That's what Earth Science Week is all about - good outreach! - so I think it's definitely a relevant topic for a post this week.)

I'll start you off with a quote:
"In terms of public perception, however, earth scientists appear to come off rather badly, in spite of the fact that the nature of the Earth and the societal importance of mineral and energy resources, geologic hazards, and biological evolution are familiar concepts to the public. Everyone 'knows' what a physicist, chemist, or mathematician does (really?), possibly because the subjects are universally offered in secondary schools. Astronomy, however, seems to be more recognizable to the lay public than is geology, in spite of the more abstruse nature of the former, and neither science is generally taught in high school. Perhaps another reason for the lack of familiarity with geology stems from its remarkable diversity. Our field is almost unique among the sciences in being dependent on, and a blend of, all of the primary sciences and many purely geologic specializations as well."
This is certainly true. Considering that things like fossil fuels, climate change, earthquakes, eruptions, tsunamis, and the like are in the news almost every day, it's amazing to see how little people seem to know about the science behind the topics. A lot of the news seems to be about earth scientists dealing with ignorance about the process, implications and impacts of their work (like the Italian seismologists who were charged with manslaughter for not predicting the Aquila earthquake, or the climate scientist at the University of Virginia who's being hounded by the state attorney general, or the government trying to keep petroleum geologists from talking about the worst case scenarios of the BP oil spill). And I think it stems from a basic lack of understanding of Earth science, as the quote describes.

Know the interesting thing about this article? It was an address by W.G. Ernst, a retiring President of the Geological Society of America...and it was given in 1986.

The same problems we have with public perceptions of Earth science today were happening almost a quarter of a century ago. Almost before I was born, in fact. So why are we still dealing with this lack of comprehension of and respect for the Earth sciences? Shouldn't we have managed to open the public's eyes to the wonders of our field by now?

There's no simple answer to those questions. We are always in the process of trying to do improve the public's perception of Earth science - through outlets like Earth Science Week, and blogging, and outreach from professional organizations. But there also seems to be a problem with getting people involved in Earth science from the start. On the whole, it's simply not seen as an integral part of K-12 science curricula. As of 2007, there were only two states (Kentucky and North Carolina) that require an Earth science to graduate from high school, and fewer than a dozen others that integrate it into required courses. This means that a student's only exposure to the Earth sciences might come at the college level, and quite possibly as a course taken only to fulfill a science requirement. One of the American Geological Institute's Geoscience Workforce studies indicated that incoming college students perceived geology majors to be low in prestige, low in difficulty, and low-paying relative to majors like physics, chemistry, and biology. Those students didn't have a very good view of Earth science before they even had a chance to experience it. Consequently, they go on into their adult lives without a good working knowledge of the world around them, and no real way to evaluate the validity and value of what they later hear through mainstream media.

It's not all gloom and doom. Federal funding for Earth science research has more than doubled since 1986, and geoscience enrollments increased 8% in the 2008-2009 school year (a jump attributed to increased interest in energy and environmental issues). Salaries for Earth scientists have been increasing steadily for the past decade. There's a lot to find attractive about Earth science - but we need to keep selling it! Which brings me back to outreach of any kind. We as Earth scientists (and Earth science enthusiasts) need to keep telling everyone that yes, we are real scientists who do important, useful work. We work hard to get our degrees, and earn educations that are unparalleled in their breadth and depth of study. And we have fun doing it! Earth science is fascinating, and whether it's by trying to attract new grad students to your department, or get elementary school kids excited about rocks, or show off for thousands of people at a science expo, it's immensely important to never stop supporting our science. So however you do it, get out there and fulfill the spirit of Earth Science Week!


Ernst, W.G. (1987). United States earth sciences, status and future: How bad, how good? Geological Society of America Bulletin, 99 (1)


Geology Happens said...

Two quick comments:

I will admit I have been out of the game for a little while, but while a classroom teacher in Colorado, there was a significant portion of the state science standards was dedicated to the earth sciences.

I agree with your idea of geology being a very inter-disciplinary science. We need the rules of chemistry, physics and biology to make geologic interpretations.

Jessica Ball (AKA Tuff Cookie) said...

I probably should have gone into the state standards bit, but I wanted to concentrate on the actual course requirements noted in that particular survey. My home state (Virginia) had some earth science requirements in their standards, but aside from a short unit in elementary school, I had almost no exposure to Earth science. (There was an optional class in high school, but it was an elective intended for people who didn't want to take AP courses.) I guess my point was that Earth science may show up in the standards, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to get taught in depth, like chemistry or physics.

Glad to hear Colorado is up on their Earth sciences, though. Maybe I'll do a followup post looking at the state standards and how that translates to actual student exposure to the geosciences...

Philip said...

I wonder how much of it has to do with the differences in the types of experiments one can do at a general level. I used to teach biology, chemistry, physics, and geology in a college prep high school, and it was far easier in a secondary school lab to mix chemicals, disect plants, or drop balls than to do interesting experiments in geology.

To do interesting geology we had to go outside and look at rocks in the field, and I was fortunate enough to live in a place that was easy to do, but in many parts of the country its not as easy.

Labs like memorizing rocks or using mineral properties were essentially memorization labs akin to memorizing the scientific names of plants in biology, something I definitely did not do. Also these kinds of labs focus on memorization, which in Bloom's' taxonomy is a lower order learning skill, often leading to the perceptioni that Geology is easy (Rocks for Jocks)

Even in many of the college level intro to geology lab books I have looked at many of the "experiments" are interpreting photographs or answering questions about given data with very little in the way of testing a principle or hypothesis. Again the "good" labs are the ones we get out and make observations and measurments in the field something which is logistically harder to do.

Jessica Ball (AKA Tuff Cookie) said...

It's true, one of the best things about geology is going out into the field to do it - and, like in any science, there has to be some element of memorization. But I think that many useful experiments can be conducted in the lab - it just takes a little digging to find them, and some careful modifying to make sure that they're following a hypothesis-testing format. (It may be that these labs aren't showing up in intro texts, but that doesn't mean they don't exist!)

For example, I've seen labs where sediment sorting is demonstrated with breakfast cereal, volcanoes with coffeepots, a great paleo lab proving (and disproving) "Jurassic Park" dinosaur behaviors based physiological data, etc. Getting out the play-doh to make folds was one of my favorite parts of structural geology, and impact cratering was all about dropping balls.

Here in Buffalo, we are relatively restricted in the amount of time we can spend outdoors each semester, but we don't just switch over to memorization once we can't go outside anymore. Ease of setup doesn't really strike me as a valid excuse for shying away from geologic experiments, because they're really not that hard to do - and they all involve basic principles of chemistry, physics and biology, so it's not like they're deviating from the scientific method as it's applied in those fields.

Marciepooh said...

I found it interesting (after wanting to be a geologist for most of my childhood) that 1) that people thought Intro. to Physical Geology was suppose to be easy and 2) that is was actually hard. Obviously, all the reading I'd done in the previous 12 years helped out in GEO 101. I even took that Earth Science course in Va. because I really liked Egeology; I knew most of the non-Astronomy stuff already. When I took it (9th grade, 1990-91), it wasn't a "lab science" and one needed, iirc, at least 2 of those to graduate (3 for the Governor's Diploma). Most people didn't bother with ES.

When I taught in Alabama, I noticed that more standards in the Earth Science (then 8th grade) curriculum were for astronomy than geology. The book was about half and half geology and astronomy. It seems they keep changing the middle school science curriculum here between integrated science and 3 distinct courses (earth, life, and physical sciences). Currently comprehensive education students at my alma mater don't have to take Geo 101! Which is criminal, imho, since they might end up teaching it without have studied since they were in 8th grade or even 4th grade.

Kea Giles (aka Kristen Asmus) said...

I took an intro to geology class at my community college because I needed to understand geology terminology and history better. Wow, that was a hard class in terms of math and drawing skills needed along with the requirement to understand things in three dimensions. Geology requires a variety of skill sets found in every science topic - physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy - plus geometry, logic, statistics, the ability to wield a rock hammer... You have to be a pretty multifaceted thinker (I think) in order to do grasp earth science, whereas the other sciences are more "linear" and therefore, perhaps, easier to teach? Not that physics and chemistry are easier, of course, just, as I said, more linear.

My brother majored in geology and then went on to teach high school science. His lesson plan subjects were biology and chemistry, but, loving geology and astronomy as he does, he slipped in a lot of that where he could. Once you have a passion for geology, I think, you want to share it. And it's everywhere - in everything.

James said...

Having gotten into geology relatively recently, I do agree there is little knowledge of the geosciences at the university level. Most students at my school take intro geology because 1)they need a science credit and 2) they think it is easy, although perception doesn't match reality always. Supposedly Texas is supposed to add earth science as part of the new 4 years of science required to graduate from high school, but I suspect due to a lack of knowledge about geology and lack of qualified teachers most students will end up taking one of the other sciences for a second year. I did this myself in HS.