Earth Science

Perspective: Transforming Earth Science Education with Technology

When natural hazards such as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and earthquakes occur and impact our lives, we sit up and take notice. The truth, of course, is that everything in our lives is dependent on Earth. We rely on Earth’s energy, mineral resources, fresh water, and atmosphere. The motion of Earth’s plates is responsible for the land we live on as well as the recycling of carbon dioxide between the oceans and the atmosphere. But humans also impact Earth’s processes. We pollute, burn fossil fuels, and deforest the land. These actions trigger climate change, soil erosion, a decrease in air quality, and the availability of drinking water.

The blue planet is big and Earth science education has a correspondingly big job to do. We need to help students understand Earth as a set of complex systems that are intricately interconnected. We also need to explain how Earth’s processes affect people and, in turn, how people affect Earth’s processes. Today’s students are tomorrow’s problem solvers, policymakers, and voters. We must ensure they have the knowledge about Earth’s systems to be able to discuss and act on environmental and economic issues that affect our daily lives and our future.

More than other sciences offered at the pre-college level, Earth science education varies dramatically around the country. Earth science is commonly taught in middle grades (6-9), either as a separate course or as part of general or integrated science. In high school some Earth science topics may be included in environmental science or as an elective. This “orphan” status is due to the fact that Earth science was only formalized as a public school science in the 1960s, taking a back seat to the laboratory sciences of biology, chemistry, and physics, named in the 1892 Committee of Ten report that first recommended standardization of American high school subjects. Because Earth and space science (ESS) does not offer Advanced Placement credits, it is often skipped by students and dropped by states in favor of the three college preparation lab science classes. As a result, supporters of Earth science education have been forced to closely monitor the activities of state-level educational policymakers and school districts to prevent the elimination of these classes. The limited acceptance of ESS as a valuable science has been changing, though it still remains marginalized, considering the relevance and importance of the content taught in these classes.

Until recently, there has been little focus on Earth science pedagogy or educational research in Earth science teaching. The result is that Earth science is still taught in much the same way it was taught in the 1970s, for example, when there were few or no computers in the classroom. The typical approach to Earth science education is focused on memorizing facts related to Earth’s structure, naming and classifying eras and periods, and identifying rock types. And the curricula rely on static illustrations and images, which limit students’ understanding of Earth as a dynamic system. Earth science is almost never treated as a lab science, as most hands-on experiments with Earth phenomena are impossible, taking place over unimaginably long times far beyond students’ perceptions. Students are thus unable to directly observe the emergence of Earth’s phenomena. Instead, classroom activities use analogies to demonstrate Earth systems, generally employing materials such as Styrofoam to represent Earth’s crust or modeling clay to explore metamorphism in ways that gloss over or underemphasize important aspects of these processes. Students are rarely given the opportunity to do their own sensemaking in Earth science, and thus do not develop deep understanding of the content.

New standards and new tools require new pedagogies

A Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have reframed Earth science into Earth systems science, emphasizing the interacting systems of the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, and tying human activity and impacts to understanding each Earth system. This framing has the potential to educate students about the complex and critical issues of Earth science that most affect our lives. This is an exciting development for the Earth science education community, but one that will not be realized without deliberate efforts to reform our educational approaches.

Technology has the potential to change how students investigate geodynamic phenomena. Current technology offers unparalleled possibilities for supporting students’ understanding of complex, invisible, and dynamic systems. Today’s geodynamic simulations are transforming geology research by providing ways of understanding the processes that shape Earth’s surface. Similarly, dynamic computational models with associated visualizations allow students to interact with and manipulate parameters and to observe emergent phenomena. With appropriate scaffolding, these simulations can support the development of students’ understanding of complex systems and their causal mechanisms.

The Framework and NGSS emphasize science and engineering practices, which describe how students should engage with science ideas in ways that are epistemically authentic to the discipline of science, and include constructing evidence-based explanations of complex science phenomena. In Earth science this means students should shift from identifying and describing Earth’s materials and landforms to analyzing geoscience data and constructing explanations, developing scientific arguments, and evaluating solutions. Simulations provide opportunities for discovery-based learning and offer students ways to observe and investigate systems as a whole in a manner impossible to accomplish through other avenues of inquiry. Simulations also help students to reason about some of the hidden, underlying mechanisms and physical processes and to link phenomena across scales and systems.

Simulations are thus critical to developing authentic geoscientific investigations. Computational models and simulations grounded in foundational educational research provide an ideal tool for new ways of teaching and learning geosciences. The geoscience projects highlighted in this newsletter all leverage current technology’s capacity to develop Earth system simulations and curriculum modules to transform how Earth science is taught and learned.

Students use a data visualization tool and a dynamic plate tectonic model as part of the GEODE project to investigate how Earth’s system of tectonic plates is responsible for geological events and has created and continues to change land formations on Earth. The GEODE materials ask teachers to change how they have taught Earth science, so we have introduced an interactive teacher guide to help teachers evolve their role as facilitators and guide them on how to make sense of the technology embedded within the curriculum.

The GeoHazard project introduces the variables that influence the risk and impacts of hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding on humans and how our changing climate is playing a role in the intensity of these hazards. The GeoCode project (pages 10-11) is focused on engaging students in contextualized computational practices where students use block programming to code computational visualizations in order to explore hazards and risks related to a volcanic eruption. The High-Adventure Science project delves into humans’ impact on Earth’s systems, including climate change, the availability of fresh water, land management, and more. Kentucky high school science teacher Stephanie Harmon shares her experiences implementing one of the High-Adventure Science modules in her classroom.

Each project engages students in science practices that are authentic approximations of how geoscientists undertake their work, enabling them to explore causal mechanisms, use real-world data, make predictions about real-world phenomena, and develop scientific arguments. Threaded through each project we have also been conducting research on the role of uncertainty in the study of Earth science.

This special issue of @Concord describes our research, models, and curriculum, and what it’s like to teach with this new curriculum. We are excited to share our vision for transforming geoscience education and the results of our efforts so far.

Amy Pallant ( directs the projects featured in this Earth science special issue of @Concord.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DRL-1812362. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.