Need for Earth Science in the Curriculum

Earth science by its very name has been a catch-all for geologic, atmospheric and space phenomenon.  Not a pure science like physics, this subject has been subjugated to a back seat, in the overall science curriculum and now it has been relegated to a few elementary lessons in our state standards. The very nature of Earth science, however, is happening all around us--whether it be the slow processes of rock formation, or the sudden fury of a tornado or hurricane. In the recent past major earthquakes (most notably Haiti and Chile), an Icelandic volcano, and oil spilling uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico all have impacted our lives in some way. Record temperatures, El Nino, and super-storms have awakened renewed interest in the weather. Astronomers have discovered more than 400 exoplanets, while the quest for life from other worlds has intensified. 


Besides being part of our everyday lives, the dynamic change on our planet is more accessible and is more dynamically linked to current data through an ever-expanding web of technology. Students can see volcanoes in real time through remote web cameras, monitor earthquakes with seismic networks, forecast weather phenomenon with state of the art, Doppler radar, satellites, and computer models, or they can peer off into the universe with space and earth-based telescopes--all linked to their computers. Today Earth science can be relevant and more meaningful than ever before.  


Recently it became very apparent to me that we are undereducated about the planet on which we live. I received calls from a local fire chief, and several concerned citizens.  “Was that an earthquake that shook Connecticut and should we be concerned?” A severe thunderstorm bore down on the City of Bridgeport and wreaked havoc; did we know it was coming? A mild winter followed by record cold; is this normal? These events and those mentioned previously have raised public interest to say the least. Is there something changing that we don’t know about? 


 One thing I have learned is that there is always change and at some point each and every one of us will experience encounters with nature we didn’t expect. The real questions are: could we be better prepared? And can we do something about it? I have spoken with people who no longer depend on the weatherman/woman, because they can access Doppler radar on their cell phone. I can monitor seismic events on my I-Pad and have a virtual planetarium at my fingertips to intelligently show others what’s up in the night sky, yet I have never taken a formal astronomy course.  


The fact is that our World has become smaller through technology and it is changing the way we live and think and learn while new opportunities and lifestyles are evolving.  Technology is becoming nearly transparent to most adolescents, as they text, and tweet, and send tremendous amounts of information, instantaneously. Meanwhile education tries to catch up. When asked about science and why it is not popular, students respond, “it’s geeky,” “it is not relevant to my life,” “it’s a lot of memorization and facts,” and “why does it matter?” We as citizens have to make intelligent decisions that impact politics, economics, and the environment. The planet will be here long after humanity has left its mark, but in our lifetime we will witness changes that impact us all. Can we make a difference?  


Global Climate Change is now at the forefront of many issues affecting the environment.  Is it manmade? How can we measure it with respect to things around us? It is very evident the glaciers around the world are receding and the North polar ice cap is opening more extensively each year. Green house gases certainly have an effect, but we are witnessing a very complex phenomenon. As ice and snow melt, the albedo of the Earth’s surface dramatically alters the absorption of sunlight. This in turn translates to infrared energy that significantly impacts the regional and local climate. The greenhouse effect may have triggered a much greater local change. At the same time more open water yields more evaporation contributing to clouds with a high reflectivity, resulting in cooling and greater precipitation downwind, not the warming that we expect from “Global Warming.” Snow enveloping our Nation’s Capital with several feet of a debilitating unforeseen mess may send a different message. As a resident of D.C. would you, or better yet a legislator from a southern state, believe a case for Global Warming?  Are important decisions being influenced for a lack of understanding Earth science? 


Another concerned citizen asked me, “What do you think about fracking, do you think it will happen in Connecticut?” I realized that our education system does not connect the dots. Fracking, a news item fraught with environmental and political controversy is not understood in terms of rock formations like the Marcellus Shale, from which we are extracting the natural gas. I replied, “Connecticut needn’t worry because we have no shale gas deposits” but was then confronted with “but won’t it affect our water?” and “aren’t you concerned?” Again, the relationship of ground water to gas wells was still not understood and was greatly more complex than a few minutes of conversation could answer. CT is still isolated from this issue by our rock formations but I am concerned.


As citizens we are obligated to protect our resources and the beauty of the land we enjoy, for future generations. We are stewards and yet we neglect our role due to misinformation and the feeling we can’t make a difference. We need to educate our students and our citizens that they can, in fact, make the difference. We need to act locally and guide our legislators on a proper course to protect our future. Earth science is a necessary topic to be taught and needs to be restored to our science curriculum at all levels.