Earth Space Science Essays

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The March for Science is appropriately being held this weekend on Earth Day 2017. The broad theme for the March is “Science is Essential,” and this is applicable also to Earth Day. It may seem that with our growing cities, air conditioning, modern infrastructure, and energy-enabled amenities, we can be more isolated from our environment and less dependent on Earth than our ancestors, but the opposite is true: We are more intimately connected than ever before. Many aspects of modern society depend critically on rich real-time data and sophisticated models about all aspects of our planet and its space environment. Growing populations and development are taxing natural resources and increasingly altering Earth’s land, ecosystems, atmosphere, ice sheets, rivers, and oceans on a global scale. Globalization makes our societies, including the most developed ones, more sensitive to disruptions. These interdependencies make research in the Earth and space sciences critically important for society.

A collection of essays and other recent Special Collections across the American Geophysical Union journals illustrate, celebrate, and illuminate these deep connections. Three broad and generally underappreciated themes emerge across this collection. These themes have important implications in the context of recent U.S. and international political developments.

The first theme is that the notion that “basic” or “curiosity-driven” research is distinct from “applied” research is increasingly an anachronism. Most of the cutting-edge research being conducted by Earth and space scientists has direct relevance to society. This relevance is not new but is more extensive and broadly connected than in the past. Geologic research has long been a key contributor to energy and mineral exploration. But research motivated by curiosity about how the Earth works has also led to important resource discoveries. For example, deep ocean drilling to improve understanding of the ocean crust and sediments in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1960s led to the discovery of vast oil resources.

Today, the connections are broader. Businesses, societies, and economies operating from local to global scales are critically dependent on real-time data about our planet, increasingly at very fine spatial and temporal scales. In turn, these data feed improved models that both address new research questions and provide operational data and forecasts for societal decisions, from governments to individual farmers and shippers. Examples abound. Detailed real time mapping of ocean currents helps us understand how the oceans mix, directly helping companies save fuel in ocean transportation, trade, fishing, and recreation. Understanding subtle changes in Earth’s rotation tells us about Earth’s core and history but also improves GPS signals on which we increasingly rely. A huge amount of global data of great variety, including from citizen science as well as research into numerical methods and statistics, is necessary to provide ever more accurate weather and water-supply forecasts, yielding major economic benefits, and protecting people, crops, and ecosystems. Observations of the sun and of our near-space environment are used to protect our electrical grids, satellites, and airline passengers as well as to improve the fidelity of GPS signals. Testing of sensors on other planets has improved or led to new satellites that provide key data on Earth. And Earth and space science information provide critical insights for addressing many health concerns, from air pollution to human and agricultural pandemics.

The second theme is that these current capabilities have developed, and are critically dependent on, international collaborations, cooperation, and funding. These collaborations include scientists, of course, but they also involve governments and businesses. Global data for a global economy requires global research and data-collection efforts, which require global collaboration and cost-sharing. In addition, it is clear that understanding of local weather requires rich global data; snowfall in the Sierra Nevada is influenced by dust entrained in the atmosphere from Asia and Africa. Understanding the course of one volcanic eruption or earthquake improves understanding of the next one elsewhere in the world. The costs of research and infrastructure, including satellites, have increasingly been shared worldwide. The U.S. economy, as that of every country, greatly benefits from this global research collaboration and shared financing for Earth observations. These collaborations are needed to maintain and expand our global observing effort and the economic and security benefits that it enables.

The third theme, already introduced, is the inclusion of rich data from monitoring all parts of Earth’s processes and its environments (present and past) into sophisticated models that are used both to understand Earth’s processes and to inform critical societal decisions. This understanding is regularly included in engineering models used to mitigate hazards or design better structures. Likewise, such models provide weather forecasts, help predict water supply and coastal erosion, prepare cities and regions for natural hazards and climate change, and help coordinate responses to disasters in real time. Improvements to these models depend on global data, including data whose collection was originally motivated by scientific research.

Although there has been great progress over several decades in using research in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity, the collection of essays also highlights many areas where further progress is both possible and needed. These include new applications, constraining uncertainty, and improving models and forecasts. The authors of these essays also discuss how Earth and space scientists can better communicate both what we know and don’t know and where further improvements are within reach. The Earth complex, and the desire for more effective understanding and communication, is strong.

Two critical threats have emerged to the societal benefits provided by Earth and space science. The first is increasing nationalistic tendencies worldwide that threaten the international collaborations that have facilitated the development of global research, funding, and data collection. Our understanding of Earth processes and current global capabilities – and the economic and societal benefits – have developed directly because scientists and students have been allowed to interact internationally, conduct research worldwide, share global observation platforms, secure temporary and permanent positions in other countries, and attend international conferences. Restricting this exchange will directly harm existing capabilities and limit future scientific advances. Because this international cooperation is critical to understanding the Earth as a system, the Earth and space sciences are particularly vulnerable to such restrictions.

The second threat is proposed funding cuts in major science agencies in the United States and elsewhere. These cuts will do the most harm in two critical areas: collecting and interpreting important data, and training and engaging new scientists. The infrastructure supporting scientific data, especially relating to our planet, is fragile and needs new support for long-term preservation and connectivity, as well as broader availability and sharing of data given its critical economic and scientific role. We need better and more systematic data about our impact on the environment, not less. Instead, U.S. agencies are facing the prospect of substantial cuts, spurring efforts to “save the data.” As Harold Varmus noted in commenting on the proposed cuts to the NIH budget, the cuts are likely to fall most heavily on the youngest aspiring scientists. The proposed cuts send a message that these jobs are not valued, and that the resources needed to support both the long-term collection of data and the training of the next generation of scientists are not guaranteed.

Earth Day and the March for Science both celebrate the increasingly valuable benefit of Earth and space science research for society. It is also an opportunity to appreciate how these impacts are rooted in a very deep understanding of our planet and its past, present, and future environments. This connection between science and society can and should be made even stronger, for even greater benefit to humanity.

—Brooks Hanson, Director Publications, AGU; email: [email protected]; Jenny Lunn, Assistant Director, Publications, AGU; Ben van der Pluijm, Editor-in-Chief, Earth’s Future; John Orcutt, Editor-in-Chief, Earth and Space Science; Rita Colwell, Editor-in-Chief, GeoHealth; Susan Trumbore, Editor-in-Chief, Global Biogeochemical Cycles; Thorsten W. Becker, Editor-in-Chief, G-Cubed; Noah Diffenbaugh, Editor-in-Chief, Geophysical Research Letters; Robert Pincus, Editor-in-Chief, JAMES; Mike  Liemohn, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Space Physics; Uri ten Brink, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Solid Earth; Peter Brewer, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Oceans; Minghua Zhang, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Atmospheres; Steven A. Hauck II, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Planets; Bryn Hubbard, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Earth Surface; Miguel Goni, Editor-in-Chief, JGR: Biogeosciences; Ellen Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, Paleoceanography; Philip Wilkinson, Editor-in-Chief, Radio Science; Mark Moldwin, Editor-in-Chief, Reviews of Geophysics; Delores J. Knipp, Editor-in-Chief, Space Weather; John Geissman, Editor-in-Chief, Tectonics; andMartyn Clark, Editor-in-Chief, Water Resources Research

Citation: Hanson, B., et al. (2017), Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity, Eos, 98, Published on 20 April 2017.

© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Essays by Workshop Participants

In May, 2003, there was a small, invitation-only workshop in Washington D.C., sponsored by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT), the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The purpose of the workshop was to bring together geoscience faculty, teachers, and members of schools of education to discuss how geoscience departments can assist in the development of an increasing number of well-trained Earth Science teachers. Each participant was asked to write an essay highlighting the ways in which their institution or department contributes to this goal, as well as the challenges they face. Essays deal with any or all of the following:

  • Recruiting, mentoring and advising future teachers
  • The role of introductory courses in teacher preparation
  • Research and teaching experiences for future teachers
  • Links between education and geoscience departments

Download and print all essays.(Acrobat (PDF) 460kB Jan30 04)
Go to original workshop website.

Read individual essays:

Dan Barstow, TERC

TERC's Center for Earth and Space Science Education (CESSE) creates innovative materials for Earth and space science education, featuring science as inquiry.

Celeste Carty, Science Magnet School, Minneapolis

Crossroads School, an elementary science magnet school in Minneapolis, participates in several NASA programs for schools.

Robert Cichowski, California State University

The CSU system is revising its teacher preparation programs in response to new academic content standards and forecasts of future shortages of science teachers.

Sue DeBari, Western Washington University

The Science, Math, and Technology Education Program (SMATE) offers high quality teacher preparation including preservice, inservice, and outreach components with multiple entry points and three Geology majors designed specifically for teachers.

Allan Feldman, University of Massachusetts

The Secondary Teacher Education Program (STEP) provides six licensure tracks for preservice teachers, most of whom are M.Ed students with a B.S. in a science discipline.

Steve Good, West Chester University, Pennsylvania

WCU is a large state university where half of the Geology/Astronomy majors are preservice teachers. Programs are constrained by mandates from many stakeholders, local to national.

Dave Gosselin, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

The School of Natural Resources sponsors a course for preservice elementary and middle school teachers. The course has an Earth Systems focus and is consistent with state and national science standards.

Karen Grove, San Francisco State University

Geoscience faculty have collaborated with Education faculty to obtain funding for two interdisciplinary courses for preservice teachers. Planetary Climate Changes (meteorology, oceanography, geology) is aimed at high school science teachers. Investigating Air, Sea and Land Interactions is aimed at elementary and middle school teachers.

Karen Havholm, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire

The Geology department, along with collaborators, offers a lab-oriented Earth Science course for preservice elementary and middle school teachers. The course models educational "best practices" and focuses on the relevance of Earth Science to students' lives.

Jackie Huntoon, Michigan Tech University

A new program for preservice secondary Earth Science teachers leading to a teaching credential and a B.S. in Geology is housed in the Geology department. Teacher professional development is also offered.

Carl Katsu, Fairfield High School, Fairfield PA; president, NESTA

The National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA) helps teachers access professional development opportunities provided by universities and relevant governmental agencies.

Tom Lindsay, Portland State University

Teacher preparation occurs at the graduate level at PSU; secondary science teachers include both geology and science education majors. The Geology department at PSU offers Earth and Space Science courses specifically for preservice elementary and middle school teachers, and collaborates with the Graduate Teacher Education Program to provide a range of support for teachers.

Rusty Low, University of Minnesota

Science CentrUM functions as a link between University resources and the science education needs of K-12 teachers in Minnesota at both preservice and inservice levels.

John Madsen, University of Delaware

The Geology department offers an Earth Science content course for elementary teachers and is participating in an NSF-funded "Science Semester" project that integrates earth science, life science, physical science and science methods courses for elementary preservice teachers.

Steve Mattox, Grand Valley State University

The Geology department offers three majors, two of which are teaching majors which involve two-thirds of the department's students. A new course, Earth Science in Secondary Education, includes a research component and a project where students design event-based inquiry lessons.

Randy McGinnis, University of Maryland

In Maryland, Earth Science is taught at the middle school level. Earth science teachers typically have either an elementary certification with a science concentration, a double major in Education and Geology, or an undergraduate Earth Science degree with an education-related master's degree.

Ellen Metzger, San Jose State University

The Geology department at San Jose State offers a B.A. in Earth Science for preservice secondary teachers. Professional development opportunities include an on-line course in Earth System Science through a grant from the Earth System Science Education Alliance (ESSEA).

Ron Narode, Portland State University

A recent change in preservice science teacher education includes a focus on science and math instruction in all courses leading to licensure. Education faculty and science faculty work closely on teacher education and advising, grant-writing, and professional development initiatives.

Monica Ramirez, AIMS Community College

An NSF grant to a collaboration of community colleges supports the recruitment and education of "diverse and rural" students in science, math, and technology teaching.

Cassandra Runyon, College of Charleston

The Geology department at CofC contributes to a graduate teaching program for Geology majors as well as inservice geology education. It is also working with the State to develop a secondary Earth Science teaching degree program.

Randy Sachter, Nederland Elementary School, Boulder CO

Elementary teachers are generally underprepared in science content and have limited time to teach it; teachers should be prepared to integrate science with "core" subjects such as reading in order to save time.

Leslie Sautter, College of Charleston

Education majors at CofC take three semesters of introductory science. Alternative, inquiry-based intro courses are being developed that would target preservice teachers. Science faculty are concerned about "rigor" in such courses.

Mary Savina, Carleton College

Preservice Earth Science teachers earn a Geology major, usually completing their student teaching after graduation. Carleton has many informal opportunities for students to explore education; many complete graduate teacher preparation programs elsewhere.

Nate Shotwell, Mills E. Godwin High School, Richmond VA

There are a variety of paths to Earth Science teaching, and higher education can support teachers at many points. Assigning excellent teachers to introductory courses will help recruit teacher candidates, but support of practicing teachers is equally important.

William Slattery, Wright State University, Dayton OH

Ohio has recently mandated proficiency testing for K-12 students in science, based on the National Science Education Standards. This change made Earth/Space Science a required content area for the first time, presenting many challenges.

Cathy Summa, Winona State University

Winona State prepares Earth Science teachers at three levels: elementary, middle school general science, and high school specialists. A three-semester integrated science course for elementary preservice teachers integrates content and pedagogy, modeling "best practices". Earth Science teaching majors complete research projects on a scientific problem which is then translated into an inquiry-based curriculum unit.

Richard Yuretich, University of Massachusetts

Departmental involvement in K-12 education is not explicit; secondary level preservice Earth Science teachers pursue a Geology major, and elementary level teachers usually take only Intro courses. These and other factors conspire to keep education low on the priority list of most faculty.


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