The Case For Earth Science Education in Virginia

In debates surrounding environmental policy, from climate change to national park preservation, the phrase “scientific literacy” is pervasive—oftentimes complacently closing the argument. The case for a “scientifically literate” society has frequently been made with varied interpretations of the platitude, but most rests on the idea that the kind of critical thinking employed in the sciences is transferable to many different disciplines and careers. Though, even with all the promotion of scientific literacy, a more simple problem is apparent: invaluable disciplines are hardly being taught at all.

The struggle to teach valuable fields in schools is not a new concern, as fields as disparate as media studies and Russian language struggle to carve a niche in public schools while programs like technical education and Latin hang on by threads. As evinced by Vasa Clarke’s exploration of Virginian public schools in the context of gifted education, confounding factors further muddy the waters on educational access and opportunities, not to mention general quality. One vital subject that can contribute to scientific literacy and critical thinking is Earth Science, which has the questionable benefit of ubiquity across Virginian high school classrooms—and, much like the previous fields, can be greatly improved, although with the infrastructure for success already in place with ninth-grade earth science classrooms across the state.

Earth Science, as the name suggests, is an integrative field that synthesizes oceanography, astronomy, geology, and ecology all in one introductory year, typically offered to high school freshmen in Virginia. Although Earth Science is an indispensable tool for humans seeking to understand their environment and its natural processes, its sequence placement undercuts its value. In Virginia, Earth Science is the first high school class in a sequence incorporating Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. All are important disciplines, but advanced courses (typically Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate) are only offered for the latter trio at many Virginian schools. The absence of AP Earth Science is not due to administrative hurdles or student disinterest: no such commonly available class exists. Earth Science is relegated to an optional introductory class, which is certainly laudable in comparison to the many useful classes unavailable for high school students, but the multidisciplinarity of the field (integrating concepts from biology, chemistry, and physics) is a challenge for building foundational knowledge.

Chemistry, biology, and physics underlie manifold subjects in earth science, so the fact that these three courses only come after Earth Science in the Commonwealth precludes a more robust examination of the topics. Earth Science, per the Standards of Learning (SOL) for Virginia, includes “plate tectonics, the rock cycle, Earth history, the oceans, the atmosphere, weather and climate, and the solar system and universe.” A more complete discussion of SOLs wouldn’t reflect positively on their rigidity and scale. But Earth Science has the opposite problem: the listed topics are far too broad to appreciate and understand in-depth. The other core science classes are similarly expansive, as any introductory class necessarily is (albeit less syncretic), and resultantly offer several levels of study to fill in the gaps. Although this has a fairly easy solution—offer more advanced levels of Earth Science courses—and some select, fortunate schools do offer the component disciplines independently (this returns to the divide in educational access mentioned earlier), a larger concern emerges. In Virginia, earth science is not a required course. The invocation to offer advanced levels of the field falls flat when many students elect not to take earth science, instead leaning to a sequence with advanced course opportunities—I did not take earth science for the same reason.

Returning to scientific literacy, the apparent truism of educational relationship to beliefs is not a true primary indicator of political beliefs, even those informed heavily by science. That doesn’t mean many discussions would not benefit from accurate communication of science, however, and the disciplines that compose ‘earth science’ are now more than ever at the forefront of political debates. The National Earth Science Teachers Association affirmed the importance of their discipline over thirty years ago in a position statement, but with a somewhat insular and expectedly receptive audience. The value of earth science is quite apparent to earth science educators, but may not be as clear to high school administrators, the general public, and even prospective students for whom the allure of college credit and transcript luster from the other sciences can be challenging to resist.

Fortunately, unlike many of the issues considered by the Review, the solution is clear and, uncommonly, viable: Expand earth science education! Initiatives for community college earth science education are robust, and the link between advanced high school classes and introductory collegiate classes allows for adoptable frameworks. Discussions and programs for primary and secondary school earth science teachers lament the limited opportunities and approaches, but ultimately conclude positively. Concerns over cost and implementation are similarly able to be countered by taking the lessons of the schools fortunate enough to offer these classes—what works and what isn’t working and can be fixed. Advanced earth science education is ever-valuable in cultivating critical thinking and engagement with the natural world, and the expansion of the Earth Science curriculum in Virginia to build strong bases across sciences is attainable.