ERIC Identifier: ED359049
Publication Date: 1993-03-00
Author: Mayer, Victor J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.

Earth Systems Education. ERIC/CSMEE Digest.

National concerns about the quality and effectiveness of science teaching have resulted in several major efforts directed at restructuring the nation's curriculum, including Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, 1989) and the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination project of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA, 1992). A third effort is the Earth Systems Education program centered at The Ohio State University and the University of Northern Colorado (Mayer, editor, 1992). Its philosophy and approach to science content is consistent with the better-known projects but differs in significant respects, especially in its focus on planet Earth.


Over the past two decades there have been tremendous advances in the understanding of planet Earth in part through the use of satellites in data gathering and super computers for data processing. As a result, Earth scientists are reinterpreting the relationships among the various science sub-disciplines and their mode of inquiry. These changes are documented in the "Bretherton Report," developed by a committee of scientists representing various government agencies with Earth science research mandates (Earth Systems Science Committee, 1986). These advances also prompted the organization of a conference of geoscientists and educators in April, 1988, to consider their implications for science curriculum renewal. The 40 scientists and educators, including many scientists from the agencies responsible for the Bretherton Report, developed a preliminary framework of four goals and ten concepts about planet Earth that they felt every citizen should understand (Mayer and Armstrong, 1991). Through subsequent discussions with teachers and Earth science educators at regional and national meetings of the NSTA, a renewed concern emerged for a more adequate treatment of planet Earth in the nation's science curriculum.


In Spring of 1990, the Teacher Enhancement Program of the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to The Ohio State University for the preparation of leadership teams in Earth Systems Education--PLESE, the Program for Leadership in Earth Systems Education. The program was designed to infuse more content regarding the modern understanding of planet Earth into the nation's K-12 science curricula.

In preparation for PLESE, a planning committee composed of ten teachers, curriculum specialists, and geoscientists met in Columbus, Ohio in May, 1990, to develop a conceptual framework to guide the program. Preliminary work included the analysis of the Project 2061 report for content related to Earth systems. The committee used this analysis combined with the results of the 1988 conference to develop a framework consisting of seven understandings. This Framework for Earth Systems Education provided a basis for the PLESE teams to construct resource guides and to select teaching materials for use in infusing Earth systems concepts into the science curriculum in their areas (Mayer, 1991). The program has worked with over 180 teachers in three member teams including an upper elementary teacher, a middle school teacher, and a high school teacher during three-week long summer programs. These teams have conducted Earth Systems awareness workshops in their states, communities, and at national NSTA conferences. During the summer of 1993, selected participants prepared resource guides for use at each of the three grade levels.


The PLESE Planning Committee intentionally arranged the understandings of the Earth Systems Education Framework into a sequence (Mayer, 1991). The first emphasizes the aesthetic values of planet Earth as interpreted in art, music, and literature. By focusing on students' feelings towards the Earth systems, the way in which they and others experience and interpret them, students are drawn into a systematic study of their planet. An aesthetic appreciation of the planet leads the student naturally into a concern for the proper stewardship of its resources: the second understanding of the framework (Mayer, 1990). A developing concern for conserving the economic and aesthetic resources of our planet leads naturally into a desire to understand how the various subsystems function and how we study those subsystems: the substance of the next four understandings. In learning how the subsystems function, students must master basic physics, chemistry, and biology concepts. The last understanding deals with careers and vocations in science, bringing the focus once again back to the immediate concerns and interests of the student (Fortner, editor, 1991).


Teachers using the Framework to develop their resource guides saw its application for the development of integrated science curricula, an objective of both Project 2061 and NSTA's SS&C effort. What could be more natural than developing K-12 science curricula using the subject of all science investigations--planet Earth--as the unifying theme? Any physical, chemical, or biological process that citizens must understand to be scientifically literate can be taught in the context of its Earth subsystem. That is the thought that has guided a number of teachers and curriculum specialists in considering the implications of Earth Systems Education for the nation's science curriculum reform efforts (Mayer, et al., 1992).

The Earth Systems Education effort also seeks to implement a more holistic philosophy of the nature of science into what has been criticized as a reductionist curriculum. Stephen Gould, occupant of the Agassi Chair of Paleontology at Harvard University has characterized the nature of science as it is presented in today's schools in the United States:

Most children first meet science in their formal education by

learning about a powerful mode of reasoning called "the scientific

method." Beyond a few platitudes about objectivity and willingness

to change one's mind, students learn a restricted stereotype about

observation, simplification to tease apart controlling variables,

crucial experiment, and prediction with repetition as a test.

These classic "billiard ball" modes of simple physical systems

grant no uniqueness to time and object--indeed, they remove any

special character as a confusing variable--lest repeatability under

common conditions be compromised. Thus, when students later

confront history, where complex events occur but once in detailed

glory, they can only conclude that such a subject must be less than

science. And when they approach taxonomic diversity, or

phylogentic history, or biogeography--where experiment and

repetition have limited application to systems in total--they can

only conclude that something beneath science, something merely

"descriptive," lies before them (Gould, 1986).

The commonly held image of science that is reinforced in our classrooms is that of controlled laboratory experiments conducted by a balding man wearing a white lab coat. Basic to the Earth Systems Education approach is to give a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of science and its intellectual processes including the historical descriptive approaches commonly used by the earth and biological sciences (Mayer, et al., 1992).

Earth Systems Education efforts also take a constructivist approach to learning both in workshops conducted by the staff and in the curriculum restructuring efforts. Most learning goes on in small collaborative groups working on real issues and problems dealing with the Earth System. Another basic tenet is that curriculum restructuring must be a "grass-roots" effort. Teachers are the curriculum developers. Other individuals, be they university professors, professional association staff, state or local level administrators, serve a facilitating function. The curriculum itself must be developed and therefore owned by the teachers who teach it (Mayer, et al., 1992).


Several projects are underway to test aspects of Earth Systems Education. The oldest and furthest along is the implementation of an integrated Biological and Earth Systems (BESS) science sequence into the high schools in the Worthington (OH) School District (Fortner, et al., 1992). It is a required sequence replacing both Earth science at the 9th grade and Biology at 10th. The sequence is organized around basic Earth systems issues such as resource supply, global climate change, and deforestation. The program incorporates collaborative learning and problem-solving techniques as major instructional strategies. Current technology is also used including on-line and CD-ROM databases for accessing current scientific data for use in course laboratory instruction. Ten additional Ohio and New York school systems are now studying the BESS program for its implications for their curriculum restructuring efforts.

Other efforts at elementary, middle, and high school levels are now underway in school districts in New York, Colorado, Ohio, Oregon, and Illinois.


The time appears to be ripe for the first total restructuring of the science curriculum since the current high school course sequence was established in the late 1800s. The dramatic changes that have taken place in science, in the understanding of how science is learned, in the evolving demands of technology, and in the pressures they place on our environment require this restructuring. Earth Systems Education offers an effective strategy. As a first step, it infuses planet Earth concepts into all levels of the K-12 science curriculum. In the long run, it provides an organizing theme for a K-12 integrated science curriculum that could effectively serve the objectives of scientific literacy and at the same time provides a basis for the recruitment of talent into science and technology careers.


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Fortner, R. W., (Ed.). (1991). Earth systems education [Special issue]. Science Activities, 28(1).

Fortner, R. W. (1992). Down to earth biology: A planetary perspective for biology curriculum. The American Biology Teacher, 54(2), 76-79.

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Mayer, V. J. (Ed.). (1992). Earth systems education: Origins and opportunities. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University.

Mayer, V. J., & Armstrong, R. E. (1990). What every 17-year old should know about planet Earth: The report of a conference of educators and geoscientists. Science Education, 74(2) 155-165.

Mayer, V. J., et al. (1992). The role of planet Earth in the new science curriculum. Journal of Geological Education, 40(1), 66-73.

The National Science Teachers Association. (1992). Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science: The content core. Washington, DC: Author.

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