Americans Are Missing a Key Stratum of Modern Knowledge
To understand how climate change is altering our planet, it helps to know a little Earth science.
Updated at 4:50 p.m. on May 4, 2022
There are three things that I remember from my high-school Earth-science class: the swirling pink cover of the study book designed to help us pass New York State’s year-end test, the football player who seemed more intent on torturing me than on learning, and a nagging sense that what I was taking wasn’t “really” science.
The idea that Earth science barely counts as science is so woven into the educational landscape that it can feel like a truism instead of a choice. My high school, for example, offered Advanced Placement courses in biology, chemistry, and two flavors of physics, but at the time, none existed for Earth science. And, notes Mika McKinnon, a field researcher and geophysicist, this derision for the subject shows up all over popular culture—on The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, and even college campuses, where introductory geology courses are often given the dismissive nickname “Rocks for Jocks.”
I first became interested in how we’re educated in Earth science because, as a climate reporter, Earth science is a fundamental part of my job. I have to understand the interplay between the ice poles and sea-level rising, and the ways that temperature changes in the ocean can lead to changes in the atmosphere (see: hurricanes). And this experience of needing to not only understand the science but also explain it to other people made me feel as though the education system has failed so many of us. Personal experiences and anecdotes are no substitute for data, but when I looked deeper at this problem, what I found was, frankly, bleak.
At its core, Earth science, also called Earth-system science, is the study of planet Earth. As a discipline, it’s often broken down into five broad categories. The biosphere is the part of Earth occupied by living organisms. The atmosphere is the envelope of gasses surrounding the planet, which is rapidly being warmed by climate change. There’s the lithosphere, or the uppermost part of Earth’s crust; the hydrosphere, which deals with all the water on Earth’s surface; and the cryosphere, the frozen-water part of Earth’s system. These broad categories can be broken down even further. Oceanography is a part of Earth science; so too are meteorology, paleontology, and the vaguely named field of human geography, which looks at the relationship between humans and Earth’s surface. Earth science encompasses all these systems, and how they interact. And these days, a basic understanding of these things is pretty crucial.
“Some of the biggest problems facing society are climate change, energy, land use, food, and so forth. And all are deeply, deeply grounded in the Earth sciences,” Don A. Haas, the director of teacher programming at the Paleontological Research Institution, told me. Climate change is, for instance, rapidly transforming the relationship between humans and Earth’s surface. “You need [an Earth-science] education to live with our changing hazardous environment. I truly believe that,” Jazmin Scarlett, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom, told me. This knowledge can help people make better sense of the changes that they see in the environment, and how to cope with those changes.
But the fact that I took Earth science at all makes me something of an anomaly. In the United States, only 7 percent of high schoolers take Earth-science courses, according to a 2010 study. (Scarlett said that Earth-science education in the U.K. is not much better.) And I couldn’t take AP Earth science in high school, because the course didn’t exist back then. These days, the College Board does have two AP courses that are related to Earth science: environmental science and human geography. High school in particular matters because many of us stop taking science after that. Yet Earth science generally disappears from the curriculum after middle school.
Nationwide, 32 states require students to take a life-science course (typically biology) for high-school graduation. Twenty-six states require a physical science (usually chemistry or physics). But only two states require a year-long Earth- or environmental-science course. In New York, where I took Earth science as a freshman, students must also pass a subject-matter exam in science as a condition of graduation. In addition to the big three—biology, chemistry, and physics—Earth science fulfills the requirement, leading more kids in the state to take the subject than the national average. It’s not a coincidence, then, that, as of 2008, New York was home to more than 20 percent of certified K–12 Earth-science teachers.
All of this raises questions as to whether science education as currently structured gives people the information they need to be educated members of society. It’s not lost on me that I learned about the Krebs cycle, or how cells get energy, at least three times. But as far as I can recall, I was never taught that the climate system—and by extension, the weather system—is based on temperature gradations. But once you understand that weather and climate are so dependent on the difference between hot and cold, you’ll probably have an easier time understanding why shrinking temperature differences caused by climate change could lead to wacky weather. Not understanding how Earth works creates a broken framework with which to make sense of a world that is rapidly changing in dramatic ways, which we need to act on quite quickly.
“Yet we dismiss the Earth sciences almost everywhere in the country,” Haas said.
In some cases, the education system even seems to disincentivize students from taking Earth science. Years ago, Dane Schaffer, an associate professor of science education at Minot State University, in North Dakota, was teaching high school in the Midwest when she learned that one of her students, “a quite bright young man,” was ineligible for a college engineering program he had his sights on. By the college’s reckoning, he hadn’t taken the required four years of science. Chemistry, physics, and biology all counted, but “they didn’t count Earth science,” she told me.
They were able to get the class counted by showing the college the depth of the curriculum, and by tweaking the name of the class from “Earth science” to “advanced Earth science,” but “from that revelation, I found out that when I went to university at Purdue, that they didn’t count my Earth science either,” Schaffer said. “We basically take a discipline that’s very important to us and we downgrade it. We make like it’s a low-level science when it’s not.”
And without Earth-science education, people have a harder time grasping the scale of the harm they are facing. During presentations, “I always have to give some sort of basic background of, like, ‘Here’s the way the Earth works,’ ‘This is why it’s warming,’ to make sure that we’re on the same page," Sean Dague, a climate advocate who organizes with a local chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby in New York, told me. “You can’t take that as a given from your audience, even for folks that aren’t adversarial to it.” Earth science was one of the holes in his education, too, which he had to fill in on his own in the years after he learned climate change was an issue. “We took all the honors kids in my school and skipped them past that,” he said. “All the kids that were going to college didn’t get Earth science.”
The discipline wasn’t always so neglected. “Back in the 1950s, Earth science was viewed as for gifted students,” Beth Lewis, an associate professor of science education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, told me. “It was this new, shiny science.” The emergence of plate-tectonic theory, the discovery of the ocean’s Mid-Atlantic ridges and of ocean-floor spreading, and the feeling that, after so long, there was a unifying theory of geology all added up to a massive shift in thinking—the kind of exciting scientific discovery that students of all levels should learn about. “But unfortunately, it just kind of plateaued.”
There are several theories as to why the field lost its prominence, but Lewis thinks that part of the problem is that arguably the biggest science award in the world doesn’t recognize it. There’s no Nobel prize for Earth science.
And this has an impact, not only on the public’s ability to understand climate change but also on who studies Earth sciences in college and, by extension, the kind of solutions that get researched. In the U.S., only about 10 percent of doctoral degrees in the Earth sciences go to people of color, compared with about 25 percent for physics.
And according to Scarlett, this lack of diversity can have real-world consequences to help us adapt to climate change, in part because “marginalized communities, they come from different environments. And so they experience things slightly differently,” she said. “That’s why we need those diverse voices and those perspectives, because if we get the full picture then we might be more likely to find the solution that we think is most optimal," she added.
There has been a push to rectify the Earth-science gap. The next-generation K–12 science standards, developed by states to improve science education, “treat Earth science on par with life science and physical science and engineering,” Haas noted. But states can choose how they implement the standards. This isn’t the first push to better incorporate Earth science in education, either: “The National Science Education Standards, which came out in 1996, also had an expectation of Earth science being on a par with biology, chemistry, and physics,” Haas said. “And it didn’t really change very much across the country.”
There’s another benefit to teaching Earth science that I didn’t fully grasp until reporting on Earth became my full-time job: Earth is beautiful. For a while, I had a habit of loading pictures that NASA had taken during flights over the polar regions. The purpose of the flights, part of a mission called Operation IceBridge, was to better understand how the poles affect Earth’s climate system. But that’s not why I was looking at the photos. The images are breathtakingly beautiful. Endless expanses of ice bordering cerulean seas, mountains ringed with gauzy clouds—they’re just nice to look at, especially when you understand how important they are to human life on the planet. An understanding of Earth science can help instill in people, long after they’ve forgotten the names of geological formations or cloud shapes, an understanding of how precious and rare Earth really is. And why we should fight to keep our place on it.
This article originally misstated Dane Schaffer's title.