The future of the discipline of Earth Science is in trouble. Seven of Australia’s 21 Geoscience Departments have suffered substantial cuts or reductions (Boone et. al. 2021), with complete closures of the world-class schools at Macquarie and Newcastle Universities, a trend which has only been accelerated by the Pandemic (Selway 2021). This is despite Australia’s large economic dependency on the export of its raw materials such as Iron Ore (11% of Australia’s GDP) and the increasing need for minerals such as Rare Earth Metals, Copper and Lithium to drive the energy transition to Renewable Resources (Grigg, McGregor and Carter 2022). Why is this happening? Because students are not choosing to study Earth Science at University, and without demand for the course, Universities are forced to close their Geology Departments.
Penny: “What’s wrong with Geology?”
Sheldon: “You remember how you explained to me that the Kardashians aren’t real celebrities? Geology is the Kardashians of Science”.
~ Big Bang Theory, S7, E20.
Many people theorize as to the cause of this decline; however, little quantitative research literature exists on the topic. Findings in other parts of the world suggest it is a combination of the perceived ‘instability of the job market’, the opinion that Geology is a ‘dirty’ and ‘unsustainable’ science, or a science of low prestige (some Sheldon sympathizers may even question if Geology is a science) (Hoisch and Bowie 2010), however the most common finding is the lack of exposure of students to Geology before entering University (Levine et. al. 2018).
Geology or Earth Science has always been a stalwart of the Australian Curriculum, held in high regard amongst the other three ‘big’ Science subjects Biology, Chemistry and Physics during the 1970s and 1980s. Since that time, however, despite booms and busts in the mining industry, enrollments and offerings of the subject have steadily declined (Figure 2) (Dekkers and Laeter 2001).
‘Earth and Space System Sciences’ still comprise one of four major components of the ‘Science Understanding’ strand of the Australian F-10 and Senior Secondary Curriculum (ACARA 2018, 2022). Given this, students should have ample exposure to numerous Earth Systems concepts, experiencing ‘Earth’s resources including water, soils and minerals’ (Year 3), weathering and erosional processes (Year 5), plate tectonics and, igneous and metamorphic processes and the corresponding rocks and minerals produced (Year 8).
Research suggests, however, that the curriculum is being poorly taught. Few teachers are subject experts in Earth Science (Grecko and Almberg 2016) and so the topics are often skipped over or covered using didactic teaching methods and worksheets (King 2013), with little access to quality resources and materials to demonstrate these processes effectively (Dawborn-Gundlach et. al. 2017). Many students thus leave school with misconceptions about the relevance of Earth Science to their lives (Orion 2019). Most students also leave school with alternative- and mis- conceptions of foundational concepts of Geoscience, including the inability to recognise change in landscapes or the concept of deep time, aka humans and dinosaurs did not co-exist, or the fact that basalt and granite derive from a melt – sometimes fractionation of the same melt, or being able to confidently identify a plausible (rather than supernatural) cause of earthquakes. In fact, over 500 misconceptions of geoscience have been organised and summarised in research by Francek (2013).
The two main objectives of teaching science, according to the Australian Curriculum, are: ‘to develop the scientific knowledge, understandings and skills to make informed decisions about local, national and global issues and to participate, if they so wish, in science-related careers’ (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2021). The disengagement of students and more broadly, the public in Australia, from the science which literally explains our connection to and place within the planet Earth, is evidence that neither of these objectives have been met in the Earth Science curriculum as it is currently enacted for many years. Geoscience education needs a new narrative.
Enter Earth Systems Science (ESS). A new concept emerging in schools and universities with a different and potentially more effective approach, with greater focus on the interdisciplinary interactive nature of Geoscience (International Geoscience Education Organisation 2022). It highlights how chemical, biological, and physical sciences are applied to the study of Earth as a system, comprised of interrelated subsystems: geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere (Orion 2019). This pedagogy more accurately portrays Geoscientists as a community of passionate experts with narrow specializations (i.e. volcanology, structural geology, therapod Palaeontology, sedimentology) who collectively contribute their curiosity and deep knowledge on these topics to solving Earth’s problems.
ESS embraces a constructivist, inquiry-based and place-based (Semken 2017) pedagogy, placing great importance on the integration of indoor (classroom, lab, computer and geospatial technologies) and outdoor (fieldwork) learning environments. What this looks like in practice in a science classroom is: Authentic inquiry (i.e. actually doing what a Geologist does), utilizing teaching methods such as the 5E’s, awareness of common misconceptions and strategies to address conceptual change, representation construction, analysis and refinement.
When taught within a more traditional direct instruction framework, the rock cycle (taught in Year 8) may involve students memorising definitions, with a focus of describing and classifying rocks without placing them within the bigger picture and being assessed on knowledge retention in an ‘exam’ (many university courses are still taught this way!). A student-centered, active framework however, may explore the rock cycle through exploration, with students documenting their evolving conceptualization of through representations and hands-on experiences (Schifman 2013).
Visual representation and 3D visualisation of phenomena such as stratigraphic rock columns and deformed strata, the structure of the Earth, the mechanism of earthquakes and the rotation and revolution of stars, planets and moons, to name a few, is an important skill in all Earth Science disciplines (Vallender 2010). Geospatial technologies can be an effective means of exploring Earth Science in an engaging way, enabling students to engage in real-world problem-solving involving data analysis and visualisation and spatial interpretation (Hagevik 2011). It also allows students to make connections between concepts at different scales, recognizing the fractal nature of the Earth and the interdependence of all living things. Although Earth Science at school is generally theory-heavy and practical-light, there are many resources available to assist teachers in incorporating field trips (Weekend Geology 2022, AusGeol 2020), quality materials (TESEP 2022) and practical activities into their teaching (EarthEd 2022b). There is also a large scope to incorporate the cross-disciplinary capabilities of Sustainability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures through the teaching of Earth Science. Many Geological Events can be linked to Aboriginal Oral Tradition and Stories, with growing evidence of the cultural importance of Budj Bim, an extant volcano with eel traps (and now a World Heritage Site), Kooyoora, a granite cave system containing many artefacts and Tower Hill, where an axe-head was found buried in volcanic ash dated at 34,000 years, with all three sites located in Victoria (Samurovic 2020).
Most students are intrinsically motivated to understand our planet, however the pedagogical approach to teaching and learning geological science are inadequate and have led to the global disengagement of students. A new narrative driven by well-trained teachers and a more engaging student-centered pedagogy is needed to convey the importance of Earth Science to future generations of students.
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