Earth & Space Science


Earth and Space Science Comes of Age in Next Generation Science Standards

Suppose that you could create a K–12 science and engineering curriculum from scratch. How would you go about doing it? Over the past four years, that’s essentially what we have done: first by writing the National Research Council’s report, A Framework for K–12 Science Education Standards: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas; and now by constructing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). My own responsibilities have primarily been in the area of Earth and space science, so let me rephrase my initial question. If you could create a K–12 Earth and space science (ESS) curriculum from scratch, how would you go about doing it? If you’re an Earth science teacher, I’m guessing that you would probably do what we did. First…

Reduce the amount of content. I don’t mean the amount of time to be spent on ESS, but rather the amount of information. You want content that is shorter but deeper, so you don’t have to rush through lesson plans to cover all the information on a state test. The NGSS do this with a reduced number of performance expectations. Information used to be hard to come by. My school years were spent bicycling across town to the library to write my reports. Kids now have a universe of information at their fingertips, and there’s no need for them to memorize factoids. In fact, there is too much information available. What we really need is a….

Greater emphasis on system processes. While memorizing the names of planets, minerals, or clouds is not important (this is what Google is for), it is important to understand the roles the planets, minerals, and clouds play in different Earth and space systems. Instruction should focus on building a mental infrastructure that will give the students a place to organize all the scientific information they’ll encounter during their lifetimes. That way, they can treat the facts as just the means to an end, like tools. You don’t need to carry all your tools around with you all the time; you just pick them up when you need them and put them away when you’re done. The Earth and space science performance expectations of the NGSS do this by focusing on the processes that operate with the space system, solar system, and interconnected Earth systems of the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and anthrosphere. This approach focuses not on the scientific information, but rather how to apply it. This leads to a…

Greater emphasis on practice. Educational research has clearly demonstrated that if you want students to learn about, value, and be excited about science, the best way is to have them do science. This is why every performance expectation of the NGSS starts with a practice. The NGSS are not about what the students know, but what they can do. But this goes far beyond the traditional “inquiry-based” learning. In the same way that there is no single scientific method, there is also no single practice of science. Scientists analyze data, construct models, carry out investigations, ask questions, construct explanations, obtain and communicate information, and so on, and they do these things in different ways at different times and in different orders. Students will not only enjoy science more, but will understand it better if they do the same.

Greater integration. Science education needs to be viewed as a whole rather than as a set of discrete topics and must serve as a connected part of a student’s entire education. This is especially important for Earth and space science, which is a highly integrated and synoptic field with many applications directly tied to human endeavors. The NGSS strive to be better integrated at multiple levels.

  • Significant effort was taken to ensure a greater uniformity of style and approach across the three areas of life science, physical science, and Earth and space science, recognizing that the boundaries between these areas are totally artificial and arbitrary and that there’s a great deal of overlap. Emphasis on the Crosscutting Concepts and Nature of Science help make this integration happen.
  • The NGSS incorporate the concepts of engineering and technology because the boundary between science and engineering is also artificial.
  • The NGSS are integrated with the Common Core of math and English language arts, with direct connections called out from each NGSS performance expectation.
  • The NGSS progresses smoothly from kindergarten to grade 12, not just in the scientific content, but in all other parts as well. In each of the Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, Nature of Science, and Engineering Concepts, a grade-band progress is developed and employed within the performance expectations.

More Earth and space science in high school. The NGSS finally recognize Earth and space science as the rigorous, relevant, complex, quantitative science that it has become. The NGSS require a year of ESS in both middle and high school. In fact, there are roughly as many performance expectations for Earth and space science in high school as there are for physics and chemistry combined. What’s more, a set of Course Maps demonstrates that because of the complexity and interconnectedness of most of the ESS content, the bulk of it needs to be taught after physical and life science in both middle and high school. There has long been talk of the need for a high school capstone science course in Earth and space science. Implemented in the optimal manner, the NGSS would do this by having Earth and space taught in high school after physics, chemistry, and biology.

More relevant content. Look at the front page of a national newspaper over the course of a year and you’ll see that Earth and space science dominates the headlines far more than any other scientific field: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, climate change, exploding meteors, droughts, floods, coal resources, gas prices, mineral resources, water supplies, oil spills, hydrofracking, solar storms, environmental impacts… the list goes on and on. Earth and space science directly impacts the lives of humans in countless ways. The very course of civilization has been intimately shaped by climate change, natural catastrophes, and the availability of natural resources. As the philosopher Will Durant said, “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” The fact that no civilization in human history has lasted very long poses a severe reminder to us that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. This situation is even more critical now that humans, with booming populations and industrialization, have become the largest single agent of geologic change on Earth’s surface, altering the land, air, and water faster than any geoscience process. It’s not only timely that the NGSS will provide students with a much deeper understanding of Earth and space science. Our very survival may depend upon it.

This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.

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Michael Wysession

    Michael Wysession is a world leader in the areas of seismology and geophysical education. He is Chair of the NSF-sponsored Earth Science Literacy Initiative, leader of the Earth and Space Science design team for the NRC’s Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards, and team leader for Earth and Space Science in the writing of the new Next Generation Science Standards. He is author or co-author of over 20 textbooks ranging from elementary to graduate school levels. Wysession’s research and educational efforts have been recognized through several fellowships and awards. He has received a Science and Engineering Fellowship from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and a National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellowship. Wysession received Distinguished Lectureships from the Seismological Society of America and Incorporated Research Institutions of Seismology in 2005, and from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers in 2009. Wysession was awarded the Innovation Award of the St. Louis Science Academy and the Distinguished Faculty Award of Washington University.