Confessions of a Geoscientist – Why Focus on Science Education?

These days, I spend just about all my time focused on helping Earth and space science educators, and trying to improve public understanding of Earth and space science.  I didn’t start out this way, though.  The path I’ve taken has changed with time, and perhaps sharing it might be helpful to others asking themselves the same questions I have.

I was lucky to have been raised by two accomplished parents who understood the value of education and hard work – my father was a physicist for the Navy, and my mother a community college professor.  I went to school at a time when the public schools in California were second to none (that is, before the effect of Proposition 13 had its full effect on the state’s educational infrastructure).  College was very affordable, and the education provided by the University of California system was superb.  I received by BS, MS, and PhD in Earth and Space Science from UCLA, and continued on to work at SRI International in Menlo Park as a Research Physicist, and then at the University of Michigan Space Physics Research Laboratory on the research faculty.

As I started my career, I followed the standard research path – doing research on the upper atmosphere at high latitudes, traveling to interesting places, and writing proposals for and papers on my research.  Shortly after the birth of my second child, after just having edited my first book, organizing a conference, and publishing five papers in a year, I started to notice inklings of concern that perhaps my work was not going to do enough to make a positive difference for my children and society.

By this time, in the early 1990s, the impact of continuing budget cuts on education was starting to really be felt by students, parents, and faculty.  At the university level, tuition continued to rise as states reduced their support for “public” universities.  Faculty positions became harder to come by, and at times instead of hoping for a raise, faculty members found themselves competing for who would get the smallest salary cut.  At the K-12 level, teachers started getting cut, class sizes grew, supplies became more difficult to come by, and facilities were less well maintained.  These days, a first class university education is out of reach of many young people as a result of relentless cuts in state budgets and rising tuition, and students sometimes find themselves having to stay on an extra year since the school can’t afford to offer classes frequently enough to meet demand.

Before leaving California for Michigan, I had what I realized later was a life-changing experience.  I was visiting with friends in San Diego – the husband was a scientific equipment inventor, and the wife was a high school art teacher.  She was clearly upset, as she was preparing dinner, and explained that two weeks before the school year started, her principal had assigned her to teach high school algebra!  She explained that she was learning the material the night before the students, that she was petrified, and that the students clearly knew that she was uncomfortable with the material. She felt like a fool, but kept trying, because she had a mortgage to pay, and needed to keep her job.

Just imagine what a terrible impact that decision had on so many people – this was not only a horrifying experience for the teacher, but also one that clearly was not made with the best interests of the students in mind.  Students likely formed negative opinions about math, as well as female math teachers, and perhaps felt (particularly if they were girls) that math was not for them – they didn’t want to look like a fool, too!

Whose fault was this?  Why did the principal assign her to teach this class?  It would be easy to blame the principal, but in reality the fault lies in the fact that the school district didn’t have the funds to hire a trained math teacher to teach the course.  And of  course, the reason the school didn’t have the funds was because the social contract to support the education of future generations through the tax base was starting to break down – I’m sure I’ll come back to this in future posts…

Back to Michigan, as I starting thinking about what I was doing after the birth of my first two kids, and thought about my friend in San Diego and what a sorry state our educational system was devolving into – we were creating a cycle of failure for our students and society. I gradually realized that I really wanted to find a way to try to help teachers have the preparation they needed to provide students an excellent science education, and that I wanted to share my love of the Earth and space sciences with the public, students and teachers while doing so.  At this point, the Internet was just starting, and I was lucky enough to get support from NASA to start the Windows to the Universe project in 1995.  One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we were measuring visitors to the website in terms of Michigan Stadium audiences (over 100,000 people) per month.  Today, we have over 100,000 visitors in two days!

I was lucky enough to meet two wonderful Earth science educators in Michigan – David Mastie and Parker Pennington IV, who became partners on this project since its inception.  Through them, and eventually my colleagues at the National Earth Science Teachers Association, I learned more about the struggles K-12 teachers face today – particularly Earth and space science teachers, who for mainly structural reasons find this essential area of science relegated to low value and respect in many school systems across the country.  Despite this, these teachers persevere against odds that many of my scientific colleagues would never think about putting up with.  Whether they are buying supplies for their classrooms from their own pocketbooks or paying their own way to professional development conferences because the school districts can’t afford it (usually sharing rooms and bringing along food to keep the costs down), the commitment of these teachers to improve their knowledge and skills, and to bring the best to their students, is inspiring and humbling.

As I worked with my colleagues, I learned that many Earth science teachers across the country are hungry for professional development, since many had limited exposure to Earth science at the university level.  These teachers – like my friend in San Diego – want to do the best they can for their students, and to do so they need to continually improve their knowledge and skills, so they can bring their enthusiasm and confidence with the material back to their students.  In my view, there is a special role for motivated geoscientists to play here, in collaboration with educators, helping to bring state-of-the-art science and research expertise to the Earth and space science classroom, with the understanding that they, too, have a lot to learn from teachers.


1 Comment

One Response to “Confessions of a Geoscientist – Why Focus on Science Education?”

  1. This is a great post. It really shows how small changes can have a large effect on the classroom. Just implementing any of the above activities I am sure would help students have a more positive outlook on learning!

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