To What Extent Should Human/Environment Interactions Be Included in Science Education?

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ABSTRACT

Research and education about the Earth and environment can be considered as a cascade of information flows, from the Earth, into sensors, then to data, then to insights in the minds of scientists, curriculum materials, teachers, and finally to insights in the minds of learners. In at least some cases, the insights in the minds of learners feed back to the Earth as learners send a message to the Earth in the form of modifications to their actions and decisions. This paper asks: To what extent does, or should, science education seek to change how individual human beings and human society interact with the Earth and environment? We explore this question by examining the outcomes of 49 separate deliberative processes, the state science education standards. We find that there is serious disagreement across the nation as to whether science classes should consider human/environment interactions at all. There is more support for teaching about how human society impacts the environment than for teaching about how the environment impacts humans and human society. In most states, there is minimal or no support, in the standards, for teaching about how individuals can and do impact the environment.

INTRODUCTION

Earth System Education as a System - As systems thinkers engaged in Geoscience research, we are accustomed to think about Earth processes in terms of reservoirs, fluxes and feedbacks (e.g. Boumans et al., 2002). We can also think of Earth research and education itself as a system of reservoirs linked by information flows (Figure 1).

Information flows from the Earth into sensors, including both electromechanical sensors and the human senses. From there, it is organized into "Data and Observations," which in turn contribute to "Understandings and Knowledge in the Minds of Scientists." From the minds of scientists, a subset of understanding and knowledge flows into curriculum materials. From "Curriculum Materials," some information flows into the "Minds of Learners" and into the "Minds of Teachers"; in both places, it contributes to the construction of new understandings and knowledge. Information also flows from the understandings and knowledge in the minds of teachers towards the construction of knowledge and understanding in the minds of learners without going via curriculum materials. Figure 1 is a very high-level representation of this system, and one could drill down into any one of these arrows to reveal enormous complexity. For example, the first arrow, from "Earth" to "Sensors and Senses" summarizes an intricate system of research ships, satellites, oceanographie buoys, stream gauges, weather stations, sampling programs in atmosphere, ocean and solid earth, field observations by geologists and ecologists, and many other human and electromechanical senses ana sensors. Other arrows summarize equally complicated subsystems (Chayes, 2001).

There is loss and distortion of information at every arrow in this diagram. Humanity pushes to reduce that loss and distortion. Engineers apply their ingenuity to reducing loss and distortion at the arrow from The Earth" to "Sensors and Senses." Scientists struggle to extract more complete and less distorted understandings from their data and observations. Instructional materials developers and reviewers seek to minimize loss and distortion at the arrow from the "Minds of Scientists" to curriculum materials. Educational researchers and evaluators seek to understand and ameliorate the losses and distortions that occur during the steps from "Curriculum Material" and the "Minds of Teachers" and the "Minds of Learners".

Beyond "Knowledge and Understanding in the Minds of Students"? - The end goal of education is usually cast as the far right-hand reservoir of the flowchart: Knowledge and Understanding in the minds of learners. In Geoscience education, though, there is potentially a more profound goal, which is indicated by the feedback arrow inserted leftward across the diagram from the learners back to the Earth. …