Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Creating Undergraduate Community Ambassadors of Earth System Science

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Creating Undergraduate Community Ambassadors of Earth System Science

Article excerpt


A major challenge-and responsibility-facing scientists is the effective communication of complex scientific information to lay audiences. While this issue is important regardless of scientific discipline, conveying accurate information about earth system science (ESS) is particularly critical because: 1) ESS lies at the heart of formulating environmental policy, 2) public interest is high with respect to many ESS topics (e.g. climate change), 3) ESS is inherently complex and uncertain, 4) ESS involves broad spatial and temporal scales not routinely dealt with by the lay public, and 5) media reports regarding key ESS topics are often brief and lack the depth necessary to appropriately convey the scientific debate and consensus on a topic. As part of an effort to improve the communication of ESS-related information to non-scientists, we required undergraduate science and engineering students to deliver ESS-related presentations to community groups. From 1998-2004, 46 students in 5 different ESS-related courses presented information to more than 20 different community groups in South Dakota and Colorado. Though quantitative pre/post assessments of the degree of audience education was not implemented, qualitative data indicate that incorporation of this project in our undergraduate ESS classes has helped to begin bridging the important gap of transferring current ESS understanding from the realm of the scientist to that of the general public.


Earth system science (ESS) is central to environmental management and policy making, and over the past two decades, earth system scientists have become increasingly aware of the importance of building ESS literacy throughout the general public. In 1988 the Ecological Society of America initiated a working group of scientists to define ecology research, education, and outreach priorities for the last decade of the 20th Century. The results of this effort (dubbed the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative; Lubchenco et al., 1991) as well as similar initiatives within the American Geophysical Union and other scientific societies and agencies, have helped to set the conceptual stage for a new era of ESS education whereby scientists are needed and expected to take a lead role in public science education and outreach.

ESS topics are inherently complex, and media reports of topics such as global climate change, biodiversity loss, or stratospheric ozone thinning often lack the depth to capture the complexity and scientific debate/consensus surrounding these issues. As a result, public awareness and understanding of these important current topics can become less dependent upon scientific fact, and more influenced by non-scientific (e.g. political or economic) interpretation where uncertainty may be viewed as ignorance rather than as knowledge (Bradshaw and Borchers, 2000). This process can lead to public frustration and/or paralysis on what can be done to solve current environmental problems, and cultivates public apathy regarding key environmental issues (Immerwahr, 1999). More effective communication between the scientific community and the public, therefore, should center upon clarifying both the scientific consensus on environmental issues as well as what can be done to confront such problems (Immerwahr, 1999). As Peter Vitousek (1994) implores his fellow scientists with respect to such elements of global change:

As a science, we have spent some time thinking about what we do know; we should now spend some effort in communicating that to the public....[We] know that several components of global change are real, ongoing, and human-caused; we can prove it. By speaking up, we can push public and academic discussion away from an enervating focus on uncertainty. Its reasonable to debate what should be done about particular components of global change; it's not reasonable to debate whether or not change is occurring, (p. 1872)

We feel that Vitousek identifies an important opportunity for university faculty and upper-level students to bridge the ESS information gap Between earth system scientists and the lay public. …

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