Space-age technologies have revolutionized Earth science, but this revolution has yet to extend to Earth science education. Urban schools, however, can be at the forefront of reform because cities offer a wealth of opportunities and resources for study. By relying on publicly-available aerial and satellite perspectives of urban areas and tapping into ground and historical data and easily used visualization tools, students can understand their cities as dynamic, interconnected systems of human and environmental forces. Using the powerful views of astronaut and satellite imagery to study Los Angeles, for example, students can acquire skills of inquiry, analysis and problem solving as they learn how the city is shaped by its environment, climate and geography. Themes for urban Earth science studies include regional ecology, climate, water resources and transportation. In engaging students in Earth science studies of their metropolitan areas, schools can meet critical goals of state frameworks as well as of the National Science Education Standards and the National Geography Education Standards. Educators can present Earth science in a way that is relevant and accessible to students, helping to forge a science-literate public and placing urban school districts in the vanguard of Earth science education.
Earth science education is in the midst of a revolution (National Conference on the Revolution in Earth and Space Science Education) and the reasons are twofold. First, Earth science itself is emerging as an increasingly vital discipline that informs critical endeavors ranging from urban planning and weather forecasting to energy procurement and resource management. As a result, citizens will need to grasp basic Earth science concepts to make decisions or economic, political, social and environmental consequences. The National Science Education Standards recognizes this need by focusing on "Earth and Space Science as a core domain of science education at all grade levels. The Standards recommend that students experience Earth and space science as a process of inquiry, exploration and discovery.
Secondly, new generations of technology have endowed Earth scientists with powerful tools that reveal with convincing clarity the planet's systemic components and their complex interactions. Resources like telecommunications, data visualizations, analysis tools, remotely sensed imaging and a rich array of satellite sensors enable us to understand our world as never before. Many of these resources are widely available to classrooms, which fuels momentum for Earth science education reform. NASA, USGS, NOAA and other organizations post a wealth of satellite imagery, animations, interactive maps and other visualizations posted on the Internet. These resources empower learners to see how Earth's forces affect their daily lives and to understand the planet as a dynamic system.
Attempts to reform Earth science education in urban schools, however, have had frustratingly little impact (AGI, National Status Report on K-12 Earth Science Education, 2001). Even with major initiatives to install computers and telecommunication technology in urban schools, there is disproportionately little effort to develop educational activities that use these resources to truly engage and challenge students.
Ironically, urban areas are rich with opportunity for learning and exploration in Earth science. Urban schools shouldbe at the cutting edge of reform, not only due to the great need, but also because of the opportunities and resources inherent in cities, such as natural parks to explore, water and other resource agencies with experts and data to share, and a wealth of remotely-sensed image and GIS maps showing cities and their physical and human infrastructure in impressive detail. Viewing cities as resources and the focal point of study helps students understand key aspects of the National Science Education Standards, such as the "unifying concepts and processes" of science like "systems"-how components and processes interact. …