Earth Science Education

(Adopted by AMS Council on 29 January 2006) Bull. Amer. Met. Soc., 87 

The American Meteorological Society supports parents, teachers, school administrators, school board members, and others who strive to enrich, retain, or begin earth science programs in schools.

The Society recommends that even when schools face budget pressures, the earth sciences should be key parts of science education from early childhood programs through high school. The earth sciences include studies of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and the relations among them and with the biosphere. Study of the earth sciences directly addresses several issues of great societal concern, including but not limited to natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes, and the global effects of a changing climate.

The earth sciences are important because they are a window into other sciences, and because they help students develop critical thinking skills. In addition, the earth sciences connect the world of science with all students’ daily experiences.

The weather is a never-ending “science experiment” in progress outside classroom windows. Teachers with sound training in the earth science basics have endlessly interesting and relevant material to draw upon that connects science with the students’ past experiences and daily lives.

Earth science helps students see how all of the sciences are related because to study the Earth, scientists and students must use the knowledge and techniques of several disciplines, including but not limited to physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science. Learning about the Earth helps students realize that their world is made of interconnected, dynamic systems. The National Science Education Standards (prepared by the National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, National Research Council. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1996) recognize the importance of the earth sciences by including weather and climate knowledge that students at all grade levels should master.

In addition, the earth sciences, and especially weather, connect science with the world students come to know through the news media, especially television. Surveys over the past several years have shown that television is the primary source of news for the majority of Americans. With the exception of weather, most of the science that television news presents is about health and medicine. In fact, television weathercasters are likely to be the only representatives of science students and their parents regularly see. Thanks to programs such as the AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist program, television meteorologists are expected to include sound scientific information in their presentations. In addition, many television meteorologists work with schools in their markets, many of whom regularly report observations from school weather stations. Only schools with earth science programs that include meteorology can take full advantage of the resources that many local television stations offer.

The value of earth science classes goes beyond the intellectual benefits. Over the years, various reports have testified to the life-saving value of earth science education. One of the most dramatic of these came from the 26 December 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal areas around the Indian Ocean, killing as many as 300,000 people. A British schoolgirl, who had studied tsunamis in school, recognized precursors of the tsunami that was about to hit the beach in Thailand she was visiting. The schoolgirl persuaded her mother to shout a warning, which is credited with saving 100 people on the beach.

In the United States, students in earth science classes learn how to react when endangered by tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, lightning, and other hazards. The devastating hurricanes of 2005 showed that more Americans still need to better understand the potential effects of dangerous weather. This education could begin in school. As an example of the benefits of such education, two scientists from the National Severe Storms Laboratory, writing in the June 2002 issue of the journal Weather and Forecasting, credit school safety lessons with the absence of anyone between the ages 5 and 23 among the 36 people killed by the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado. 

Of course, the benefits of earth science education go far beyond learning how to cope with natural disasters. Even if students never use what they learn in earth science classes to save their lives or the lives of others, they will benefit from learning the critical thinking skills associated with scientific endeavors and learning more about how the world works. Students who study the earth sciences will better understand the value of the Earth’s resources, how its components are related, and the need to care for the Earth. Men and women who possess a basic understanding of the Earth will be able to participate as informed citizens in policy debates, such as about climate change. Society will be the ultimate beneficiary as its citizens become more aware of the science that explains weather, earth’s water, the oceans, and the Earth itself.