Education News

Teaching Geoscience History in Context

The history of geoscience is filled with racist ideology and problematic foundational figures. A new set of modules aims to help educators by offering more inclusive context for inequities in the field today.

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The summer of 2020 brought a renewal of calls for racial justice around the world. For the first time, many scientists, including those in the geosciences, began to confront the ways in which racism and colonialism are systemic within their fields and institutions. In seeking ways to dismantle the systemic disenfranchisement of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) scholars, one group of geoscientists looked back on the origins of their field.

“The way that we’re being trained today is similar to the way people were being trained at the turn of the [20th] century. The science we can envision doing, what we expect these tool sets to allow us to do, is limited in this framework,” said Tamara Pico, an ice age geodynamics and feminist science studies researcher. Pico is part of a team of scientists who developed GeoContext, a set of supplementary teaching modules that aims to give the social and political context of geoscience history.

“If we keep using the same tool sets without being a little critical and maybe skeptical of what these tools were designed to do, we are unknowingly perpetuating a lot of the same practices of exclusion and practices of exploitation,” Pico added. “That’s why we use ‘GeoContext’ as our title, because giving the context of the past might help students see where their tools come from and how, if we keep using those tools, then we won’t get a different outcome.”

Eos staff writer Kimberly Cartier spoke with four of the scientists behind the development of the GeoContext curriculum: Pico, who will be an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz; geologist Christine Y. Chen, who conducted this research as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.; Seth Olinger, a Ph.D. student studying glacial geophysics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.; and Wesley Wiggins, a geoscience undergraduate student at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.

The Importance of Getting Context

Eos: What is scientific racism? In what ways is it present in the geosciences today?

Pico: Scientific racism is using science to create or justify racist ideas.…Sometimes we think scientific racism is something of the past, but it exists in science today. It’s pretty common to think that the Earth sciences are separate from social issues. But early geology, especially the early American geology that is [often] seen as the foundation of our field, was largely motivated by social issues, and especially issues of race.

Wiggins: There are not a lot of people of color in the geosciences, and part of that has to do with the values that these “fathers of geoscience” perpetuated through their work and through their teachings.…Confronting our own history in our field is important for acknowledging those divisions and healing and repairing from the damage that has been done and also allowing new ideas to come in that aren’t based in those ideologies.

Audio: Minik and the Meteorite

Where do the samples in our museums come from? Christine Chen explains how one of the world’s most famous meteorites is connected to the tragic story of a boy named Minik. Click here for a transcript of the recording.

Chen: For the longest time, I’d also bought into this idea that all science, including my field of geology, was apolitical and separate from social issues. To find out that some of geology’s foundational leaders were involved in these kinds of studies was really surprising to me. I’d heard stories about the eugenics movement in biology, and I thought, “Okay, well, that’s a biology problem.” But disciplines were not as siloed back then as they are today, and in fact, the eugenics movement was borne out by the very same people who led the field that I’ve been working in.…I have to hope that if we know more about the true history of our field, not the censored whitewashed history that we are generally taught, perhaps we will stand a better chance at not perpetuating deeply problematic ideals that don’t represent who we want to be today.

Olinger: In general, we love stories and narratives. The most compelling way to teach the history of a field, in the case of science or anything else, is often by using the tales of specific people who exerted a strong influence on the discourse or ideas within that field. And unfortunately, in the case of the geosciences, a lot of the people in 1800s who exerted a strong influence on the direction of the field also were involved in scientific racism.…It’s important that, moving forward, educators recognize the negative influences that those people had as well and make their students aware of them so that there’s a full picture presented and that those ideas don’t become implicitly accepted.

Eos: That resonates a lot with the time of reckoning we’re in now as people work to confront the racism that’s systemic throughout society, science, and academia. Why is it so important to teach the context in which geoscience got started?

Pico: The reason it’s so important to teach this fuller context is to help us see the ways that the tools we’re being given are reproducing the same harm that imperialists were doing. For example, we learn how to map out territory. Why do we learn that? It’s because that’s what historical geologists were doing. They were making maps of the land so they could make claims to the land and use it for their purposes.

Olinger: People agree that better science is done when more perspectives are included and a more diverse range of people are engaged in the science process.…If we want to make a field that’s more welcoming and will be a field that people who have a diverse range of backgrounds want to join, it’s important that the education process is honest about what the legacy of the field is and to indicate that we want to make a change moving forward.

Chen: For example, as a field-going geologist, I have come across the belief of fieldwork being this domain of the “rugged masculine straight white man.” This archetype persists today, both subtly and overtly. That picture of the ideal field scientist definitely plays a role in why so many people who do not fit that classic archetype feel excluded, disillusioned, or unsafe or even experience some level of traumatization in the field. And for me, one of the materials that [Olinger] presented was really striking to me.…John Tyndall was well known for being an accomplished mountaineer, and his theory of glacial flow mechanics happened to prevail over this other guy’s theory at the time. And the reason why it prevailed was not because he had better data or better science, but rather because he was seen as more of an accomplished mountaineer.

Even today, outdoorsmanship is conflated with academic prowess and credibility, where the difficulty, remoteness, dangers of fieldwork are tied to the perceived scientific value of the ideas and the expertise of those involved.…I’ve encountered this in my field training where, if I don’t go scurry up this really scrambly steep scarp to go look at that rock, I will be less of a legitimate field geologist than if I looked at a nice rock outcrop that happens to be by a road. This is a very ableist mindset. Ideas about who makes the best field geologists not only affect who can do that science and who can gain legitimacy in these spaces but also affect the actual scientific ideas that then get promulgated and researched.

A Curriculum to Meet the Moment

Eos: What was the catalyst that brought you together to discuss the issues of scientific racism and racism in the geosciences and develop a tool to address it?

Chen: In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder this past June, there was a reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Within STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], there was a particular movement called #ShutDownSTEM, which was a day where science departments would take one day to think about the ways in which structural racism permeates our spaces and affects not only the people who do science but also science itself. If you had not engaged with these topics very much before, it was a day where you were supposed to do just that and put a pause on your normal business-as-usual activities.

My very first meeting during #ShutDownSTEM day was with this lovely group of people [the GeoContext team]. We had all this information on things that we wish we had known when we were getting trained as geoscientists, and we asked, “What’s next?”

Pico: One of the people in our group, Harriet Lau, wanted to put into her lecture slides pictures of people of color and of women who were famous geoscientists and she struggled to find them for historical slides. But she explained to me, “This is why it’s hard.”…So we thought, why don’t we replace those slides with something that explains why the field looks the way it does today?

Eos: And from those discussions, you developed GeoContext?

Pico: Yes. We created a set of teaching modules that are meant to be supplementary for geoscience education. They span a range of topics that are generally included in geoscience, whether it’s an intro geoscience class or many of the standard classes that get taught for majors and graduate students. The modules are very short, about five slides each, and they’re meant to be easy to incorporate into existing lectures. Our hope is that the flexibility allows instructors to choose how to include this information however they want.…People don’t always have time to look into this on their own.

Eos: That’s one of the most common things that I hear when I talk to professors or teachers about why they aren’t talking about issues like this in classrooms. They say, “I want to but I don’t have enough time to do it from scratch” or “I don’t know enough about it to create a slide on my own.”

Pico: That is exactly the idea. We got together and figured out how to split topics so that it was manageable and done in a way that would help people not have to do that work.

Eos: What do some of the modules look like?

Wiggins: My module was about links between oceanography and the Atlantic slave trade and specifically related to one figure named Matthew Fontaine Maury. He was most known for being in the Navy, and he has been known as the “Pathfinder of the Seas.” He spent a lot of time looking at the trade winds and did a lot of work in the Atlantic Ocean. But there are a lot of other things that are less known about him and definitely surprised me. Essentially, his motivation behind work in the ocean was to profit off of enslaved people.…He was pro moving slaves to Brazil and having them still be owned by American slave owners. And then the trade winds would optimize the market and make it very efficient for agricultural products produced by enslaved people.…

Looking at that cinched for me. It’s so surprising and yet not surprising at the same time. Of course, people will conduct work in oceanography to more efficiently trade goods, and of course, at that time, goods meant enslaved people.

An 19th century map of Atlantic Ocean trade winds by Matthew Fontaine Maury
Matthew Fontaine Maury mapped Atlantic trade winds to profit off of enslaved people. Above, “Trade wind chart of the Atlantic Ocean” by Matthew Fontaine Maury, 1851. Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Pico: The one I did was on landscape science and geomorphology. You might know John Wesley Powell for talking about rivers, but while he was writing these theories about rivers, he was also writing about the inferiority of Native American languages in the canyonlands of the United States. He actually spent most of his time doing that.…We also mention William Morris Davis, whose work is used in geomorphology today. He would say, “Warm climates are what makes these races stupid, and that’s why Scandinavians are the best,” or things like that. I’m paraphrasing, but he would make arguments about climate and location of continents to justify a hierarchy of human races. Ultimately, we can trace these ideas to some of the eugenics movements that were used by the Nazi government.

Olinger: My slides are titled “Glaciology, Race, and Masculinity.” One slide addresses the fact that Indigenous Peoples are faced with a much higher level of hazard associated with glacial processes, including things like sea level rise, glacial lake outburst floods, and water scarcity associated with draining glaciers. Yet there’s not a ton of work within glaciology that deals directly with Indigenous Peoples.

I cite a paper in which the authors examine descriptions for different types of snow used by the Sámi people, who are an Indigenous People from Scandinavia. They find that, unsurprisingly, these folks who have been working in a glacial environment for a long time have incredibly interesting observations about the material properties of snow that would probably go unnoticed by scientists who haven’t spent any time in that area. Not only is it our duty to make an inclusive field, but the field is also improved by including other people’s perspectives.

Realigning the Moral Compass

Eos: The content you covered touches on some very heavy topics: slavery, white supremacy, eugenics. How did it feel personally to engage with these topics in the context of geosciences?

Pico: I study the ice age. And when learning about the ice age, Louis Agassiz was someone I revered very much. He really contributed a lot to the field, and it wasn’t until the end of my fourth year as a graduate student that I learned about his work [perpetuating] scientific racism. And it felt like the carpet was being pulled out from under me.…That, personally, was a feeling of “I don’t know what I’m standing on anymore.” As an early-career researcher, you could imagine thinking, “Louis Agassiz might be proud that I figured out global ice volumes” or “This was a continuation of his work,” but actually, he wouldn’t be proud of me. He didn’t want me to exist.

Wiggins: I definitely relate to that experience, though I’m thinking about Princeton with Arnold Guyot. Guyot’s ideas about climate-based superiority of races were part of his ideology that…I just learned about this past summer. I haven’t been back in Guyot Hall, which is the home of the geoscience department, since then. But now, in some ways, it plagues my memories of the building because it’s a building that I personally loved, and that’s the legacy that I have to think about every time I think of the building now.…

It’s really important to not memorialize these individuals. Put them in a museum, maybe, but make sure you talk about who they actually were.…They did good things, but they also did pretty terrible things, and acknowledging that and not memorializing them is the first step to healing. This is our pathway to take a deeper dive into not only these individuals’ legacies but also the legacy of the field itself.

When I saw this project [GeoContext], it filled me with so much joy because this is what I’ve known that my geosciences education has been missing this whole time.…It’s not that every single moment has been oh so happy. There have been times in this project that I walked out of my room to my dad and I said, “Hey dad, I just want to scream right now.”…But it really felt, in my own way, that I could give back. It’s something that I could use to help change the field of geoscience, coming from someone who hasn’t even graduated college yet. There are not a lot of other Black geoscientists out there, and this helps me to make my mark and to be the change that the geoscience field really needs.

Two glaciers and a glacial lake with mountains in the background
Early American geologists who perpetuated scientific racism have been memorialized in the names of geologic features. Above, Alaska’s Agassiz Glacier and Agassiz Lake, both named after Louis Agassiz. Credit: National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank

Eos: In what ways are you hoping this project grows and shapes the future of the field?

Chen: This first release focuses on the historical roots of various subdisciplines in Earth sciences. We’re all hoping this project will expand to focus on issues more in the present day to help people reflect on what we as geoscientists can do now to reduce harm and even redress past harms to marginalized communities like Indigenous groups.

Pico: We’re really hoping that this will be a growing resource that can be contributed to by the community. On our website, if people want to contribute, we would be happy to keep growing these resources through contributions. This was our first release, and in our next set, we’ll focus on Indigenous Knowledges and Indigenous interactions.

Chen: If there is one thing that I hope for this project, it is that it will dispel the idea that geoscience, or any science for that matter, is apolitical and independent of human societal concerns. We, the Earth sciences community, have yet to collectively acknowledge and come to terms with our dark past. I hope the project shows how the social and political context of our science has, and continues to have, a huge impact on our ability to practice truly objective and empirical science. Who does the science? How does this impact what science is prioritized, funded, or considered elite? Who benefits or is harmed from the science?

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2021), Teaching geoscience history in context, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO155621. Published on 09 March 2021.
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