Education Editors' Vox

Opportunities for Improving K-12 Geoscience Education

The Next Generation Science Standards present a set of performance expectations for stronger understanding of Earth and space science.


Within the next few years, colleges and universities will begin to notice that enrolling U.S. students will have a stronger understanding of science, especially in the areas of Earth and space science. Students will likely also be more capable of carrying out scientific research and have a greater interest in choosing careers in science. The reason for this is the recent adoption by many states and school districts of K-12 science curricula that are aligned with the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These new standards, based upon the influential National Research Council report, Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, present a set of performance expectations that require student assessments to be based upon the ability to carry out a suite of eight practices of science and engineering instead of memorization of content. This means that science will need to be taught by having students do science through analyzing and interpreting data, planning and carrying out investigations, constructing explanations based upon evidence, and using mathematics and computational thinking.

The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. In a relatively short amount of time, sixteen states and the District of Columbia officially adopted the NGSS verbatim, while more than a half-dozen others are in the process of adopting curricula adapted from the NGSS. In addition, many schools and districts in other states have adopted or are in the process of adopting new NGSS-aligned curricula. Currently, this means that roughly 75% of U.S. students are now in schools that will be teaching science as an active process of discovery of the quantitative, transdisciplinary, systems-oriented nature of the universe. When these students go to college, they will not be satisfied by the passive lecture-oriented science curricula that dominate most of undergraduate education, and colleges and universities will need to change the way they teach.

There are many reasons for geoscientists to be excited about the new NGSS. They involve a full year’s worth of material for high school, as well as in middle school. The NGSS performance expectations, designed as a minimum for all students (they do not address honors or AP courses), require a year each of life, physical science (physics and chemistry), and Earth and space science. Earth and space science is presented to students with a systems-based approach that emphasizes the flow of energy, cycling of matter, and complex feedbacks among multiple geoscience spheres and processes, and de-emphasizes aspects of classification and categorization. In addition, the NGSS focus upon many of the societally relevant topics that have made the geosciences so important, such as human impacts upon Earth systems, human sustainability in the context of limited natural resources, human attempts to mitigate natural hazards, and the impacts to humans and by humans concerning regional and global climate change.

There are, however, challenges that face successful implementation, particularly in the areas of Earth and space science. The strong presence of climate change within the NGSS has caused some states to alter the climate-related performance expectations, and caused others (such as Wyoming) to reject the NGSS altogether. Most high schools currently do not teach advanced Earth and space science so training teachers (and administrators) will require significant professional development resources. There is a fear that many schools will choose to have the high school Earth and space science content taught within existing biology, chemistry, and physics courses, rather than construct new geoscience courses taught by geoscience educators. Meeting these and other challenges will require the awareness and support of the geoscience higher-education research and education communities. Interested scientists and educators are urged to attend sessions at the AGU meeting in San Francisco to learn about ways they can help take advantage of the new NGSS standards to help raise K-12 geoscience education to a new level.

Michael E. Wysession, Editor, Geophysical Research Letters; email: [email protected]