Fighting for Geoscience Education
When National Science Education Standards was released in the 1990s, earth and space science education was boosted toward a position of equality with biology, chemistry, and physics. Although earth science has long been part of the K–12 offerings in New York State schools because of the Regents Exams, it has remained out of the curriculum in many states for a variety of reasons, including politically-based opposition to “deep time,” “fossil evolution,” and other controversial topics; but it is also because of the difficulty finding teachers who can provide quality instruction about geology, astronomy, oceanography, and atmospheric sciences. Support for K–12 geoscience education is the main reason for the existence of the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA).
NESTA’s mission since its founding in 1983 has been “to facilitate and advance excellence in earth and space science education.” Most of NESTA’s members are classroom teachers from every state and a few Canadian provinces, but they are joined by university professors, representatives from informal educational organizations, and federal and state agencies. Its purpose is to stimulate, improve, and coordinate earth science at all levels. NESTA does this through print and online publications, highly regarded programs at national and area conferences, and interactions with many other science-oriented organizations.
NESTA’s quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, provides classroom educators and others with five to seven articles about cutting-edge investigations, classroom ideas and other information that serve to inform readers about new advances in modern geoscience. NESTA’s monthly “E-News” provides timely announcements about upcoming events, conferences and professional development opportunities. Special interest items with immediate time demands are disseminated through “E-blasts.” And, with support from the National Science Foundation, NESTA recently created an enhanced website, www.nestanet.org.
Each year at the National Science Teachers Association national and area conferences, hundreds of teachers participate in NESTA-sponsored events. Over four days at the national meetings, NESTA presents seven types of programs. For example, we create a field trip, conducted by university and informal science specialists, to study interesting local sites. Last year in New Orleans, participants received a behind-the-scenes tour of the hurricane devastation and recovery efforts led by people who have literally been involved in picking up the pieces of lives and educational programs following Katrina.
NESTA pioneered the now-popular conference format of “Share-a-thons.” These involve volunteers at up to thirty or forty tables set up in a ballroom who provide an exemplary classroom activity or information about their program to hundreds of teachers circling the room in search of ideas of value to them. At national meetings, NESTA offers four themed Share-a-thons: geology, astronomy, meteorology, and environmental science. This format allows teachers to share what has worked well for them at a conference without having to fill a regular thirty- or sixty-minute timeslot, which many are loath to try. Participants can collect useful ideas from more than a hundred colleagues if they go to all four. This has always been one of the highest-rating features of NSTA conferences, and a major reason to attend for many teachers.
NESTA also provides another highly-anticipated event: our Rock and Mineral Raffle. Up to two hundred specimens suitable for classroom use, along with other donated resources, are set out on tables after the Share-a-thon volunteers pack up, together with a brown paper bag. NESTA members sell raffle tickets, and attendees place them into the bags of desired items. There is a lot of fun as the winning tickets are pulled, plus much grief when people don’t get what they fervently hoped for (we now try to provide consolation specimens for people who don’t win the regular prizes).
NESTA offers featured “Earth and Space Day” lectures on key issues in the geosciences. These begin with a theme breakfast meeting, and provide three talks by scientists on the forefront of the earth and space sciences. For many classroom teachers, these provide the rare opportunity to interact with “practicing” scientists. This greatly enhances credibility with students when they can say, “As I learned from Dr. So-and-so at the NESTA lectures, scientists discovered that…”
NESTA also fosters informal interactions through our “Friends of Earth Science Reception” at national meetings. Classroom teachers, researchers and representatives from government agencies, professional societies, trade associations, and commercial companies mingle over drinks and hors d’oeuvres in this one-of-a-kind event. Networking that takes place here has led to many valuable connections in subsequent months.
NESTA representatives also reach out in many other venues. Dr. Roberta Johnson, NESTA’s Executive Director, other NESTA Officers and I frequently meet in person or exchange emails with counterparts at major geoscience organizations, including the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and dozens of other entities in our efforts to promote K–12 earth science education.
Many current decision-makers in schools and government agencies never studied earth science during their education. So, to demonstrate the importance of earth science, we try to leave them with this message:
These are dynamic times on planet Earth, and dynamic times to be teaching about our planet. In recent decades, the earth sciences have grown from infancy to the most dynamic and societally-relevant field of science. Current events—earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, water supply problems, and much more—demonstrate the necessity to understand earth science in order to create an informed citizenry capable of making good decisions when disasters strike. For earth science educators, this requires the capability to remain current with changes in the earth sciences as a field of study.#
Dr. Michael J. Passow is President of the National Earth Science Teachers Association.