Archive for June, 2009

High school earth science: Is it a good thing??

June 8, 2009

I have been “away” for the last few months coping with a birthday (77) and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.¬† I ran into a piece at Oakland Geology on the subject of earth science courses in high school, particularly Prof Eldridge Moores efforts. That bounced me into writing the current post.

From the Preface: Physical Geology; Longwell, Flint and Sanders (1969) John Wiley.
“We believe the text will be readily comprehensible by students with no more than secondary-school background in physics, chemistry and mathematics.”

In 1969, secondary-school earth science courses were rare to non-existent. But the movement was on, rationalized in many ways, including the currrent ones. I was involved in this period with an NSF project at San Diego State College in training high school teachers in geology.

Then the Law of Unintended Consequences reared its ugly head. We all thought of earth science as being an enrichment of the high school curriculum. But it became a substitution, and that during a time when high school curricula were becoming generally impoverished, particularly in science. My own graduation from a basically average public high school in 1950 required four years of science in the academic track. But that has subsequenty been cut in half.

Thirty years later, when I surveyed my community college students in Physical Geology, nearly half had taken only an earth science course in the physical science category. Another 40% had taken chemistry, 10% had taken physics and all of those had also had chemistry. The remaining  group had nothing at all to report. Perhaps that was in part sampling error or simply due to the fact that a high school diploma is not required for community college entrance in California.

The consequences were as you would reasonably expect. The students who had only earth science were the least well prepared for a college level geology course.

Of course! The students were in my geology course, not in a physics course or a chemistry course, even though these courses also fulfilled the degree requirements. The “average student” avoids math based courses, in high school and in college, and arrives in the geology course with the expectation that nothing particularly challenging is ahead of them. There was occasional outrage at even the necessary reference atoms or elements or equations for gravity or seismic velocity. The students who had no background were at least aware that they were in for some work.

But the “average student” that graduates from a California high school does NOT end up taking Physical Geology at a prestigious University. The entrance requirements screen out “average students”. The aspiring elite students know that to get in to their first choice schools, they have to show high grades in hard courses, so they very well may meet the requirements stated above by Longwell, et alli., wherever they ended up (sometimes in my classes for personal reasons).

I urge you to take these circumstances into account. I am heated about the subject because my own career path took me from average grades in the average high school through a community college to the prestigious University. It is a well travelled path; a high percentage of university graduates follow it- perhaps half. Requirements are coercive. The aspiring elite student is already coerced by aspiration itself. Coercing the less aspiring into learning skills that open up posssibilities is not a bad thing. And in science, chemistry and physics are basic skill courses!

The unintended consequences of adding earth science to the high school curriculum has been the subtraction of basic science skill courses from their study lists by many students, to their ultimate detriment. In the long run, it hurts students and is counter-productive to enlarging the geological perspective that we so desperately need to cope with the problems the world community now faces.