September/October 1996


Most seismologists have received a request from a schoolteacher to make a classroom visit to talk about earthquakes. These calls can bring mixed emotions--from excitement at the opportunity to share one's fascination with earthquakes and plate tectonics to anxiety about the time commitment and unfamiliarity with the audience. A friend once received a call from a teacher who was discussing the interior of the Earth with her fifth-grade students. After telling the students that the outer core was liquid one student asked, "How do you know that?" The student and teacher knew that no one had ever been to the interior of the Earth or even drilled to that depth, but no one knew how we know what is in the interior of the Earth. A friend of the teacher told her that a seismologist could answer that question, and that is how our friend was drawn in. The teacher asked our friend to come and answer this question for her class. Our friend eagerly agreed, set a date and time, then hung up the phone. Panic immediately set in. Fifth graders don't know the wave equation; fifth graders don't know what density and velocity are. She realized she was in trouble. It took several more calls to the teacher before our friend was comfortable with her new assignment, but in the end the talk was a great success. We have all had similar experiences when reaching out to the K-12 community.

Over the past few years we have become increasingly involved in science outreach programs for middle- and high-school teachers. Initially we were hesitant to get involved, but as we learned more about the changes going on in K-12 science education and their potential effects on science in the United States, we became much more enthusiastic about the role we could play in those changes. We have had some pleasant surprises and unexpected disappointments but have enjoyed every step along the way. We would like to share some of our motivations and experiences in an effort to encourage others to become involved in science outreach.

One might ask why professional scientists need to be involved in K-12 science education when we are traditionally more concerned (and comfortable) with science education and applications at the college level and beyond. Two reasons come to mind almost immediately: (1) to foster a higher level of understanding of the importance of earth science in the life of every citizen, and (2) to continue to attract the best and brightest young minds to seismology and the geosciences. Each day the impact of science and technology in our lives increases, and yet our government and the general public question the need for basic research; they wonder how it has any relevance to the problems they face every day. As scientists at the receiving end of public funding, we believe we have a responsibility to educate the public about the need for, and benefits of, continued research.

The task of increasing earth science literacy is particularly daunting. When we first began investigating precollege earth science teaching, we learned that:

  1. Earth science is generally taught at the K-9th grade levels and incorporates all aspects of geology, astronomy, atmospheric science, and planetary science.
  2. Earth science is the science course for noncollege-bound students. In many states, earth science is not accepted as a laboratory science for high school graduation or entrance to college. The brighter and/or college-bound students are often encouraged to skip earth science and take the "more challenging" courses in chemistry, biology, and physics.
  3. Elementary school teachers have as little as one and usually no more than three college-level science courses. The lack of training in the sciences generally results in reluctance by teachers to teach science at the elementary levels. High school teachers take three to four courses in each of the subdisciplines in earth science. This has the advantage of developing skills as broad generalists, but teachers often lack the depth of knowledge required to fully understand the fundamental concepts in each subdiscipline.

The second issue, attracting the best and brightest students to the field, may seem self-serving, but is actually a relevant problem. In the last 35 years, the geosciences have enjoyed tremendous growth spawned by a new view of the Earth, namely plate tectonics, and by economic booms in the extractive industries. The prominence and economic opportunities drew many talented people into the geosciences. However, in the mid- to late 1980's downturns in the mining and oil industries and the end of the Cold War resulted in significantly fewer employment opportunities, and a corresponding decrease in the number of people entering the geosciences. To the nongeoscientist, plate tectonics has been tested and has become blasé; the prominence of the field is declining, which makes it more difficult to attract the best and brightest students. This situation is compounded by the 9th-12th grade educational system, which often treats earth science as the black sheep of the science family.

How does all of this affect us as seismologists? It makes generating public support for our research endeavors and attracting the best and brightest students to our field extremely difficult, because people are largely ignorant of what we do. Although we do not necessarily need large numbers of geoscientists, we do need to continue to attract the best and brightest people and to assure that advances in the geosciences are recognized and valued.

Seismologists are in a unique position to become involved in K-12 outreach. Earthquakes are a fascinating, powerful, and uncontrolled force that captures the attention of people young and old. Pictures of destruction after the 1995 Kobe earthquake dominated the news for several days, prompting many people to ask why it happened. The occurrence of the Kobe earthquake so soon after the 1994 Northridge event also prompted comparisons between the destruction caused by the two events. Earth science is one of the most integrated sciences and has excellent potential for being incorporated into many topics traditionally covered in physics, chemistry, and biology courses. Earthquakes not only provide an entry to lesson plans on traditional earth science topics, but also forces, friction, waves, and engineering, which are generally covered in physics courses. The fresh approach to these topics provided by earthquakes is often a welcome addition to the physics classroom. We should not overlook these opportunities to teach earth science in all science classrooms.

Opportunities for involvement are many and range from visiting classrooms, to developing mentoring relationships with one or more teachers, to teaching science courses especially designed for the needs of K-12 teachers. Each of these fulfills an important role in changing the way earth science is received in the classroom. Over the last few years we have followed a progression of increased involvement in all of these areas. Classroom visits are an opportunity to show students how science is relevant to their lives and give them an idea about what types of careers are available in the field. The classroom visit is relatively simple, but can be fraught with problems if not properly planned ahead of time. The classroom visit can be significantly improved by discussing with the teacher the style of presentation expected, appropriate demonstrations or activities, how your topic fits in with current classroom studies, the length of the presentation, and the level of the vocabulary and math skills of the students. The teacher will be excited at your level of interest in his/her class and you will gain a level of familiarity with the audience that will make your job easier and more fun.

Mentoring teachers is an extremely important role scientists can fill. Interacting with a professional scientist can be critical in helping a teacher maintain excitement and interest in science. Changes occur so rapidly in science that it is difficult for scientists to keep up with the latest developments in their own specialized areas. The challenge to teachers is even greater because they have to remain current in so many areas and yet they have few opportunities to do so. Mentoring is not new to scientists; it is the foundation of graduate education. Extending that mentoring relationship to teachers requires finding a teacher you are comfortable working with and setting aside a small block of time to regularly meet with that person. We have found that the classroom visit can be the first step in developing a mentoring relationship. Meeting with the teacher to discuss plans for the visit allows you to get to know one another as professionals and to observe one another at work. With some teachers, we build an instant rapport that results in repeated visits to the classroom. Sometimes our personalities or styles are too contrasting to make a good relationship, but we don't let that discourage us from trying again with another teacher.

Mentoring can involve as little or as much time as the individuals desire. Meeting once a week or once a month over coffee to discuss recent developments in seismology and ideas for teaching those concepts can be stimulating conversation for both parties. Teachers have more formalized education in the area of learning and teaching methods and we have learned plenty from them about teaching styles. Alternating after-school visits between the teacher's classroom and your research laboratory can give both of you a better sense of the work done in each setting. Whatever shape the relationship takes, it should be flexible and beneficial to both parties to be successful.

Teacher training is a largely untapped role for scientists. At the undergraduate level, teachers are usually funneled through the system with the science majors, with no particular emphasis on how the information might be used by the teachers. Further, all their education courses are generally devoid of science content. At the graduate level, teachers generally do not have a strong enough foundation in math and science to allow them to thrive in a graduate-level science course. There seems to be no clear way for teachers to improve their skills in the traditional system.

In the last decade, a great deal of attention has been focused on the low levels of science and math literacy in the U.S., as compared to other industrialized nations. Major changes in the way science and math are taught are underway and include a re-emphasis on problem-solving, learning by doing, and critical-thinking skills. Many scientists and schoolteachers are not well prepared for this new style of teaching, which relies less on lectures and textbooks and more on curiosity-driven experiments using the scientific method. NSF and other agencies initiated programs to improve science education at the precollege and college levels. Scientists are invited to play a critical role in these reform efforts by taking a leadership role in the preparation of new science teachers and enhancing the scientific knowledge and skills of existing teachers using teaching methods aligned with the problem-solving and critical-thinking emphasis.

More and more universities are developing specialized courses for science teachers that emphasize content, effective teaching methods, and relevant classroom activities for the K-12 classroom. Additionally, universities are forming closer alliances with school districts to offer continuing education or in-service programs for existing teachers. Preparing courses for teachers requires an understanding of current methods of science teaching and of the challenges faced in the K-12 classroom. After a year of giving guest lectures and mentoring middle- and high-school teachers, we joined forces with some local teachers to develop a course in earth hazards. As a team, we identified relevant topics, activities, and methods of teaching to be most effective with our audience. Each time we teach teachers, we learn more about their needs and make changes to improve. The teaching skills we learned from the teachers have improved the way we teach the rest of our courses as well.

These are just a few ideas we have used to get involved in science education at the precollege level. Interestingly, as we became more involved, we realized there are many other seismologists engaged in similar activities. A few of the more prominent programs include MichSeis, a K-12 seismic network in the Michigan area that is operated by Larry Ruff at the University of Michigan; Epicenter, a teacher enhancement program offered by Larry Braile at Purdue for elementary-level teachers in a four-state area around Purdue University; and the Princeton Earth Physics Project (PEPP), a nationwide program to install a network of seismometers in high schools and develop a physics- and earth-science-based curriculum on earthquakes. PEPP is run by Guust Nolet at Princeton University and has expanded to eight other regions of the country. There are other seismology outreach programs in Utah, California, Missouri, and Hawaii, as well as many other states.

In closing, we note that the most popular science course at the University of Arizona and the most popular degree overall is psychology. If there is a message in that choice, it might be this: Psychology appeals to the individual; it is relevant and interesting in our lives. If we are to make an impact on the nonscientists of the world we need to make our work interesting and relevant. Earthquakes are a wonderful avenue to make earth science come alive for everyone.

Michelle Hall-Wallace and Terry C. Wallace, Jr.
Southern Arizona Seismic Observatory
University of Arizona
Department of Geosciences
Gould Simpson Bldg. #77
Tucson, AZ 85721

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact Editor John Ebel by email or telephone him at (617) 552-8300.

Posted: 11 February 1999