I was delighted by the recent discovery of a mysterious rock on Mars that looks like a jelly doughnut and caused a brief scientific sensation. To see that much excitement brought to bear on any rock made the geo-educator in me feel pleased.
Alas, geology is of marginal interest to most University of Connecticut students, who take it to satisfy their general education science requirement. For years, I've known why. Today, I give you my answer, one backed up by a colleague who's a professor of education, and by an ex-student who's one of the few state high school teachers permitted to teach the subject.
The demotion of geoscience is partly a consequence of geography. We lack the spectacular red rock canyons and glaciated volcanoes of the West. But mostly it's a consequence of a deeply entrenched public school curriculum that prematurely bifurcates into two tracks: those seeking entry into competitive colleges and those fulfilling minimum state requirements for science.
On the fast track are strivers who want a good-looking high school transcript for college applications. They routinely sign up for advanced biology, environmental science, chemistry, physics, calculus and as many advanced placement courses as they can squeeze in. On the second track are those less interested in scholarship in general, and science in particular. They take biology because they have to. And to meet the state requirement for a second course in science, they usually take some sort of integrated physical science in the ninth or 10th grade, or possibly earth science, a B-level course.
When the strivers hit their stride, they usually leave geology behind in the dust, thereafter associating it with the pack they left behind. And when entering college, strivers who continue in science, technology, engineering and mathematics rarely take geology because their majors more than meet the science requirement. Strivers destined for careers in the social sciences, humanities, education, business and the fine arts usually opt for biology, a subject they became familiar with in high school and have a head start on.
Ironically, those (like me) who rediscover geology while meeting college general education requirements quickly learn that career prospects are quite good, especially for those with skills in water resources, terrain analysis and hazard assessment. They also find the subject much more rigorous than what they remember from high school. In fact, UConn geology majors take college-level chemistry, physics and differential calculus before they get serious about advanced coursework and undergraduate research.
Thumbs down to the curriculum gurus of the past who've steered teachers away from the most integrated natural science and the one most fundamental to our evolutionary narrative. Luckily, Charles Darwin was an acclaimed geologist while working out the "On The Origin of Species." Administratively, Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of the journal Science and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, was exposed to geology early, choosing marine geophysics as a specialty. Logically, John Grotzinger, NASA chief scientist for the Mars rovers, is a geologist, one who knows how to drill, bore and analyze the Martian crust. Pedagogically, our introductory geology course at UConn is titled "Earth and Life Through Time" because it's impossible to decouple the planetary biosphere from its atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere and human activity.
In the beginning there was rock. Cold fragments coalesced to create a planet. Melting of that rock released gases, from which came our atmosphere, from which water condensed to make a hydrosphere, from which life originated to make a biosphere. Continuous climate change is the integrated outcome of feedbacks between these components. The path to human consciousness began when microbes learned to dine on mineral brine.
The Martian jelly doughnut story has a happy ending for me. It drew media attention to a delicious subject demoted by Connecticut's top-heavy educational bureaucracy, few of whom have ever had a course in geology. With luck, they'll feel the national pressure and adopt the "Next Generation Science Standards," which are loaded with earth science subjects at every level. Then, by mid-century, perhaps our democracy will know how our planet actually works.
Robert M. Thorson is a professor at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at email@example.com.