Please Help Defend the New Texas Earth and Space Science Course

Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
2009 January 13

As you know, the new Texas Earth and Space Science course standards (and all other science course standards) will be up for approval before the State Board of Education during January 21-23. It is very likely that some of the SBOE members--the seven who are Young Earth Creationists--will attempt to make changes to the ESS standards in ways that will damage the scientific integrity and accuracy of this course (in addition to biology). In particular, these SBOE members will try to negatively modify or delete the standards that require students to understand the following topics that deal with scientific topics they consider controversial: age of the Earth and universe, the Big Bang model of cosmology, radiometric dating, evolution of fossil life, fossil lineages, transitional fossils, origin of life by abiotic chemical processes, ancient mass extinction events, global warming and climate change, and negative and hazardous human effects on Earth systems.

I want to ask you to write letters to the individual SBOE members and ask them to adopt the new ESS standards without change. That's the simple message of your letter: to accept the proposed ESS standards without editing or modification, because I strongly suspect an effort will be made to do exactly that by members of the SBOE. A group of ten individual Earth scientists that included high school teachers, ES teacher trainers, college professors, and industry geoscientists worked together for a year during several intense meetings to create these standards. These individuals worked to make the new ESS standards the finest possible. They sometimes had disagreements that were resolved by patient discussion and often compromise. Their very careful effort and hard work should not be injured by the actions of nonscientists who have ideological and political agendas. Under the Texas Constitution, the SBOE members are politically-elected officials who actually have the power to write whatever science standards they wish, and several have expressed their intention to modify certain standards to align with their religious and ideological agendas.

In addition to writing your individual letters (the same letter to each would be appropriate) to each of the 15 SBOE members asking that the ESS standards--indeed, all the science standards--not be modified in unscientific ways against the intentions of the scientists and science teachers who wrote them, I also request that you write to your colleagues on the various email lists in which you participate and ask them to do the same. We need a tremendous outpouring of support from Earth scientists in both academia and industry to counter the probable equal outpouring of support from critics of science among the citizens of Texas. You may copy parts of this message and use it in your message.

The new ESS standards are part of a larger document containing all of the proposed and recommended high school science standards that can be found on the Texas Education Agency website at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/Sci_TEKS_9-12_Clean_010509.pdf. The addresses of the individual SBOE members can be found at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/members.html. You can also email them individually using a group email address, sboesupport@tea.state.tx.us, although I think formal letters would be better received and more likely read by them. The letters need to be written and sent in the next few days, but that is possible because the theme of each letter is simple and clear: "please adopt the ESS standards as written without modification, and oppose any attempt from other State Board members to make unscientific changes that weaken the standards." You can add the other reasons as you wish: our state's economy depends on a scientific understanding of the Earth, citizens need to understand Earth science as well as physical and life science, the Earth sciences affect our lives in so many ways, etc. We need our ESS course to have an accurate and reliable scientific content, not damaged by eliminating or weakening important topics that some people object to for non-scientific reasons.

Now, let me discuss the new ESS course. The ESS standards-writing panel had at its disposal the national ES standards, the College Readiness ESS standards, all the state ES and ESS standards, and several other ES standard references. Thus, we were able to craft our standards to be among the very best ever written. We did not possess the new ES Literacy Initiative standards (available only for the last three weeks at http://www.earthscienceliteracy.org/ and http://www.earthscienceliteracy.org/document.html). We agreed on a vision of what an ESS course should contain (and not contain), and then wrote and painstakingly edited our standards to match this vision. Our panel had several very experienced high school ES teachers, several ES curriculum experts, several ES teacher trainers (those who teach the future ES teachers), several current or former university ES professors, and two industry geoscientists. So the group's expertise was extraordinarily high, which it had to be because we were obligated to write new standards, not merely revise old ones.

Our new Texas ESS course standards are innovative and pathbreaking, and I seriously believe they will serve as a national model for ES and ESS courses in the future. I have already compared them to the new ES Literacy Initiative standards, and ours compare very favorably; we anticipated many important topics and concerns. The course standards are composed of three traditional themes and three very non-traditional strands. The three themes (or topical sections) are Earth in Space and Time, Solid Earth, and Fluid Earth. The first contains the most important information about cosmology and planetary astronomy in addition to traditional historical geological topics. It emphasizes geological time, stellar system and planet formation, the origin of the Earth's atmosphere and ocean, and fossil life. The second deals with plate tectonics, internal heat transfer, Earth structure, continent formation, geophysics, mountain building, volcanism, erosion and mass wasting, mineral resources, fossil fuels, etc. The third section discusses the movement of heat and fluids in Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere, sea-level changes, the origin of life as a result of chemical processes and geochemical cycles, solar radiation, various chemical cycles, groundwater, and climate.

The innovative part of the course are the three strands: systems, energy, and relevance. We tried to incorporate these strands in every student expectation and at least in every knowledge and skill requirement. The course uses a system concept which shows the interactions among Earth's subsystems and can be modeled. Energy formation, movement, transfer, and effect as Earth process driving forces are emphasized throughout. Finally, every topic required was judged for its relevance to student lives. If a topic was not very relevant, it was omitted. Believe it or not, we actually left out about a third of traditional physical and historical geological topics, almost all of meteorology, much of astronomy, and much of physical and biological oceanography. Some critics said the course was too long, but actually it could have been twice as long if we left in all the traditional topics. We decided to create a course that looked at fewer topics in depth rather than many topics superficially. Left out are rocks and minerals, desert processes, most erosion and weathering processes, different types of volcanic and plutonic bodies, a detailed survey of the geologic periods, almost everything dealing with weather, all discussion about galaxies and types of stars, biological and physical oceanography, etc. Instead, we included a great deal about climate and climate change, Earth's geologic hazards, energy resources, geophysics, geologic time, origin of planets, the Moon, smaller planetary bodies, the history and chemistry of Earth's water and elements in the oceans and atmosphere, stratigraphy, sedimentary basins, fossil fuels, the origin and evolution of ancient life, etc. We wanted to keep as many relevant, exciting, and thought-provoking topics as possible to attract and interest students, and we left out much about topics that some students find to be uninteresting. We also emphasized the use of space imagery and modern instruments such as GPS, personal computers, and the Internet.

I think this course will be something special: a course that many students will want to take as an elective (since the former Texas Earth Science Task Force couldn't get an ES course accepted as required credit). Many students will want to take this course in their senior year, and even students going on in science who are taking an AP course their senior year may want to take ESS as a fifth science course in high school, simply because it will be exciting and relevant. This is a course I think Texas Earth scientists can be proud of, especially geologists (meteorologists probably won't like it, but climatologists will love it!). Since this is the case, I urge you to do something to preserve the scientific integrity and quality of this new course in Texas. The standards will be used as a national model, and many publishers will produce ESS textbooks based on these new and innovative standards. Thus, if they are compromised, the results could be extremely bad for the country.