Dr. Donald Johnson, Professor Emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, is not only an outstanding Earth system scientist, but has been the key leader of the Earth System Science Education movement since its initiation. Johnson has recently published a summary of the history of Earth system science research and development, and its potential to revolutionize science education: Earth System Science: A Model for Teaching Science as State, Process and Understanding?
In this paper, Johnson presents the key aspects of the formidable problem of educating new generations of students about the subject. This section of the ESSE Design Guide is a tribute to Dr. Johnson, and introduces some ideas gathered from his paper.
State, Process, Understanding
Three inseparable elements in the presentation and learning of science in the classroom are: state, process and understanding. A simple example of these terms is to put a cardboard box on a table (leaving your hand on its top) and ask students what it is. A box, they would say. Then ask them, "What is its state?” Well, you might get a lot of inventive answers, but if the box was half filled with bricks or with water or with helium gas, you could then focus on the importance of the question about its state. The state of a scientific system has very much to do with the processes it might undergo. For example, pushing a box with bricks around the table top would present a very different process and behavior than pushing a bock filled with water would. Pushing a box of water off the edge of the table would present a very different process and behavior than pushing a box containing helium gas would. The process of pushing, lifting, spinning, or dropping the box would be very different depending on whether it's state comprised solid bricks, fluid water, or gaseous helium. Then the third important part of the experience would be for students to understand the differences in the state of the box, and the processes it follows. This, of course, would involve some scientific appreciation of the different behaviors of materials in solid, liquid, and gaseous states in response to processes involving complex causes, effects, interactions, and feedbacks. Putting all this together in an educational setting leads to understanding. As embarrassingly simple as this example sounds, the extension to science curricula and, further, to an Earth system science curriculum is anything but obvious.
Consideration of the box with something in it, and planet Earth with everything in it, represents simple and complex extremes of the spectrum of science education and the challenge of its delivery. But the process of education is for students to experience hundreds or thousands of controlled examples of objects and materials in a certain state undergoing certain processes in order to build a coherent body of understanding of the principles of science. Every discovery and new understanding should be celebrated by a question that relaxes one aspect of simplification.