Earth Sciences Awareness Day

Saturday, May 24, 1997

A report on the Joint National Science Teachers Association, Science Teachers Association of Ontario meeting, Toronto, November 22, 1996.

Alan V. Morgan.


The Science Teachers of Ontario (STAO) holds a meeting in November each year in Toronto. When the spirit moves I ponder the implications of this "science" meeting not having any, or at least very little, Earth Sciences input, and debate whether to try do something about it. Somehow it seems rather like a solitary person looking for water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; - a lonely voice in the excesses of "the other" sciences splashed around you. Two years ago I presented a talk on "Earth Sciences, the Missing Link in the Ontario Science Curriculum". It was attended by about 20 teachers, most of whom were Earth Scientists who are "prevented" from pursuing their subject in the way that teaching chemists, biologists and physicists are allowed to do.

Fortunately at Waterloo, I have Peter Russell working with me on high school promotional activities. Peter and I are very grateful to EdGEO for a special grant which enabled us to enlarge the Fall issue of WAT ON EARTH and to increase the print run so that it could be distributed to 1,000 more educators. Chris Gilboy, Secretary of EdGEO kindly undertook the presentation of a Guest Editorial in this issue. We were able to call in an exceptional group of colleagues who presented a small symposium on many different aspects of the Earth Sciences and why these are of importance to all persons. More specifically they were able to illustrate why the different areas of the geosciences, represented by their expertise, are an essential part of every student's education.

The Conference was held in British Columbia Room at the Royal York Hotel on November 22. We had arranged the sessions to allow speakers one-half hour each. The programme fared somewhat better than my individual presentation several years earlier, attracting a fairly solid 30 individuals for practically the whole day and rising to a high of 48 on one count.

David Rudolph of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Waterloo started the session. David's presentation was on "Understanding Water: The Mineral Commodity of the Future". He concentrated on some of the local problems being experienced by municipalities in various parts of the world and especially on the Waterloo Region as an example of a community which had depended almost entirely on groundwater supplies until recent years. David also addressed the problems being experienced by larger urban megalopolises (specifically Mexico City) with graphic examples of water pollution, subsidence caused by water extraction, and the difficulties encountered in dispersing waste water.

I followed David with a presentation on "The Importance of The Earth Sciences to an Educated Student" in which I tried to point out that as world population continues to grow, and while resources remain finite, it is of increasing importance that all students become better educated about the world on which they live. I illustrated these concepts with a number of slides showing conditions in both the undeveloped and developed world, touching on problems with water, natural hazards and the need to better understand the natural environment.

Steve Evans, of the Terrain Sciences Division, Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa, talked on "Canada's Shifting Landscape". Steve's presentation was illustrated by some excellent slides, some copies dating back as far as the government inquiry into the Frank Slide in Alberta, and others showing early views of rock slides along the coastal highway running from Vancouver to Whistler. In the Cordillera, a combination of mountain relief, complex geological history, and seismicity gives rise to a wide distribution of landslides through-out the region. In the St. Lawrence Lowlands, landslides are widespread in the sensitive Leda Clay marine sediments deposited at the end of the Ice Age. This material has the distinctive property of flowing like syrup when slightly disturbed. The study of landslides in Canada by earth scientists provides information useful to engineers, land-use planners, transportation engineers, and those involved in energy production. Since the November meeting Steve has been involved in two landslide related enquiries both involving train derailments including one with loss of life in the Fraser Valley.

Catherine Hickson, Geological Survey of Canada, Vancouver, presented on "Geological Hazards in the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the United States; - Living on the Edge". Cathy explained that along the western margin of the North American continent, massive forces focus energy that is directed inland for 100's of kilometres. These earth forces manifest themselves as chains of mountains that stretch the length of the continents western margin. The jagged peaks of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Yukon attest to processes that begin deep in the earth. These geologically young mountains are perpetual reminders of forces below from which stem more episodic and violent statements of Earth's power. Volcanoes and earthquakes rudely shock the populace to attention, reminding them of humanities' vulnerability in the face of such enormous natural power. They illustrated these concepts with some excellent slides and commentary.

If the audience wasn't electrified enough with Catherine's picture of large-scale geological events they could hardly fail to be impressed with the next speaker. Alan R. Hildebrand, of the Geological Survey of Canada, in Ottawa, spoke on the "Implications of the Chicxulub Crater Discovery". Since observers on Earth have witnessed four comets (Halley, Shoemaker Levy -9, Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp) hurtling through the Solar system in the last 10 or so years, it was appropriate that Alan should remind us that occasionally our world does receive a direct hit, and the 180 km diameter crater at Chicxulub bears evidence that these events do seriously perturb Earth's biosphere. Alan pointed out that there have been at least five large extinction events over the last 500 million years and although the Cretaceous/Tertiary impact event is the only one with a "smoking gun" the other extinction events are being re-examined with impacts in mind.

The next presentation by Steve Gombos, of Waterloo Region's Recycling Operations, in Waterloo was on "Managing Solid Waste as a Resource". For about 6 years Waterloo's first year Earth sciences class has been dragged along to look at the landfill and recycling operations before going on to the waste water treatment plant (with its water outfall to the Grand River), and then to the water intake from the Grand River, and from there to the Water-treatment plant at Mannheim. One of the fascinating aspects ha s been the interplay between the rate of filling at the "dump" (the landfill), the scale of operations at the recycling plant, the cost of "recyclables" versus "waste"; whether garbage is trucked to the United States or stored locally, and the life expectancy and problems associated with the landfill. Steve's talk addressed all of these factors and illustrated to the teachers the complex inter-relationships between the elements mentioned above.

Peter Russell, the co-organiser of the meeting from University of Waterloo, presented a real "participaction" number entitled "Communicating Earth Sciences at the Junior Level". Peter was accompanied by Chris Rawlings a Toronto folk singer who has been working with Peter to produce some "earthy" songs, suitable for kindergarten (and older) children. His suggestion that we should all join in the chorus line of "The Rock Cycle" forced some in the audience us to use a few untried vocal chords! Peter and Chris teamed up in a joint project between the Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research and the Earth Sciences Museum at the University of Waterloo to generate innovative hands-on displays and activities as outreach for school children. These shows are used at groundwater festivals, environmental fairs at schools, malls, Fall fairs, and Public libraries.

Godfrey Nowlan of the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary presented a talk on "The Importance of Having Rocks in Your Head". He stressed that a working knowledge and skill base in science and technology is as essential for citizens of the modern world as the ability to read and write. Godfrey suggested, at the moment, the public knows much more about the culture of other aspects of our society than it does about the culture of science. In order for citizens to buy into science, they have to understand its relevance and be excited by its concepts. A scientifically literate public is desirable because so many public decisions require an understanding of science. Furthermore, Earth Science is barely taught In Canadian schools despite the fact that it offers some of the best hands-on opportunities to learn scientific principles and practices. Fortunately this may be changing with the release of the Pan Canadian Curriculum which involves substantially more Earth Sciences content than has been present in the past.

Vic Tyrer, of the Programs Branch, Ontario Science Centre, North York, gave an excellent talk on "Support Roles for Teachers: The Museums and the Earth Sciences in Canada". Vic pointed out that museum support can occur in four important ways; the learning experience of handling and studying minerals, rocks, and fossils first hand; when students are taken into the field to see earth sciences in action in their local community; when practicing earth scientists and students are brought together for face to face exchanges of expertise end inquiry; and when museums serve as barometers of teacher/student interests and needs.

Vic was followed by Christy Vodden, Communications Officer, at the Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa. Her presentation was entitled "Federal Assistance for Teaching Earth Sciences Concepts". Christy pointed out that the Geological Survey of Canada has a long-standing commitment to educating Canadians about the earth sciences. Since the 1920s, it has been a respected training ground for the geoscience community through its summer employment programmes. Activities run by GSC personnel are designed to fit the educational needs of the various regions and build on the strengths of the staff volunteers. Educational materials are produced corporately to take advantage of economies of scale, and increasingly are being made available on the World Wide Web. Christy was able to produce examples of the numerous excellent aids which are available to teachers through the GSC.

The final presentation of the session was by Laure Wallace of the United States Geological Survey at the National Center, Reston, Virginia, who addressed "The Changing Role of the USGS in Earth Science Education". Laure made the point that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a long-standing record of outreach in education. Late in the 1980s, major initiatives to support Kindergarten through 12th grade education led to the development of a Bureau Education Committee and a formal educational outreach pro gram with emphasis in four primary areas: educational print materials, technology-based products, interactive programs for students and teachers, and educational facilities development.

In conclusion, was the effort worthwhile? From the comments that I received from grateful teachers, yes; - but these sorts of things are very expensive to arrange, and they must have larger audiences to make the effort more rewarding. A more extensive commentary on this meeting will be published in Geoscience Canada in the first half of 1997.

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