Computers & Geosciences, Volume 24, Number 3, 2000

Another Node On the interNet

Martin Ruzek
Earth System Science Educational Program
Universities Space Research Association John Butler
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77204

From The Associate Editor

"The Universities Space Research Association was incorporated 25 years ago in the District of Columbia as a private nonprofit corporation under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Institutional membership in the Association has grown from 49 colleges and universities, when it was founded, to 76 in 1993.

USRA provides a mechanism through which universities can cooperate effectively with one another, with the Government, and with other organizations to further space science and technology, and to promote education in these areas. Its mission is carried out through the institutes, centers, divisions, and programs that are described in detail in this booklet. Administrative and scientific personnel now number about 400. A unique feature of USRA is its system of Science Councils, which are standing panels of scientific experts who provide program guidance in specific areas of research. "

This month I have asked Martin Ruzek to describe the programs of the Earth System Science (ESS) Educational Program.


The concept of the Earth as an integrated system of interrelated processes continues to gain acceptance among research and education communities, and is even being referred to as a revolution in Earth science (see Shaping the Future of Undergraduate Earth Science Education : Innovation and Change Using an Earth System Approach, AGU, 1996). NASA was an early adopter of Earth system science in preparation for its Earth Observing System missions, and has supported the development of ESS courses for undergraduates since 1991 through USRA's Earth System Science Education Program. The following information about the Program is abstracted from several recent papers and proposals by Don Johnson, the ESSE Program Director, Mike Kalb and myself. More information and links to learning resources are available.

Earth System Science Education: A Growing Collaboration

In the mid 1980's a consensus emerged in the scientific community that worldwide human activity was altering the environment globally and regionally, perhaps irreversibly. These early concerns, then couched in terms of "Global Habitability", were accelerated when the first hard evidence suggested that ozone depletion and global warming might be real threats. With this evidence came the realization that understanding of large-scale environmental change required an integrated view of how the biosphere and humans interact mutually within the Earth System. By the late 1980's "Earth System Science" emerged as a framework for addressing the geoscience dimensions of global change. After extended discussions, both NASA and university scientists concluded that for the interdisciplinary approach to Earth system science to be successful, mechanisms were desperately needed to stimulate scientific collaboration among scientists and departments within universities, among universities, and between university and government science centers. As a result of those discussions, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) formulated a program concept that aimed to create a university-based cooperative effort in development of interdisciplinary course offerings in Earth system science.

The Cooperative University-based Program for Earth System Science Education

(ESSE) funded by NASA through USRA emphasizes classroom education, collaborative learning, a network of faculty and students focused on the scientific and human dimensions of global change, and a shared repository of teaching resources. ESSE participants design and offer survey and senior level courses on Earth system science topics. The ESSE Program develops and facilitates cooperative efforts among scientists and departments within universities, among universities and between university and government science communities in areas relevant to Earth system science and global change education. The overarching objective of ESSE is to accelerate development of an academic base for Earth system and global change science within and among colleges and universities. The Program has involved 44 colleges and universities since 1991, and is forming partnerships with other institutions and organizations with complementary educational goals. Over 100 faculty and teaching assistants who participate in the ESSE effort offer courses to several thousand students annually.

Several outcomes have emerged that are evident from the direct faculty involvement in the Program. The offering of courses and development of content for Earth system science requires genuine collaboration, sharing knowledge across disciplines and exploring together those aspects of the system which reside between traditional disciplinary boundaries. No individual college or university has the breadth or depth of knowledge and experience to create a robust and complete suite of learning materials covering the multi-dimensional space of Earth system science. A coordinated partnership of institutions and individuals is required to develop and populate this space with carefully tested and useful resources.

In 1996 ESSE participants in a week-long workshop identified a series of 14 interdisciplinary topics as the basis for the creation of "learning modules". Participants divided into teams of 3 - 6 individuals to define and outline the scope and content of each module. Topics were purposely selected to cross-disciplinary boundaries and offer an integrated perspective of ESS. Each topical module is a collection of individual submodules that can stand alone for use in the classroom or laboratory for explaining key concepts, or be used in consort with other submodules to support a larger effort in ESS education. The use of the submodules is determined by the instructor, with the aim of producing content in distinct self-contained increments so as to find use among a wider potential audience. ESSE participants are in various stages of developing these modules, and testing their effectiveness in a classroom situation, and are proposing to further develop the module concept via follow-on proposals to NSF. The ESSE concept is also being extended to the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI), an international cooperative effort among 17 countries in the Americas seeking to improve their understanding of relevant global change phenomena. Education and training are crosscutting components of the overall IAI effort. In a planning grant USRA was selected to outline the ESSE Program as a model for the development of similar collaborative efforts within the IAI member countries. A partnership of IAI member universities and USRA will offer ESS workshops in Mexico and Brazil in 1998, and Costa Rica in 1999. See for more information. A major proposal for a three to five year effort to clone the ESSE effort for the IAI is being prepared to be submitted in September, 1998. The effort will develop collaboratively global change educational resources and sponsor other educational thrusts primarily at the university level for universities in South, Central and North America

ESSE is also teaming with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA Ames Research Center and the Cal State University System to link geoscience and schools of education faculties for enriching science education at the pre-service level. Project ALERT's (Augmented Learning Environment and Renewable Teaching) goals are to infuse Internet-based Earth and planetary science resources into college-level introductory Earth system science courses, particularly for those courses that heavily impact pre-service K-12 teachers. An effort is underway to determine the feasibility of a like effort within state educational systems in the eastern US while teaming with scientists at NASA's Goddard and Langley Centers, with promising results from exploratory meetings.

The Internet is a central element of the work described above. The ESSE program relies on the net for communicating among its partners and for sharing resources. International collaboration and meeting planning are possible due to the meaningful level of participation that e-mail and the web provide. Program participants continue to explore new applications of network technology, such as videoconferencing and electronic publishing, to better develop the Earth system concept in classrooms at all levels.