A couple weeks ago, in a post about sedimentary systems and the future of sedimentary geology, Brian added a comment to the end of his post about teaching earth systems science:
* In terms of a “systems” view, I’m speaking within the context of research activities … that is, conducting new science. A somewhat separate discussion would be implementation of a systems view within the context of geoscience education. This is another can of worms that perhaps my geoblogger colleagues who are educators (Kim, Ron, Callan, etc.) might want to start a thread about. Personally, I’m a strong advocate of appreciating a systems view in scientific investigation … when it comes to education, however, I think the core disciplines of geology (e.g., mineralogy, petrology, structural geology, sedimentology, etc.) are absolutely, positively necessary. In my opinion, an undergraduate requires solid training and experience in the nitty-gritty before integration and interdependence of systems can truly be appreciated. But … like I said, let’s save that for another time … or I’ll tag a willing geoblogger with that. Anybody?
So I've been tagged. (And unlike Ron and Callan, I'm not on the road or in the field at the moment.) And I've been teaching long enough to have discussed restructuring undergraduate majors in two different departments, and I teach introductory Earth Systems Science (although my specialty is a very traditional solid earth subject). But although I was at Stanford when its Earth Systems Science major was developed, I've never taught in that kind of major myself. (I've taught in departments that participated in Environmental Studies majors, but again, I specialize in stuff that happens deep underground.)
I think that introductory courses are a different topic from the structure of a major. Introductory courses are filled with students who don't yet know that they love the geosciences, and in every intro class that I've taught, at least 80% of the students have gone on to major in something else. (Many of them, in fact, were committed to other subjects long before they broke down and finally took that required lab science class.) So I'll leave them for another day, and just talk about majors.
So. What, exactly, is the purpose of a major in college, anyway? To provide students with a set of marketable skills? To train students to become grad students? To challenge students, to push them to think, and leave them more capable of teaching themselves new skills in the future? All of the above? Something else? And if we're training them for jobs or grad school, which jobs, or which grad school specialties?
I guess that if I had to answer the question, I would say "all of the above" and "it depends." Right now, there are lots of jobs for geologists; nineteen years ago, there weren't. Most of the geology majors that I have taught over the past fifteen years are working in other fields right now; most of the students I am teaching right now will probably stay in the field, at least in the near future. We don't want the requirements to change as fast as the price of gold or oil, so we need majors that suit both circumstances.
I don't have a good perspective on the history of the traditional geology curriculum, so I don't know how long mineralogy, petrology, sedimentology/stratigraphy, and structural geology have been seen as the foundation for the discipline. However, I've seen the results of traditional majors. Those four classes are good for teaching students to look at the world in particular ways. Stratigraphy (and related classes, like historical geology and paleontology) develop a sense of deep time. (That's a strength and a weakness - non-geologists get a bit freaked out when they hear that a magnitude 9 earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone is imminent.) Mineralogy transforms rocks from boring grey things into their own little stories (maybe of the mantle, maybe of the deep crust, maybe of ancient soils, and maybe of future wealth), and petrology puts the minerals together into rocks. Structural geology lets us imagine the geometry of the world beneath our feet, and the forces that have given it shape. And in all the classes, students get used to piecing together indirect evidence. (Is it any surprise that geological novels tend to be mysteries, rather than thrillers or hard science fiction?)
So I guess the question might partly be whether those skills are useful. Certainly they are for oil & gas exploration and for the search for ore deposits. I've spent years arguing that they are important for understanding water, as well. (I've also argued that some kind of surficial geology class belongs in the core curriculum. I'm partly biased because my geomorphology class was the one that convinced me to declare geology as my major, but still - humans live on the surface. It's silly to ignore what's right at our feet.) But are they sufficient? And do they prepare students to deal with the physical parts of the ocean, or with the interactions between the land and the things that live on it, or with the atmosphere and climate?
I don't know whether the Earth Systems approach is a good way to integrate an understanding of the solid earth with and understanding of water, air, and life. I agree with Brian that it's important to understand specifics as well as the big picture, and I worry that interdisciplinary majors tend to cover many things without going into depth about anything. And the solid earth is so foreign that I fear that, for the students who study Earth Systems or Environmental Studies, it remains "just rock," grey and brown stuff for water to flow over and lichen to grow upon. But maybe the point of the Earth Systems major isn't to train people who study the Earth. And maybe, depending on what the students want to do with their lives, that's ok.