Education / Features

Reading the rocks

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Over the last few weeks, a number of news stories have highlighted the impact geoscience has on our everyday lives in the UK.  But how do you interpret these stories for your own lives? How much do you really need to know about Earth sciences to benefit from our planet’s resources or protect yourself from its hazards? And how geoscience literate are you really?

Geology is even big news at the local level!

Geology is even big news at the local level!

The geological community is mostly familiar with the issues that surround Earth sciences in this country (and abroad) and can usually connect with science communication in geology at a fairly high level of effectiveness. However, when it comes to the general public, information relating to hazards, resources, energy and other Earth Science subjects can be received in a variety of ways; leading to a whole range of responses.

One important factor in understanding science communication can be our personal levels of science literacy – how comfortable we are with engaging with scientific information – but what is science or geoscience literacy?

Science literacy has long been used to measure how well a population is able to interpret scientific information and can be a good indicator for the level of success in science communication (Durant et al, 1989). The initial scientific literacy tests were based on facts and assessed by answering true/false questions in a textbook fashion (Stocklemayer and Bryant, 2011). This approach was supported by the National Science Foundation in the USA and the Royal Society in the UK as providing an adequate measure of ‘civic scientific literacy’.

We are all familiar with the ‘big three’ of science education (biology, chemistry and physics). But what about the less commonly taught science subjects? Subjects like engineering, psychology, microbiology and, of course, geology.

Bollen et al (2009) map of science derived from clickstream data

Science is more than Physics, Chemistry and Biology (Bollen et al, 2009 )

Bezzi (1999) studied geoscience literacy more specifically and spoke of the importance of teaching geological facts in the classroom, supporting a move towards a more egalitarian science curriculum. This predisposition towards the importance of facts and concepts in geoscience led to the eventual development of the Earth Sciences Literacy Initiative, a National Science Foundation initiative (in the USA), that attempts to define what it is to be geoscience literate and the central concepts that you must understand to be able to get involved with debate on geological subjects. These ‘Big Ideas’ are:

  • Earth Scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet.
  • Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
  • Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air and life.
  • Earth is continuously changing.
  • Earth is the water planet.
  • Life evolves on a dynamic Earth and continuously modifies Earth.
  • Humans depend on Earth for resources.
  • Natural hazards pose risks to humans.
  • Humans significantly alter the Earth.

Whether or not you agree with these ‘central concepts’ (and they are broken down further on their website) the thing that I find really interesting, is less a list of facts and ideas someone must have in order to be geoscience literate and more the definition of literacy, which includes what they must be able to do, i.e. the necessary skills. It states that an Earth Science literate person must:

  • Understand the fundamental concepts of Earth’s many systems
  • Know how to find and assess scientifically credible information about the Earth.
  • Communicate about Earth Science in a meaningful way.
  • Be able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding the Earth and it’s resources.

Although this is only one definition of geoscience literacy, it is the ability to critically access information for yourself that I think would make our population truly geoscience literate – to think geologically, over long time periods and at unfamiliar scales, and to weigh any information that we are given, with an understanding of the scientific method. Only then will we have a population that can truly engage with geoscience communication in a valuable way.

What skills do you need to be geoscience literate?

What skills do you need to be geoscience literate?

But what do you think? Is factual knowledge the most important thing in being geoscience literate? Or is it how you engage with the information that makes you better prepared to face the challenges of modern life?


Bezzi, A. (1999). “What is this thing called geoscience? Epistemological dimensions elicited with the repertory grid and their implications for scientific literacy.” Science Education 83(6): 675-700.

Bollen, J., H. Van de Sompel, et al. (2009) Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science. PLoS ONE 4 (3): e4803.

Durant, J. R., Evans, G. A., & Thomas, G. P. (1989). The public understanding of science. Nature, 340, 11–14

Stocklmayer, Susan M. & Bryant, Chris (2012): Science and the Public – What should people know? International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, 2:1, 81-101

8 thoughts on “Reading the rocks

  1. Hi Hazel,

    What do I think?

    I agree with your thoughts on need for critical thinking i.e. sussing out factual knowledge plus how you engage with the information.

    Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions with the concept of “Paradigm Shift” with emergence was my fav book for my BA in Geology many moons ago 😉

    Kuhn forced us to ask questions about truth, justification, and conceptual discovery and his framework lead to a kind of cognitive relativism: “truth” is relative to a set of extra-rational conventions of conceptual scheme and interpretation of data.

    Here’s some links to check out

    Economist’s View: “Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift”

    Thomas Kuhn: the man who changed the way the world looked at science

    What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific “Truth” | Cross-Check, Scientific American Blog Network

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for that – I haven’t come across Kuhn’s work yet so it will be really interesting to incorporate it with the other material I am researching. The concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘perception’ in science are very interesting to me, given how they seem to change depending on your perspective. I look forward to reading this material!

  2. Hi Joe,
    I can see your point with that one, but I think what they were trying to do was to make the ‘Big Ideas’ as simple as possible, then explain them further in the document – there is also a series of videos that summarize the ideas on youtube, they are pretty good! Look for the American Geosciences Institute (who produced the videos).

  3. Who are you aiming geoscience literacy at? Other scientists? Politicians? Media? General public? People have so many competing demands on their time these days that it’s hard to get the average person on the street to assimilate information that they may not believe is of interest or relevance to their lives.

    There are probably some basic but fundamental facts that should be common knowledge to every secondary school-educated person like why we have seasons, how old the Earth is, how life evolves. But even more important than a collection of facts is how we know this stuff.

    How do we know how old the Earth is – how is evidence gathered and how do we know what is significant and what isn’t? There’s probably a greater call for a more fundamental understanding of the scientific method – how science is done and what evidence means in a scientific context as well as how to understand uncertainties, especially in these days of climate change scepticism, evolution denial and promotion of pseudoscience.

    Schools should be teaching not just scientific facts but how science is done and how to critically evaluate evidence. I think this would provide a greater foundation for future accumulation of scientific knowledge, including geoscience!

    • Hi jtweedie,
      In this context I am referring to geoscience literacy in terms of applying to everyone; we are all affected by issues in geoscience daily (even if we don’t realise it) as we are by issues in many other science disciplines. I certainly agree with you that more often than not people have ‘more important’ things on their minds and what I am interested in is how people respond when they are presented with geoscience that directly affects them. Is there a way of measuring how resilient a population is to new information? This is where I think geoscience literacy can be useful – if only we can decide exactly what it means!

      I also agree with you that understanding the scientific method and how to critically assess scientific information is particularly useful to someone wanting to engage effectively with science issues today. It means to me that if you don’t know the facts, at least you can go find them with a reasonable level of confidence.

  4. My work involves preparing teaching materials that match the National Curriculum requirements in the UK. I have been looking at the draft NC for Key Stages 3 and 4, and there is very little Earth Science content there. The ‘Chemistry’ strands have a little about using rocks, and the Physics strands have a little about earthquake detection and the internal structure of the Earth, but there is very little else. The current version of the KS3 curriculum (i.e. the one being taught at present) has a significant amount of material on weathering and erosion processes, and on processes of rock formation, so the current government is taking a big step backwards from the point of view of geoscience literacy.

    Is the Geological Society in a position to make comments on the draft proposals? Comments may well be ignored, but at least you will have tried.

    • Hi Penny,
      I’m afraid I can’t speak for the Geological Society – I’m just a guest author – perhaps someone else may be able to reply to you in a more formal capacity. Personally I think it would be a shame to lose geology from the curriculum in the way that you mention (it was always my favourite part!), but having not read the new curriculum yet I wonder what they are replacing it with? I would hope that it is something that can be used to improve understanding in all science disciplines – more experimental methods or peer review techniques for example.

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