Geology / Earth Science (delete where necessary) by Prof Iain Stewart

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet" 

Prof Iain Stewart, today's guest GeoBlogger, takes a look at the 're-branding' of geology in Australia and explores how the subject is seen across the UK from secondary schools to universities. Is geology, as we know it, even featured in the new science GCSE? Will curriculum changes have a deeper effect in Scotland? Where the sector is becoming increasingly important for the Scottish economy, but career-skills in geology are in decline. In short, Iain explains that the best advert for our subject, is ourselves!

Over to Iain:   
Professor Iain Stewart guest blogging
for GeoBlogy
Follow him on twitter @ProfIainStewart

In 2006, something dramatic happened in geoscience education in Western Australia. That year, the long standing (and mandatory) provision to teach Geology at Year 11/12 (equivalent to UK Key Stage 5; A-Level) was terminated. A subject which for years had struggled with falling numbers among students and schools seemed to have been finally put out of its misery.

“Interest and awareness of geology in high schools in WA - the world’s leading mining and exploration province, is at a low ebb with only five schools currently teaching the Geology Course" lamented Jim Ross, the Chair of Earth Science Western Australia (ESWA) (1,2). With its demise, Geology in WA was destined to have its key components buried within a new module: ‘Environmental Science’.

ESTWA - a consortium representing the University of Western Australia, Curtin University of Technology, CSIRO, the Geological Survey of WA and the WA Museum - took up the fight. Alarmed by the possibility of Geology slipping under the radar of school students, they campaigned to help redesign and write the curriculum for the new course and successfully lobbied to change its name. The resulting ‘Earth and Environmental Science’ now delivers 50/50 geoscience and environmental science content.

The effect of this new branding of Geology has been truly transformative. As the graphs below show, the transfer from the old Geology course to the new Earth and Environmental Science course in 2007 saw a huge boost in the number of schools and students having access to geoscience. 

Figure 1: Plots showing the uptake of ‘Geology (green) and )’Earth & Environmental Science’ (Red) amongst students (left) and schools (right) in Western Australia

What’s more, this increase has continued apace with a rising engagement of schools in ESWA’s geoscience outreach programmes, not just at lower Secondary level but also at Primary too. Such is the remarkable reversal in fortunes for geoscience in WA that many of Oz’s east coast states - equally afflicted by dwindling geoscience school numbers - are thinking seriously about going down the same rebranding route.

Figure 2: Plot showing increasing schools engagement with
Earth Science Western Australia activities following the 2007
introduction of the Earth & Environmental Science course
The Western Australian experience in recasting a faltering Geology in the guise of Earth and Environmental Science is instructive because here in the UK we are having our own difficulties with Geology in secondary school education. The situation is arguably most acute in Scotland, where low uptakes mean that the old Geology Higher course is on its way out (along with Managing Environmental Resources), both to be replaced by Environmental Science.Teachers protest that the low uptake is driven by the low numbers of teachers supporting the subject because no new teachers in Geology have been trained since 1985.  That has a knock-on effect because “...the perception of Geology as a low uptake subject means that Head Teachers identify it as a subject to cut in times of financial difficulty which further reduces pupil enrolment in Geology qualifications.(3)

The concern amongst professional Earth scientists and Geology classroom practitioners north of the border is that any decline at secondary school level will quickly impact on the vitality of the university sector. “Uptake of university places in Geology, Earth sciences and Geosciences are related to the numbers enrolled in upper level qualifications in secondary school... Without Higher Geology, the numbers of Scottish pupils enrolling in undergraduate Geology or Earth science degree courses will drop, and the production of qualified Scottish geologists ready for careers in the biggest sector of the future Scottish economy will drop.(3). In contrast to Western Australia, Scotland’s new Environmental Science A-level is taking shape with minimal geoscience input, suggesting that any tartan resurgence in Geology is some way off.

At first glance, the situation in England & Wales looks far rosier. GCSE, AS and A-level numbers are climbing, reversing what had previously been a long and steady decline. At Advanced level uptake in Geology is even outpacing its nemesis, Environmental Science.

Figure 3: Plot showing UK student numbers for GCSE (top)
and A-Level (bottom):
Source: Chris King (Keele University)
But against a background of rising student interest in Geology in English and Welsh schools, some teachers are alarmed about a potential threat that might yet offset these gains. Ironically, that threat emerges from the very sector that is set to benefit from the hard-won successes in the classroom: the universities. That’s because many of the major geoscience departments in the UK are not exactly enthusiastic about A-level Geology as a core entry subject. According to the Russell Group, for example, the ‘essential subjects that secure entry to Geology/Earth Science are Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology; Geology languishes with Geography as one of two ‘useful’ subjects (4). Many of the 1994 group universities adopt a similar admissions stance. In the schools, the decision to exclude Geology from the top table of ‘facilitating’ subjects may already be having a detrimental effect. One teacher wrote to me warning of “...a considerable, and disturbing, amount of lack of confidence in our subject/discipline from both parents and students, as a result of reports in the media. The main concern is, their ambitions to study at a RG/1994 group university will be compromised by selecting geology as an A level. 

It is easy to speculate as to why Geology might be viewed by admissions tutors as not being especially facilitating. After all, having a Geology A-level probably means coming in to geoscience with one less Science, which could limit students in some aspects of the sprawling, inter-connected multiverse of Earth system science. Also, an entry cohort with a mix of students with and without advanced level geoscience is tricky to cater for at the introductory level. Finally, there could be concerns either that the A-level syllabus might not be adequate preparation for the rapidly evolving and ever more specialised geoscience curriculum at university, or that out-of-date thinking among A-level teachers may end up instilling misconceptions that are hard to shift later on.

Whatever the issue, the relegation of Geology A Level to simply being ‘useful’ for pursuing a career in geoscience means that students and parents are likely to be confused as whether or not it is worthwhile selecting at all. And yet, currently, it is that A-level that is underpinning our rising Geology numbers. According to Chris King at Keele University’s Earth Science Education Unit (pers comm), the latest UCAS figures show that last year 43% of applicants to UK geology courses had A-level geology, as did 30% of applicants to all UK geoscience-related courses. Any appreciable switch away from Advanced Geology in secondary schools is likely to have an immediate knock-on effect on university numbers.

One of the reasons to think that a loss of confidence in A Level Geology will be transmitted into university admissions is that, as geoscience retreats into the shadows of our school curricula, we will rely increasingly on other subjects to turn on students to Geology. Indeed, a disparate Earth science content is already scattered across the other sciences and Geography. But the latest National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 (GCSE) Science hardly inspires confidence that it will be of much service to Geology (5). According to that document - released on the 7th February 2013 - the explicit Earth Science is as follows:

  • carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases 
  • carbon capture and storage 
  • common pollutants and their sources 
  • the Earth’s water resources 
  • calcium carbonate as a raw material for the construction industry

Geological flotsam and jetsam wash up elsewhere in the new Science GSCE - such as the evidence for evolution from fossils in Biology and sound waves in rocks in Physics - but, by and large, GCSE Science is a geology-free zone. No plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes; for that, sign up to Geography. The big picture story of our planet’s past and how it works today is entirely missing. Instead, it is with a modest smattering of Geology amongst neighbouring disciplines that we will increasingly rely on to sell the glorious wonders of brand Geoscience. In a blog written a couple of years ago, Keele University geologist Ian Stimpson highlighted the nub of the problem with this reliance on teachers in other fields:

“The few bits of geology that are still taught in English schools are, in the main, now taught by chemistry teachers. I don’t want to disparage chemistry teachers but in general they don’t have the background knowledge in geology to allow them the confidence to teach the subject well. If the situations were reversed, and I had to teach chemistry, I’d give it my best shot but without that foundation in the subject I would struggle, and I certainly could not teach it with the enthusiasm that comes from really knowing one’s subject. (5)

According to Stimpson, the UK Geology Teacher is an endangered species. The irony is that, adept at cajoling countless students into the damp rigours of fieldwork or the intimate revelations of rocks, Geology teachers would seem to have been an integral part of Geology's resurgence in recent years.  To expect Chemistry, Physics, and Biology teachers to launch repeated waves of students into university Geology departments is short-sighted and naive. Our best advert for our subject, is ourselves. 


I'm grateful to Joanne Watkins at ESWA for introducing me to the remarkable turnaround in WA Earth Science fortunes during a recent visit to Oz, and for supplying the graphs above. Chris King kindly supplied the UK schools data. Email discussions with Peter Harrison, Keith Turner and others on the Scottish Geodiversity Forum helped crystallise thoughts with regard to the 'Scottish scene'.


(1) Earth Science in Western Australia
(2) Earth Science Western Australia
    (3)  Robinson, R., Harrison, P. & Banks, J.  Higher Geology and Earth Science Provision in Scotland. Post November 23rd 2012 Meeting paper.
    (4)    Informed Choices: A Russell Group guide to making informed choices on post-16 education.
(5) Department of Education. Draft National Curriculum programmes of study for KS4 English, maths and science.
(6) Geology Teachers in the UK - an endangered species. 01 June 2010.


helen said…
Been teaching Physics for the past year and I have managed to sneak in a few "bonus" geology lessons a bit of earthquakes, volcanoes, remote sensing. The kids absolutely loved it - combine the "interesting parts of geography with science". However, I think that it will be an extremely hard sell to get it into our schools unless it has a more prominent place in the curriculum or in the eyes of our HE institutions. Most schools these days (sadly) have to place far too much stall on grades and league tables and (in some cases) the prospects for their leavers.
Another issue faced by the schools would be that if they were to introduce earth science, its not likely that many staff will be a)willing b)able to deliver the course. From my own experience, most science teachers are not confident in teaching the current curriculum earth science content, and (perhaps as a result of its limitations?) don't enjoy teaching it. It is therefore a risk for schools who might be relying on just one member of staff to teach a course. We were lucky on our PGCE (Bristol) to have an ES specific session with Elizabeth Devon - who did an excellent job of making ES appealing and accessible to the non-specialist future science teachers. Perhaps a starting point for promotion of ES in schools would be in the education of science teachers to inspire and enthuse them first?
Unknown said…
Iain's comments in his blog are extremely pertinent. As Earth scientists we are all very concerned about where the next generation of professionals will come from to support the global economic developments that are underpinned by Earth science. However, there is another dimension which is how much we should expect a citizen in the 21st century should know about how the Earth works. We all need to know about where the resources come from that we use on a day-to-day basis and the geohazards that we read about in the newspapers, earthquakes, tsunami and volcanic eruptions. This makes it essential that at least understanding the unifying paradigm of plate tectonics should be available to every child in the UK.

Iain gets to the nub of the problem in discussing the approach in Western Australia - rebranding from dusty old geology to the more contemporary approach of Earth science is essential, incorporating as it does a much more holistic view of our planet's workings. This is an approach that I'm sure James Hutton, the Father of Modern Geology would have approved. Iain talks of low uptake of geology in Scottish schools, which is correct, but more realistically it should be expressed as low accessibility, with access to acceptable levels of teaching limited by the low numbers of teachers with an Earth science qualification. There is therefore a responsibility on the professionals to find innovative methods of making a re-branded Earth science accessible across the UK and to support teachers in its delivery. Distance education is hardly innovative but as a way of getting Earth science education into every school and provide support for teachers who may not be Earth science specialists, it is exciting and innovative.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are becoming more common within the UK higher education sector with tens of thousands registering and these are being increasing used by senior learners in schools to sample some of the diverse range of subjects available at University but not taught in schools. Earth science should be one subject which might be available as a MOOC giving learners the opportunity to engage with the subject. Above all learners need to have the opportunity to recognise the potential offered by the study of Earth science, we in the Earth science community need to provide the opportunities and the education administrators, north and south of the Iapetus suture need to be much more innovative in their approach to delivery.
Chris Dwyer said…
Lucky to be teaching GCSE Geology in Devon. In my fifth year of doing it, there is still a great uptake, with 39 students currently in Year 11 (2 classes), and 30 in Year 10. The school are very supportive and the kids enjoy it! There are a few local colleges that do the AS and A2 courses, so many students successfully follow this on at FE. Have my first student going on to Uni to do Geology later this year (yes! I am pushing her to go to Plymouth!!).
WJEC is the exam board, and they assure me there are no changes planned, but who knows with the current Ed Sec! I also teach Geography to KS 3 & 4. Lots of relevant and related elements there too.
It's quite an interesting challenge picking Geology up in Year10, almost like learning a new language. It's a bit like doing a jigsaw, where you try and fit the edges together first, and only then can you start to fill in the bigger picture.
Biggest problem is lack of a decent contemporary textbook and revision guide.
Unknown said…
You're right! The best advert is ourselves - it's about confidence in our subjects. We need to be more assertive! I try not to be of the "it was so much better in my day" school but... As a young geographer in school in the 1970s & 80s I was taught the basics of geology in my geography lessons (pre A-level). The "rock cycle" & plate tectonics most certainly were not a major feature of my science lessons: they were part of geography which was very much a facilitating subject for geology. A-level geography expected a basic, solid understanding of geology - which we had as geographers. Many years later as a teacher of geography (it was my second career) I found my subject had been eroded (by politicians). Much of what I expected to be in the geography curriculum had been co-opted by the (combined) science curriculum - and unfortunately what was taught was a much diluted version of what geography teachers had taught me 20+ years earlier! So much for progress. Geography is a science and should be aligned to the science and maths departments in schools rather than history and RE! In this way we encourage the geologists, vulcanologists, earth scientists, etc. of the future.

Unknown said…
The name is clearly of substantial importance, as evidenced by our own experience with the transformation from AQA GCE Environmental Science into Environmental Studies. The intake plummeted and now the college no longer offers the subject.
So, I conclude we should tread softly when tweaking a traditional and respectable scientific subject. I prefer to welcome students who have the curiosity to ask questions, even if the first thing they ask is “What is Geology?” Perhaps, by using the more enlightening Earth Science title we may diminish some of the mystery but may also spread broader understanding. On this note, the evidence from ESWA is hugely compelling. I wonder how so many in HE may have become so out of touch with the modern Geology A level in the U.K. Since 2008 Geology has retained the full 600 UMS and six units, the same as any other science A level. In addition, it has a rigorous coursework component akin to a final year dissertation, which involves dry research including primary sources and executing practical plans. The assessment of students includes the production of a full report including an evaluation. Students perform this, not once, but twice, in their second year and the high standards often compare with best practice seen in industry. The unseen, time-constrained, traditional examinations remain in place and still test a candidate’s skill in interpreting complex relationships, and understanding esoteric concepts. Competency with Mathematics, deductive reasoning, constructing ideas and composing essay responses are still skills very much in demand in HE. Therefore, I cannot conceal my astonishment that the RG document, Informed Choices, places Geology on so low a tier, languishing alongside Geography as Prof. Stewart put it so well.
Change the name by all means, but please don’t dilute the content, and the topics within will shine as their own inspiration to future learners. Whenever a prospective student asks me “What is Geology?” A little part of me wants to weep, but then a giant awakes within and I can’t help but say. “Geology is everything, volcanoes, earthquakes, everything in this room, plaster on the walls, steel chairs, plastics from oil, diamond rings, 5000 million years of history, evolution, dinosaurs, it literally translates from Greek as, the scientific study of the Earth, which is our home, what else could be more important? And then they say “it sounds brilliant, why haven’t I heard about it before?” Geology, education’s best kept secret.
David Bailey said…
I recommend that any science teacher looking to inject inspiration and enthusiasm into teaching the earth science elements of the curriculum contact The Earth Science Education Unit ( ESEU runs a UK-wide network of facilitators who provide excellent fee-free CPD workshops.

They could also do a lot worse than attending the Annual Conference of the Earth Science Teachers' Association, which this year - by sheer coincidence! - will be held at Plymouth University from 27 to 29 September on the theme of Communicating Geoscience (
helen said…
Thanks David for some helpful ideas. I think the main issue for most science teachers (like me) is in getting the school to recognise the importance of ES education in order to be able to go onto these sorts of training courses. The ES content in Physics is currently so small that I doubt I would be able to make a valid case for going. As it is, schools are keener to send us on coursework marking policy and similar instead!
Pete Loader said…
Iain’s blog is pertinent at the current crossroads in GCSE and A-level provision of Geology as a “science” subject, taught by specialists. I would accept that studying Geology at A-level does mean one less science subject but question whether this is really a limiting factor. The current three A-level grades needed to get onto a Geology course must preclude one of the main science subjects anyway if mathematics is taken in any of its forms. Whilst I appreciate that it is difficult to cater for a multidisciplinary cohort of students on an introductory course, I would see this as a virtue of the subject. As an A-level teacher of 38 years, I have been pleased to cope with students covering every combination of science and the arts. My only difficulty has been in advising those who get “turned on” to the subject, but have previously chosen their option subjects poorly, how they might continue at university. And Geology A-level is often the prelude to those who might never have considered the subject at all – in my school about 5 per year.
If university admissions tutors believe that the current A-level specification (syllabus) is not an adequate preparation for geoscience at university then I would advise them to look again. In my experience, as a teacher and senior examiner for the WJEC, few university departments have even looked at the content of either the specification or exam. If they did they would find Geology shares the same rigorous assessment objectives as the main stream science subjects. The exams, which are the best signpost of a specification’s strength, involve the analysis, interpretation, evaluation and reliability of stimulus data usually adapted from current academic papers and university level textbooks. The current debates on K-T extinction, deep mantle processes, and ‘Snowball Earth’ are just a few recent examples. There are, however, a number of university departments (non-Russell Group universities in particular) actively involved in helping us in specification development and also examination preparation so that we reflect current developments and issues in the subject. It is to these universities that many teachers will direct students as they tend to be more forward thinking and often actively encourage students with A-level Geology.
Geology is mainly taught by enthusiastic specialists and, in the small pockets where they exist around the country, the subject thrives. Many A-level geology teachers are actively involved in ESTA and CPD is well attended and very well catered for by the awarding bodies. That ‘out-of-date thinking’ is any more prevalent in A-level Geology teachers than those in any other disciplines is highly disputed. Misconceptions are more likely to be instilled into students from non-specialist scientists and geographers teaching out of their comfort zone, using old textbooks and TV resources (not Iain’s , I hasten to add!)
Pete Loader (Geology Master – St Bede’s College , Manchester, Chief Examiner WJEC AS/A2 Geology)

Pete Loader said…
Just to give you advance information of a exciting venture about to be advertised. A FREE, all expenses paid (including accommodation, trips, teaching resources etc.) 3-4 day "Geology Education Academy" being run at the Geological Society of London from 25th - 28th July this summer. This will involve some basic training in Earth Science for non specialist (particularly science, geography teachers). Iain Stewart has agreed to be involved. Details are being finalised and there is a limit on 30 delegates but the aim is to do what you have asked; inspire and enthuse about Earth Science through the curriculum. Details will be posted on the Geology Society website (
Unknown said…
The downgrading of the importance of Geology as an A level subject by the Russell Group Universities is very short sighted and will infuriate Geology teachers throughout the UK. To suggest that Geography is more useful than Geology when embarking on a Geoscience degree is quite ludicrous as the scientific content of this discipline has been continually watered down by each specification revision in recent years. Speaking to a number of admissions tutors (Russell and non-Russell group) it seems that between 40% and 60% undergraduates have studied Geology at A level. They also remark that these are usually the best and ultimately higher achieving students as they already know what the subject involves and are fully committed to it. Geology teachers are different from other Science teachers, they are more passionate, they have to fight for their subject as it is always optional and they inspire students through their energy and enthusiasm during fieldwork.
I was inspired by Mike Edwards, a Geography teacher (Geology graduate) who offered Geology O level in year 12 and A level in year 13. I was instantly hooked and continued to university to complete a Geology degree. For the past 33 years I have been teaching GCSE and AS/A2 Geology and have likewise inspired hundreds of students to pursue Geology at degree level. This year alone 24 out of 32 A2 Geology students are applying for Geoscience degrees. Without this initial input at the grass roots level from committed Geology teachers, the number of applicants for Geoscience degrees will surely decline. The thought of leaving it to Geography, Chemistry, Physics and Biology teachers to inspire students to study Geology is very worrying indeed.
Ian Kenyon, Head of Geology, Truro School.
BeerFlights said…
As a kid I was inspired by an enthusiastic teacher who inspired me to take up geology as a career. I'm sure this is the case for all sciences where great educators shape the path of your life. I'm really not surprised to learn that geology has been 'downgraded' as a requirement for degree level entry - in my opinion it has always been seen as a 'second-class' citizen in comparison to the 'pure' sciences. However, I wonder if part of the cause for this is due to the perception of geology, particularly its link to the less glamorous (and often reviled) sectors such as mining, oil and gas, radioactive waste disposal, CCS, shale gas etc.... Is geology getting a bad rep because of this, even if it a sub-conscious level? Are we seen as promoters of sectors that are perceived to destroy the environment purely for profit? The UK extractive industry struggles to attract new recruits partly because of this perception. I think the solution to this is for the rest of us to demonstrate the value of geology to society, the role that we play in helping to ensure that resources are worked responsibly and to improve the perception of geology as a science. So, in a nutshell more geology on the telly and in the media - keep up the good work Iain!

Clive Mitchell, Communications Team Leader & Industrial Minerals Specialist, British Geological Survey (BGS)
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
As a Geog with Geol undergraduate student, many of my peers have many misconceptions surrounding Geology, whereas those of us involved in the subject know that it is fascinating and most definitely not just ‘rocks’. I was fortunate to study Geol at A Level and experienced fantastic teaching from staff that were trained Geologists and inspired me to study the subject at degree level. However, uptake of the subject was very low (5 people!) and my former school has subsequently dropped the subject partly due to poor uptake, but also, as Iain mentions, internal politics and an adverse perception of the subject making it an easy target for budget cuts by senior management.

With an eventual aim of teaching Geog and Geol after graduation, I find it extremely frustrating that no formal training for Geologists with regards PGCE’s is currently available. I hope, by the time I graduate and am in a position to start PGCE training, that the system is different, Geology won’t have disappeared off the curriculum altogether due to Governmental interference, and I will be able to teach Geology, and in doing so, be part of the generation that helps to stop Geology teachers becoming an endangered species, else we are in danger of losing the subject in the future.
Iain Stewart said…
Thanks Elen. As far as I know, the only UK PGCE course for Geology is the one at Keele, which has a handful of people on it every year. Chris King or david Bailey (above) might want to give the latest info on the vitality (or otherwise) of that provision.
Anonymous said…
When I was at school in Scotland in the late 80s/early 90s, geology wasn't an option. But geography was split into physical and human geography, and the former encompassed large scale processes like glaciation. I loved it and it's what turned me towards Earth science, although I really enjoy the interface between biology and geology and climate science.

Stuart Monro is right to talk about the problems of access to geology in schools. There may well be students who want to study it, but if it's not available to them in their schools then it can be off-putting. However, re-packaging geological content into geology and the other mainstream sciences does seem to be a good way of keeping this knowledge in the classroom and giving students a taste of it. However it is a concern that no new specialist geology teachers are coming through - why is it that geology graduates are not being attracted to teaching? Or are they, but they're not given the opportunity to teach it and are having to teach geography or the other sciences instead?

There's a lot to be said for having a teacher who is passionate about their subject and really wants to pass on their knowledge to the next generation, but how can this be done by a physics graduate who is forced to incorporate some geology into their classroom? They may be passionate about physics, but can they enthuse students about geology? Maybe they can - many people enjoy interdisciplinary approach and are able to inspire students about multiple subjects.

As I said above I never studied geology formally at school but the content I did study in geography was enough to whet my appetite and I'm now studying for a degree in Natural Sciences (Earth Science) with the OU.

Does anyone ever ask the students what they want? If geology was available or more prominent in schools, are pupils being attracted to it? The graphs from Australia above seem to suggest that there are still many interested students, and if packaged in the right way the subject can still have high uptake.
Unknown said…
In the event that anyone reading this blog has not seen Ian Duncan-Smith's comments today on the Andrew Marr show, please view the URL below.

Could there be a more compelling reason for Geology academics to unite in a staunch and vehement attack on such unsurpassed ignorance?
I may have neglected to add in my previous comment to this blog; my huge thanks to Prof. Stewart for the initial, highly stimulating and most pertinent article. Subsequently, I acknowledge the great clarity of perspective from both Pete Loader and Ian Kenyon, who may have articulated my own views rather better than I could.

Iain Stewart said…
In the context of the issues that we’re discussing, The Geological Society of America’s position statement on Expanding and Improving Geoscience in Higher Education (Oct 2011) makes intersting reading. It’s recommendations (in full) ...

(1) College and university administrators must sustain geoscience programs so that they can educate non-majors and the general public, train future Earth-science educators at all levels, from K–12 to collegiate, as well as educate the next generation of the geoscience workforce. Administrators should view geoscience education and literacy as an essential component of higher education given its clear relevance in many aspects of society.

(2) Policy makers must make available new sources of funding for programs to educate the next generation of Earth scientists that will be vital to public health, strong economies, and global security.

(3) Industries in the private sector, such as oil and natural gas companies, minerals extraction and environmental and engineering companies rely heavily on the expertise developed by geoscience programs in institutions of higher education. These industries must advocate for increased funds which are critical for the continuation and enhancement of geoscience education, and, whenever possible, directly support the geoscience departments and initiatives that are responsible for training their future workforce.

(4) Science agencies, institutions, and non-profit organizations need to enhance and sustain their geoscience programs and partner with colleges and universities to provide internships and career pathways for the next generation of geoscientists.
Here in Western Australia we are very lucky to have just this support. Both our tertiary geoscience education providers and our private sector support the Earth Science Western Australia (ESWA) initiative (full list here -
As Iain has already pointed out in his original blog, we have been able to support and encourage an increase in secondary students choosing Earth and Environmental Science. This then leads to the question, is this having a flow on effect to our universities?
Currently I don't have access to any firm data regarding geoscience entrant numbers at University but can say that I spoke to the Geology department at Curtin University recently (one of two University Geology providers in WA) and they were saying that for the second year in a row their classes are full to the point of turning students away. We are hoping to conduct a formal survey on this issue next year.
I can also point to other organisations working to increase secondary geoscience education in other States across Australia (and ask them to join this discussion soon).
Of course as a current (very lucky) employee of ESWA I have to point out that none of this would be possible without the tireless work of our founders and Board.
Chris King said…
A comparison between the current national curriculum for science and the proposed curriculum reveals just how much Earth science has been cut from the draft proposals. My summary of the differences is:
• The ‘Earth science’ included in chemistry at KS3 and KS4 is not material recognised as core Earth science by most Earth scientists
• The rock cycle (and metamorphism) which were part of the old curriculum are not included in the new draft.
• Fossils, igneous and sedimentary rocks are only covered in ‘simple’ terms in Year 3.
• Plate tectonics is only covered in Geography at KS3 – and the ‘key processes’ only are covered. Currently plate tectonics is covered in KS4 science.
• In comparison with the previous curriculum, the KS1 Earth science content has remained the same; the KS2 content has shown a slight increase; the KS3 and KS4 Earth science content have been cut dramatically to something not recognisable as Earth science.
• The considered recommendations of the Earth science education community for the Earth science content of the science curriculum at KS3/4, submitted to the Department for Education during 2012, have been ignored.
This is a crucial moment for the geoscience community in the UK to act, by responding to the official consultation at: and by alerting any 'friends in high places' to the seriousness of the situation. If there is not a dramatic improvement, the Earth science education of all English pupils will suffer greatly - with the multiple knock on effects that this will cause.
Chris King.
Unknown said…
The current review of the curriculum in England, with its emphasis on scientific thinking, is a great opportunity to re-launch Geology as ‘Earth Science’ or ‘Geoscience’. This is not a simple rebranding exercise but is recognition that it is a true science with tested theories, hypotheses and hard won evidence.
Two critical elements of ‘Earth Science’ are not adequately covered if the students prepare for its study at higher education institutions through the proxy of maths, physics and chemistry. The nature, origin of rocks and sediments and their structure and interrelationships is not well covered by other subjects and is fundamental to understanding the three dimensional puzzle that supplies us with many of our resources.
The second area which is critical to ‘Earth Science’ is it grounding as a field based subject with the necessary skills that requires and which industry values highly.

Arguably both of these areas could be covered in the undergraduate course but we need to encourage and nurture those with an interest in the subject as school leavers with A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry are arguably more likely to become investment bankers than the professional geologists we so badly need.

To reinforce Chris King’s point, we need to act now to influence the curriculum. We need to find the best way to make the aspirations of the sector fit those of the government – they are not going to rewrite the curriculum for a subject which is not currently in the core. Higher education, especially the Russell Group, have a significant role to play in determining the style and content of future A-levels so we need an earth scientist on the advisory body to be chaired by Nigel Thrift (Vice Chancellor at Warwick).

Rob Lucas FSC Chief Executive
Iain Stewart said…
Thinking about Rob Lucas's comment from the perspective of the Field Studies Council, I wondered where students would get their enthusiasm for fieldwork if they come principally by the Maths, Physics, Chemistry routeway. Field work is a central component in most Geology courses, valued by employers and highlighted by students as one of the main attractions of the subject. A Level Geology and Geography have a substantial amount of fieldwork, and anecdotally that alone seems to inspire many to continue with field-based science. Modern Earth science is no longer tied to clouting rocks with hammers and just as many excellent geoscientists have never hit a rock in anger, but I wonder if that affinity with the field will diminish as we lose geoscience from the schools??
Dept. of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of St Andrews.

Just a few comments on the Scottish situation. As Stuart Munro suggested, the future loss of Higher Geology has been allowed to happen because of neglect of the subject - it is not a lack of interest, but a lack of sufficient provision and visibility. There are champions working in a few schools across Scotland to train pupils for the Higher Geology qualification, and they get lots of pupils wanting to take the subject. However, no new geology teachers have been trained since 1985 and with no champions in a school, it is a subject that Head teachers feel they can cut when funds are so restricted. Even the most enthusiastic of geology teachers have been pressurised to drop the subject in recent finanicially turbulent times.

As personal evidence of overwhelming interest in the subject, St Andrews runs an outreach programme called GeoBus which is available to visit any schools in Scotland and is starting to visit schools in England and Wales. It brings resources and activities that help support Earth science teaching. In our first year, GeoBus was invited to 88 schools and involved 9527 pupils in hands-on geology/Earth science activities visits. The teachers and pupils are very enthusiastic about the subject but don't have the backround and/or the resources to teach the material. GeoBus is funded by industry (Dana Petroleum, Maersk Oil, Centrica, and Shell) as well as the Natural Environmental Research Council. Industry fund the project because they are so concerned about present and future shortages of trained geologists.

The content currently covered in Higher Geology is extensive and the skills training is broad. The existing Higher is recognised as a qualification that challenges pupils thoroughly and provides an opportunity to study an applied science - teachers comment that some pupils get more excited about physics and chemistry because it seems more tangible when presented in a geological context. Generally, as geologists we don't seem to have successfully demonstrated how integrated a subject it is and how key it is in STEM provision. Sadly, although Geology content was supposed to be included in the new Environmental Science course as part of Curriculum for Excellence, there isn't sufficient coverage of the subject at present. It is not too late to change this but discussions about how to increase the Earth science content in the new Environmental Science course in Scotland need to happen now.

Lastly, there has been discussion of the success of the Earth and Environmental Science programme in Western Australia in this blog. Closer to home Norway, which has a similar population size to Scotland and similar focus on North Sea oil, introduced Geoscience as a subject in 2007. It is now taught in almost 100 of around 300 secondary schools. Marianne Jensen of the University of Bergen provided me with the following figures: since 2007, between 500 and 1000 pupils study 5 hours of Geoscience per week at levels 1 and 2, and with the basic Geoscience course for junior levels, this equates to between 1500 and 2000 pupils per year. Why are we going in the opposite direction to Norway and Australia?

The subject inspires and is vocational - the skills and training opportunities are broad - there are jobs in the Earth sciences sector - demands for well trained Earth scientists will increase. We need more pupils to get exposure to the potential careers in Earth science and more people aware of the basic pinciples of how the Earth functions.
I love teaching both Geography and Geology at A Level. The subject content is relevant and interesting and my students are gorgeous. I personally have some very significant concerns with funding. My A Level classes range between 17 and 25, I currently have 20 students in my A2 Geology class. Next year we have been told this is likely to be increased due to a lack of funding in 6th form colleges. My teaching time is 265 minutes a week. I teach every evening after college to give support and run clubs to try to give students breadth and depth. All A courses are in the same position so taking students out for fieldwork is difficult. The Geology practical exam is on 1st May this year. As a result I will end up racing through the interesting and relevant specification. The state sector needs to be better funded if we are to be truly competitive with the private sector. Subjects like Geology can get squeezed out in many state schools because the classes are too small and therefore too costly to run. this link to a recent BBC news article highlights some of the issues.
Unknown said…
The Teacher Earth Science Education Programme (TESEP) is trying to help teachers in Eastern Australia as a new national curriculum rolls out. We run teacher PD and produce or collate a variety of teacher and student materials that meet Australian needs. The F-10 curriculum is now finalised and all states are slowly adopting versions of it with little alteration. However, the new senior Earth and Environmental Science (E&ES) course - modeled in part on the Western Australian example - is still a work in progress and one that maybe still-born in some states as each territory plays politics with the federal initiative and each state curriculum authority strives to make itself seem relevant in an environment where governments are cutting back and cutting hard. The upshot is some states might not adopt E&ES - despite such a clear reason why it should be adopted from Western Australia - as they capitulate to vested interests and play to government prejudices. Despite having a national E&ES senior subject on the books now it will be a long time before any other state in Australia manages an outcome anything like ESWA managed in Western Australia.
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