Earth System Science: The Big Ideas

Like all scientific disciplines, the Earth sciences continually evolve over time. New discoveries fuel new ideas, providing and ever-increasing understanding of the planet. But of the overwhelming number of observations, theories, and principles that form the foundation of Earth system science, what is essential for every American to understand? All too often, curricula are too ambitious and, as a result, may fail to cover topics in any substantial depth. An alternative approach is to build one’s curriculum upon a foundation of focused, interconnected big ideas. A well-designed set of big ideas can provide an all-encompassing conceptual framework for any discipline, including Earth system science. Developed alongside scientists and Earth science teachers, this coherent set of big ideas illuminates what is fundamental to the Earth sciences:

  1. The Earth is a system of systems.
  2. The flow of energy drives the cycling of matter.
  3. Life, including human life, influences and is influenced by the environment.
  4. Physical and chemical principles are unchanging and drive both gradual and rapid changes in the Earth system.
  5. To understand (deep) time and the scale of space, models and maps are necessary.

These ideas are designed to cover the breadth of any Earth science curriculum, but they must be dissected to build deep understanding. Each idea is essentially bottomless; that is, while a meaningful understanding of these ideas is readily attainable, the details contained within are endless. Each of the ideas can be understood, but the depth of understanding can vary greatly.

Introduction of these ideas also invites discussion of the nature of science. As curricula are designed and implemented, the traditional topics of Earth system science should be complemented with ideas on how we have come to know what we know about the natural world. Within our big ideas framework, we draw attention to the nature of science with two overarching questions:

  1. How do we know what we know?
  2. How does what we know inform our decision making?

These questions, when addressed in concert with the big ideas, provide a gateway into the nature and utility of the range of scientific ideas.