A Resources special: Earth Day, 22 April - Discover the whole wide world

From plate tectonics to deep time, geology is an enthralling subject and we ignore it at our cost, James Williams writes

Iain Duncan Smith recently created a storm by asking: "Who is more important ... the geologist or the person who stacked the shelves?" The work and pensions secretary was exasperated that Cait Reilly, an unemployed geology graduate, had won a legal victory over the back-to-work scheme that forced her to stack shelves in a supermarket without pay.

Of course we need supermarket workers. But without geologists Britain and the rest of the world would suffer acutely. There would be no mining for much-needed minerals for fertilisers to grow our crops, no oil for fuel and plastics, no gas exploration and no engineering infrastructure to build the roads and railways. We would be in dire straits.

Yet Duncan Smith was accurately reflecting the lack of importance this country places on geology, and the fact that it is a long-neglected discipline in our education system. Indeed, the latest draft of the national curriculum for science continues to ignore it.

How ironic, then, that Great Britain can claim to have founded the modern science of geology. William Smith (1769-1839), the "father" of British geology, constructed the first geological map of England and Wales, while James Hutton (1726-1797) wrote the influential Theory of the Earth and Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) produced one of the first comprehensive textbooks on the subject. All still have the power to intrigue and enthral today, if students are given the opportunity to study them.

Then there is Charles Darwin (pictured above), whom many would consider a biologist. But his first scientific theories were geological in nature (how island arcs form, for example) and he was elected to the council of the Geological Society of London on his return from his voyage on HMS Beagle. Darwin took Lyell's Principles of Geology on his travels and his notebooks from the journey contain 1,383 pages about geology but only 368 on plants and animals. There is no doubting his credentials as a geologist, and students would benefit from being exposed to his early work.

But in the draft national curriculum for key stages 3 and 4, what is labelled "Earth science" bears no relation to anything that an Earth scientist would study. (I have no dispute with the recommendation that students should be taught "the efficacy of recycling", but to claim that this is representative of Earth science is nonsense.)

I have long held that teaching children science through the context of the structure, processes and history of our planet makes for fascinating, engaging lessons. This can begin at a relatively early age and become more complex as children grow more curious and better informed. And, historically, those in charge of the education system appeared to agree.

As far back as the late 19th century, one of the main architects of the science curriculum in English schools knew that geology was key to teaching about a wide range of scientific concepts. Thomas Henry Huxley, a comparative anatomist whose work prefigured the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs, said: "To begin with, let every child be instructed in ... 'physical geography', that is to say, a general knowledge of the Earth, and what is on it, in it and about it."

Huxley recognised the importance and allure of the discipline and believed that once children were hooked on the subject, more complex, abstract science could be delivered. In 1867 a British Association for the Advancement of Science report on scientific education in schools defined science as chemistry, biology, physical and mathematical sciences and geology. Over time, of course, subjects change. Mathematics is now a separate and weighty subject, whereas geology has fallen by the wayside.

Yet most other developed countries do not underplay its importance. Japan, Australia and many Pacific Rim countries, including the US, understand that a knowledge of Earth science is not only vital to their economies (the search for minerals and fossil fuels, for example) but that natural forces including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and related phenomena such as tsunamis can cause widespread devastation. Educating the population at large about the Earth's processes is not only intrinsically interesting but could also save lives.

The UK is a geologically stable country: we have no active volcanoes, our earthquakes are so minor as to be insignificant and unlike many countries we do not sit close to the edge of a crustal plate. So perhaps the value of teaching Earth science is lost on many. But an understanding of the composition of the Earth, the concept of deep time, the evolution of life through the fossil record and the forces that shape our planet brings the "traditional three" scientific disciplines together in a meaningful context.

As we approach Earth Day on 22 April, perhaps those educational authorities making key decisions about the future of the science curriculum could think again about how best to create a broad and balanced education. We have an opportunity to reinstate an important and engaging scientific discipline that brings together the other disciplines under the umbrella of understanding the planet on which we live. Let's not waste that chance through ignorance of one of our oldest sciences.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex's School of Education and Social Work. Follow him on Twitter at @edujdw


Learn about plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes with this fact-file resource from British Geological Survey. bit.lyAskAboutGeology

Find out about the history of geology and life on earth in a scavenger hunt from California Academy of Sciences. bit.lyHistoryOfGeology.

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