Getting Kids and Parents Fired Up About Earth Science

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A lot of adults, it seems, have a hard time wrapping their minds around basic Earth science (just tune into congressional hearings on the climate bill, particularly Reps. Joe Barton and John Shimkus, or Rep. John Boehner on the talk shows).

Fortunately, our kids still have a natural curiosity and insatiable desire to root out the truth.

One six-year-old’s endless "why?" questions about the planet have become the inspiration for a creative new blog that’s helping parents and teachers nurture their children’s fascination with Earth science. Written by Jeff Goldstein, father to six-year-old Jordi and director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, Blog On The Universe suggests ways to encourage questions and help kids discover the answers.

The blog poses challenges: How many new human beings will be on the planet a year from now, what resources will they need and where will they find them?

It also turns the news into teachable moments. The goal, Goldstein explains, is to get adults and children emotional about science and help them become good stewards of our planet.

"You’ve got to keep fighting for science literacy, and that’s what this blog is all about," he says.

Here’s a sample from a recent Blog On The Universe post that started with a question from Jordi: “Daddy, how long is a billion years?”

    We humans now live on average about 75 years (in the developed world; in Africa the life expectancy is frighteningly low at 32 to 55). I’ll assume that 75 years is the life expectancy of a human in the absence of devastating diseases like AIDS, and with availability to modern medicine.

    We humans also like to perceive the passage of time in units of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. We’ve created these units because they are comfortable, connected to the rhythms in the sky and in our bodies, and each is used to make sense of events both short and long. Here’s the critical point for the rest of the story—

    One of our average humans sees 75 years x 365.25 days/year = 27,394 days in their life.

    That’s amazing. That’s 27,394 days of getting up in the morning, eating, working, playing, relaxing, and going to bed. Put this way, the length of a single day is absolutely inconsequential relative to a human lifetime. Agreed? Good.

    So let’s say I had this really cool diary with one page for every day of our average human’s life. It’s a single book with 27,394 pages. I could give it to you at birth and ask you to record your life one page—one day—at a time (with some help from a friend in your early and possibly later years). Like I said, one cool diary.

    Let’s say planet Earth was this large cosmic creature. She’s got a life expectancy of about 10 billion years. … Earth obviously has a lot to say. … I’ll give her one of my really cool diaries with 27,394 pages. I’ll help her move all her old diary entries into the new one so it will truly record her 10 billion year life. Why don’t we call each page …. a GEOLOGIC DAY (a Dr. Jeff made-up term.) And every Geologic Day is absolutely inconsequential relative to Earth’s lifetime. Afterall, Earth has 27,394 of them.

    Every Geologic Day, Earth will write in her diary the comings and goings for that day. Here’s the next important point—

    Every one of the 27,394 pages in Earth’s diary—each Geologic Day— is 365,000 years long, enough time for 14,600 human generations …

    So here we are in the middle of her life and she just now finished her entry for day 13,697—

    Dear diary-

    Today, as always, I’m going to keep a watchful eye across my surface. It’s an important responsibility being an oasis of life in a vast space. I’m painfully aware that all the countless forms of life that live on me depend on a very delicate balance of surface conditions. Every Geologic Day, I try to avoid those asteroids and comets and super volcanoes that have wreaked havoc with my sphere of life-my biosphere.

    Today started out as always, pretty routine with lots of new things to see. I’m still watching those bipedal creatures I first noticed about 6 Geologic Days ago. Over the last few days, it looked like there were a few different species of them. But by the middle of the day today, I’m pretty sure there’s only one dominant species left. I’m fascinated with them. They’re intelligent. They make tools.

    Well, time to stop writing it’s just about the next Geologic Day. Only 40 Geologic Seconds left in this one (150 years in our time).

    Wait a second-did you see that?? Carbon dioxide levels just spiked across the planet! This just can’t be right!! All of a sudden carbon dioxide is at the highest level it’s been in at least 2 Geologic Days … maybe even 50 Geologic Days (for us – 800,000 to 20 million years)!

    What’s happening-the temperature just spiked! This is very bad. There has to be a cause. In these last Geologic Seconds of this 18,260th Geologic Day, something’s happened. Something’s different. I’ve got to find out what’s happening before it’s too late for countless species on my surface.

    Wait …. it’s … it’s the bipedes!!!!

    OH MY … they’re everywhere! Their technology is EVERYWHERE!

    What are you doing!! Stop!! It’s an infestation!!

    They’ve got to be stopped. They’re supposed to be intelligent. Maybe not. I’ve got to try to reasoning with them.

    Look at the data!! Look at the data!! Quick! Quick! … not enough of them are listening. They’re too busy, too pre-occupied … with themselves.

    I need to put in an emergency call to Interplanetary Pest Control, or … tomorrow will be a very bad day.

Check out Blog On The Universe to read more and to pick up ideas for feeding your children’s curiosity about planet Earth.

The scientific illiteracy displayed far too often in Congress doesn’t have to be passed on to the next generation.