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Making the Case for Earth Science in 21st-Century Schools

11 May 2011

"More than ever before in the short history of our species, and the even shorter history of our civilization, humanity needs smart kids to take up careers in the earth sciences," Prof. Sieh told teachers and students from schools in Singapore in a two-hour presentation last April at the National Library Building on Victoria Street. 

Our planet is dramatically being altered by natural processes, and society urgently needs people with the scientific capabilities to understand those changes and help reduce their harmful effects on society, he said. 

"But only a fortunate few students are introduced to the possibilities of exciting and rewarding careers in earth science in their teenage years," he noted. 

Currently, the curriculum in most Singapore’s schools does not include earth science as a discrete subject. 

Calling earth science "a vast playground for individuals who love to bring biology, physics, chemistry, ecology, mathematics and other disciplines to bear on figuring out how Nature works," Prof Sieh urged teachers to integrate more earth science into the existing education syllabus to spark students' interest. He offered examples of how that could be done to enhance the learning of scientific concepts such as the following: 

Partial differential equations. Lessons in partial differential equations (PDE), which are now included in the A level maths syllabus, could include modelling of tsunami waves using shallow water waves, which is derived from the Navier-Stokes equation, a form of PDE. (In hydrodynamics, a tsunami is considered a shallow water wave.) 

Longitudinal and transverse waves. In the O/A level physics syllabus, the study of longitudinal waves now focuses on sound and transverse waves in relation to water, light, microwaves and X-rays. But earthquakes offer an especially interesting application of this scientific concept because they are the only phenomenon in which both transverse and longitudinal waves can coexist together. 

Speed of waves. Wave amplitudes and wave speeds are also covered in the O/A level physics syllabus. Tsunamis are an excellent illustration of these principles because they have a small amplitude (wave height) offshore and a very long wavelength (often hundreds of kilometres long), which is why they generally pass unnoticed at sea, forming only a slight swell above the normal sea surface. (They grow in height when they reach shallower water, in a "shoaling" process.) 

Electromagnetism. Students learn in A level physics that if a charged particle were to enter a magnetic field at an angle, it would spiral in a helical manner in the same direction as the magnetic field. But a process known as interplanetary corona mass ejection can disrupt the Earth's magnetosphere; it creates trillions of watts of power that are directed back toward the Earth's upper atmosphere, causing a very strong aurora (called the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis, or Southern Lights, in the Southern Hemisphere). Corona mass ejection events, as well as solar flares, can disrupt radio transmissions, cause power outages and damage satellites and electrical transmission lines. 

"Learning about the application of physics in these natural phenomena would not only make the learning more interesting and relevant to our daily lives, but also bring about a greater awareness of the environment around us," Prof Sieh told the teachers and students. 

He described a variety of ways in which scientists are applying expertise in earth science to address real-life problems. 

Researchers in western Sumatra have been able to predict the near-likelihood of large quakes and tsunamis by deciphering the growth bands of corals and the layers of plankton-rich swamp muds. Electronic data collected by satellites has given scientists a better understanding of tectonic movements associated with recent large earthquakes in Tibet, Pakistan and Turkey. Specialists in volcano science are working to track the way in which molten rock travels through subterranean plumbing, up to the Earth’s surface and high into the atmosphere. 

Some people, Prof Sieh acknowledged, have tended to dismiss the relevance of earth science for students in Singapore because the country’s location helps shield it from the hazards of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. 

But attitudes are changing. 

In particular, the giant Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 2004 was a horrifying wake-up call as to the huge scale of destruction nature is capable of causing across Southeast Asia. Climate change and sea rise is another threat that has serious implications for the region, especially in relation to food security and the possibility of increased natural disasters in vulnerable coastal areas. 

Prof Sieh noted that Singapore, with its knowledge-based economy and strong commitment to education, is well positioned to develop a research capability that can help counties in the region address these challenges.