Earth and Space Sciences: The Forgotten STEM Subjects

By MJ Tykoski, MEd

Space view of the US lit up with the sun in the northwest horizon

One of the acronyms de jour in science education today is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). It is a nice catch-all for science and the subjects that are closely related to science. However, diving a little deeper into how STEM plays out in classrooms reveals a disturbing trend. Not all sciences are adequately represented; Earth and space sciences are often left out. This means students are not receiving a well-rounded science education, which should be a concern for any dedicated STEM teacher.

What are Earth and Space Sciences?

What is meant when discussing Earth and space sciences? Topics would include geology, meteorology, astronomy and oceanography. These subjects rarely appear in high school science classrooms. Physical science and life science courses dominate graduation plans across the U.S. According to the American Geoscience Institute, 30 states require a life science course for graduation and 20 states require an additional physical science credit. In contrast, only two states require an Earth sciences course for graduation (American Geosciences Institute, 2015).  The blatant lopsidedness is astounding.

Lack of Earth and Space Sciences in IB and AP Programs

The much-vaunted International Baccalaureate Program is guilty of not including Earth and space sciences in its requirements. For science, students may choose from biology, computer science, chemistry, design technology, physics or sports/exercise/health science (International Baccalaureate, 2017). The only bone tossed to Earth and space science is an “Environmental Systems and Society” course that can fulfill a non-science requirement (International Baccalaureate, 2017).

Another popular option for a higher-level science class is the Advanced Placement program by the College Board. Once again, the level of instruction for Earth and space science falls short. There is no course that addresses geology, meteorology or astronomy (College Board, 2017).  Closer examination of the AP Environmental Science curriculum shows this to be a biology-based ecology course with little to no connections with geosciences (College Board, 2013).  Students who have an interest in these topics have no advanced science option that allows them to pursue their interest and get a head start on college credits.

Why are Earth and Space Sciences Important?

Earth and space sciences are among the most easily relatable sciences students can study. Teachers are often told to teach in a way that allows students to use the information presented in real life. All students, no matter what their chosen career path is, will have to deal with weather every day of their lives. They will always be able to look up at the moon and see what phase it is in. There will always be stories in the news about earthquakes, floods, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions that threaten lives and destroy cities.

How often do we see stories of political battles over threats to groundwater in geologically sensitive areas or natural resources or waste storage and potential contamination, all of which need voters with at least a little understanding of Earth sciences and systems? Why then do so many states, schools, and organizations leave these topics out of STEM instruction?

Making sure every student receives a quality STEM experience means all science subjects, including the very applicable areas of Earth and space science, should be taught in secondary schools. After all, we do live on Planet Earth, right?

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  • Benbow, A. & Hoover, M. (July 2015) Earth and Space Science Education in U.S. Secondary Schools: Key Indicators and Trends (United States, American Geosciences Institute). Alexandra, VA.
  • College Board (2017). Course and Exam Pages. Retrieved from
  • College Board (2013). Environmental Science Course Description. College Board: New York, NY.
  • International Baccalaureate (2017). Sciences in the DP. Retrieved from

More About MJ:

MJ Tykoski is completing her 23rd year as a science teacher in Texas. Grand Canyon University provided the perfect opportunity for her to pursue her studies while staying in the classroom through their online master’s degree. Given her interest in staying in the classroom and helping other teachers, GCU’s educational leadership program was a perfect fit for her needs.

She was the Middle School Science Teacher of the Year for the Science Teachers’ Association of Texas in 2009, state finalist for the Presidential Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2011, winner of the Texas Medical Association Middle School Teacher of the Year in 2013 and recently won the 2017 American Geosciences Institute Edward C. Roy Jr. Award for Excellence in Earth Science Teaching. For the last 20 years, she has worked with education and public outreach for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and flew as part of the Echelon Cross Echelle Spectrometer (EXES) team in 2015.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.