Revised 10/01/11

Curricula commonly try to do too many things and fail to do much in substantial depth. It is our contention that curricula would be better structured if they were built upon a foundation of a small set of interconnected “big ideas.” A well-designed set of big ideas provides an all-encompassing conceptual framework for the discipline.  Before reading further, we suggest the reader stop and consider the question: “What is essential for every American to understand in the Earth sciences?”  

In consultation with scientists and Earth science educators, we have assembled and constructed a coherent set of big ideas that illuminates what is fundamental to Earth science and provides a conceptual framework upon which to build enduring understanding.  In brief, those ideas are: 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) space and time, models and maps are necessary. 

These ideas are backgrounded by this compound question:

How do we know what we know and how does what we know inform our decision making?

For a more in depth discussion

On the current page, the big ideas are described first only to the depth of a single sentence (above), and then to the depth of a paragraph (below). In Big Ideas in the Earth System, an article published in American Paleontologist, we describe the rationale behind the big ideas and overarching questions.  There is also a chapter on big ideas in The Teacher Friendly Guide to the Geology of the Northeastern U.S. that goes into more depth. These descriptions, while more in depth than those on the page you are currently viewing, only begin to dig into these essentially bottomless ideas.

Scroll down to the end of this page for presentation and workshop materials on big ideas, or visit our presentations and publications page

See also the “Rainbow Chart,” which compares ideas in different Earth systems literacy initiatives.  Big Ideas are also discussed in an article in American Paleontologist (linked from the presentations and publications page)

Big Ideas & Overarching Questions:

The following expands the ideas slightly.  To see the ideas in more detail, see the Big Ideas chapter of the Teacher Friendly Guides. 

Overarching Questions:

How do we know what we know and how does what we know inform our decision making?

The Earth is a System of Systems.

The Earth System is composed of and part of a multitude of systems, which cycle and interact resulting in dynamic equilibrium (though the system evolves). The Earth is also nested in larger systems including the solar system and the universe.  However there is an inherent unpredictability in systems, which are composed of an (effectively) infinite number of interacting parts that follow simple rules. Each system is qualitatively different from, but not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.

The Flow of Energy Drives the Cycling of Matter

The Earth is an open system. The constant flow of solar radiation powers much of Earth's ocean and atmospheric processes on the surface of the system, flow of heat from inside the Earth from radioactivity drives plate tectonics. Energy flows and cycles through the Earth system. Matter cycles within it. Cycling is largely driven by the interaction of the differential distribution of solar radiation and internal heat, and gravity. Convection drives weather and climate, ocean currents, the rock cycle and plate tectonics.

Life, Including Human Life, Influences and is Influenced by the Environment.

Photosynthetic bacteria released free oxygen into the early oceans and atmosphere, making Earth habitable for later animals.  Humans have changed the lay of the land, altered the distribution of flora and fauna and are changing atmospheric chemistry in ways that alter the climate.  Earth system processes affect where and how humans live. For example, many people live in the shadow of volcanoes because of the fertile farmland found there, however they must keep a constant vigil to maintain their safety. The human impact on the environment is growing as population increases and the use of technology expands. 

Physical and chemical principles are unchanging and drive both gradual and rapid changes in the Earth system.

Earth processes (erosion, evolution or plate tectonics, for example) operating today are the same as those operating since they arose in Earth history and they are obedient to the laws of chemistry and physics.  While the processes constantly changing the Earth are essentially fixed, their rates are not. Tipping points are reached that can result in rapid changes cascading through Earth systems. 

To Understand (Deep) Time and the Scale of Space, Models and Maps are Necessary.

The use of models is fundamental to all of the Earth Sciences. Maps and models aid in the understanding of aspects of the Earth system for which direct observation is not possible. Models assist in the comprehension of time and space at both immense and sub-microscopic scales.  When compared to the size and age of the universe, humanity is a speck in space and a blip in time.

Big Ideas Presentation & Publications

(also see our publications & presentations page):

Duggan-Haas, D. (2010) SYNTHESIZING EARTH SYSTEM ESSENTIAL PRINCIPLES: WHAT EVERY CITIZEN NEEDS TO KNOW. North American Association for Environmental Education Annual Meeting, Buffalo, New York.

  1. Presentation “Prezi” (also embedded at the top of this page).

  2. Associated Poster (9.2 MB, 40” x 32”)

Ross, R. & Duggan-Haas, D. (2010) Big Ideas in Earth System Science. American Paleontologist, 18, 24 - 28.

  1. Article pdf.

Duggan-Haas, D. & Clark, S.  (2009) FOREST FOR THE TREES: EARTH SYSTEMS SCIENCE LITERACY INITIATIVES AND THE NEED FOR A SMALLER INTEGRATED SET OF PRINCIPLES, is a presentation from the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Portland, OR.  It’s available as an html or pdf document. 

Duggan-Haas, D.; Miller, S. R.;* Henderson, J.* (2009) “What if we only taught five things? Focusing Earth Science Instruction on Bigger Ideas.”  Science Teachers’ Association of New York State Annual Meeting, Rochester, New York.

  1. Session Slides


  1. Big Ideas Worksheet

  2. Henderson Lab Summary Questions & Rubric

  3. Miller Course Outline with Essential & Unit Questions

  4. “Rainbow Chart” of Bigger Ideas

See a presentation relating this set of big ideas to other idea sets under development as part of an initiative for Earth system science literacy.  This was presented at the Coalition for Earth Systems Education 2008 meeting.

The above presentations include a chart that uses color-coding to compare ideas in the different literacy initiatives.  See that chart as an html or pdf document.

earth system science Big ideas

Earth Science Big Ideas:

  1. BulletThe Earth is a System of Systems

  2. BulletThe Flow of Energy Drives the Cycling of Matter

  3. BulletLife, Including Human Life, Influences and is Influenced by the Environment.

  4. BulletPhysical and chemical principles are unchanging and drive both gradual and rapid changes in the Earth system.

  5. BulletTo Understand (Deep) Time and the Scale of Space, Models and Maps are Necessary

Earth Systems Literacy Initiatives

A series of NSF funded initiatives are underway to define literacy within different areas of the Earth system.   

Learn about these initiatives and how they relate to our big ideas here.

See information on a new study on the benefits of in depth study here.

Mapping Earth Systems

See how maps of different systems show how the Earth is system of systems

  1. PowerPoint.

  2. html

Big Ideas in the Earth System

Download the American Paleontologist article by Ross & Duggan-Haas here.

The above is a “Prezi” on synthesizing literacy initiatives. It was updated in December 2013 to include the three dimensions from the Next Generation Science Standards.

Watch the presentation for an overview on how ReaL Earth Systems Science Bigger Ideas can make these initiatives more manageable.  Download the associated AGU poster here (9.2 MB, 32” x 40”).