Earth Science: Putting the Puzzle Together
For Cynthia Rosenzweig, weather, climate, oceans and birds are all part of a big puzzle: earth science. Ever since her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Jean Clancy, began to teach her students about Earth processes, Rosenzweig has been putting the puzzle together, one piece at a time.
Back in school, Rosenzweig and her classmates explored Mrs. Clancy's nature exhibits and participated in activities like tracking weather, collecting and identifying plants, and taking walks in the forest to learn about birds. Through it all, Mrs. Clancy taught them an important lesson: Local and global ecosystem processes
are all connected. For example, students learned to link the warming temperatures in the spring to the greening of shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter, as well as to the migrating birds arriving from the south.
This lesson is still with her today. Rosenzweig is now a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, housed in Columbia University in New York. There she leads the Climate Impacts Group, which studies how climate change and extreme events -- such as heat waves, floods and hurricanes -- affect the food we eat, the water we drink, the plants and animals we share the planet with, and the cities we live in. Some of the things they look at include how heat waves often come with droughts that reduce the amount of food produced by crops, or the way hurricanes can damage buildings and roads in coastal cities.
Rosenzweig also has been a teacher and thinks that in some ways research and teaching are similar. She says that for both the goal is to understand and explain processes clearly. Now, teachers and their students often participate in research projects together. This gives students new opportunities to understand for themselves how Earth works.
Thinking about Earth processes as part of a bigger puzzle is also the key to understanding climate. "Climate change is both a global issue and a regional one," she explains, but people can have a hard time connecting the dots between the regional and global consequences.
Rosenzweig says that the way to help students do that is to get them involved in interesting projects at the regional scale and then link that to what's happening globally. A student can take part in a project studying how several factors, including climate change, impact a local wetland. Another can start documenting whether local birds are coming back to lay their eggs earlier in the season and tie this to global temperature patterns.
Understanding that these pieces of the regional jigsaw puzzle are linked globally can help us grasp a little better how Earth works. It also can help us appreciate the importance of these processes in our lives.
Earth scientists are helping deliver this message. To students, particularly girls, who now have great teachers like Mrs. Clancy teaching them to identify the pieces of the puzzle, Rosenzweig calls on them to keep going. "We need to work hard to encourage young women to become scientists and to make sure that they are then able to build lifelong careers."
Like Rosenzweig, the students can join the ranks of earth scientists and, through teaching and research, help others put together the whole picture.
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Laura Delgado López/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies