Suspended clay particles, eroded from the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, give Lake Diablo its brilliant color. The active volcanoes of the Cascades result from the subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate beneath North America.
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Courtesy of Nicole LaDue

Earth Science Literacy Framework

Big Ideas of Earth Science

Earth is our home. We rely upon it for our existence in many different ways. Our planet's rocks, soils, and the chemical, physical, and biological processes that create and transform them, on the continents and beneath the oceans, produce resources and materials that sustain our way of life. Even modest changes to the Earth system, of which these are a part, have had profound influences on human societies and the course of civilization.

It is important to understand the Earth sciences - to be Earth science literate - at this time in history. Many challenges facing humanity, from dwindling energy and mineral resources, to water shortages and changing global climate, directly relate to the Earth sciences. There are many difficult decisions that governments, local and national, will have to make concerning these issues. We need citizens and governments that are Earth science literate to create policies that appropriately weigh the importance of resource conservation, use, and sustainability.

This Earth system science literacy guide identifies the Big Ideas and fundamental concepts that individuals and communities should understand to make informed decisions. Earth science literacy is very important if we are to understand how the entire Earth system and our climate function. For more information on this effort, please visit the Earth Science Literacy Initiative web site. In addition, the Earth Science Literacy Framework has been aligned with the National Science Education Standards.

  • Big Idea 1: Earth scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet.
  • Big Idea 2: Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
  • Big Idea 3: Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life.
  • Big Idea 4: Earth is continuously changing.
  • Big Idea 5: Earth is the water planet.
  • Big Idea 6: Life evolves on a dynamic Earth and continuously modifies Earth.
  • Big Idea 7: Humans depend on Earth for resources.
  • Big Idea 8: Natural hazards pose risks to humans.
  • Big Idea 9: Humans significantly alter the Earth.
Last modified August 5, 2009 by Susan Foster.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA