Earth and Environmental Science

Rationale/Aims

Earth and Environmental Science is a multifaceted field of inquiry that focuses on interactions between the solid Earth, its water, its air and its living organisms, and on dynamic, interdependent relationships that have developed between these four components.

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Structure of Earth and Environmental Science

In Earth and Environmental Science, students develop their understanding of the ways in which interactions between Earth systems influence Earth processes, environments and resources.

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Links to Foundation to Year 10

The Earth and Environmental Science curriculum continues to develop student understanding and skills from across the three strands of the F-10 Australian Curriculum: Science.

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Representation of Cross-curriculum priorities

While the significance of the cross-curriculum priorities for Earth and Environmental Science varies, there are opportunities for teachers to select contexts that incorporate the key concepts from each priority.

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Achievement standards

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Unit 1: Introduction to Earth systems

Unit 1: Introduction to Earth systems Description

The Earth system involves four interacting systems: the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. A change in any one ‘sphere’ can impact others at a range of temporal and spatial scales. In this unit, students build on their existing knowledge of Earth by exploring the development of understanding of Earth's formation and its internal and surface structure. Students study the processes that formed the oceans and atmosphere. They review the origin and significance of water at Earth’s surface, how water moves through the hydrological cycle, and the environments influenced by water, in particular the oceans, the cryosphere and groundwater. Students will examine the formation of soils at Earth’s surface (the pedosphere) as a process that involves the interaction of all Earth systems.

Students critically examine the scientific evidence for the origin of life, linking this with their understanding of the evolution of Earth’s hydrosphere and atmosphere. They review evidence from the fossil record that demonstrates the interrelationships between major changes in Earth’s systems and the evolution and extinction of organisms. They investigate how the distribution and viability of life on Earth influences, and is influenced by, Earth systems.

Through the investigation of appropriate contexts, students explore how international collaboration, evidence from multiple disciplines and individuals and the development of ICT and other technologies have contributed to developing understanding of Earth systems. They investigate how scientific knowledge is used to offer valid explanations and reliable predictions, and the ways in which it interacts with social, economic and cultural factors.

Students use science inquiry skills that mirror the types of inquiry conducted to establish our contemporary understanding of Earth systems: they engage in a range of investigations that help them develop the field and research skills used by geoscientists, soil scientists, atmospheric scientists, hydrologists, ecologists and environmental chemists to interpret geological, historical and real-time scientific information.


Unit 1: Introduction to Earth systems Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit, students:

  • understand the key features of Earth systems, how they are interrelated, and their collective 4.5 billion year history
  • understand scientific models and evidence for the structure and development of the solid Earth, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere
  • understand how theories and models have developed based on evidence from multiple disciplines; and the uses and limitations of Earth and environmental science knowledge in a range of contexts
  • use science inquiry skills to collect, analyse and communicate primary and secondary data on Earth and environmental phenomena; and use these as analogues to deduce and analyse events that occurred in the past
  • evaluate, with reference to empirical evidence, claims about the structure, interactions and evolution of Earth systems
  • communicate Earth and environmental understanding using qualitative and quantitative representations in appropriate modes and genres.

Unit 1: Introduction to Earth systems Content Descriptions

Science Inquiry Skills (Earth and Environmental Science Unit 1)

Identify, research and construct questions for investigation; propose hypotheses; and predict possible outcomes (ACSES001)

Design investigations including the procedure/s to be followed, the information required and the type and amount of primary and/or secondary data to be collected; conduct risk assessments; and consider research ethics (ACSES002)

Conduct investigations, including using map and field location techniques and rock and soil sampling and identification procedures, safely, competently and methodically for the collection of valid and reliable data (ACSES003)

Represent data in meaningful and useful ways; organise and analyse data to identify trends, patterns and relationships; qualitatively describe sources of measurement error, and uncertainty and limitations in data; and select, synthesise and use evidence to make and justify conclusions (ACSES004)

Interpret a range of scientific and media texts and evaluate processes, claims and conclusions by considering the quality of available evidence; use reasoning to construct scientific arguments (ACSES005)

Select, construct and use appropriate representations, including maps and cross sections to describe and analyse spatial relationships, and stratigraphy and isotopic half-life data to infer the age of rocks and fossils, to communicate conceptual understanding, solve problems and make predictions (ACSES006)

Communicate to specific audiences and for specific purposes using appropriate language, genres and modes, including compilations of field data and research reports (ACSES007)

Science as a Human Endeavour (Units 1 & 2)

Science is a global enterprise that relies on clear communication, international conventions, peer review and reproducibility (ACSES008)

Development of complex models and/or theories often requires a wide range of evidence from multiple individuals and across disciplines (ACSES009)

Advances in science understanding in one field can influence other areas of science, technology and engineering (ACSES010)

The use of scientific knowledge is influenced by social, economic, cultural and ethical considerations (ACSES011)

The use of scientific knowledge may have beneficial and/or harmful and/or unintended consequences (ACSES012)

Scientific knowledge can enable scientists to offer valid explanations and make reliable predictions (ACSES013)

Scientific knowledge can be used to develop and evaluate projected economic, social and environmental impacts and to design action for sustainability (ACSES014)

Science Understanding

Development of the geosphere

Examples in context

Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.

Changing views on the age of Earth

In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher analysed historical accounts and the chronology of the Bible to deduce that the creation of Earth commenced at nightfall preceding the 23 October, 4004 BC (BCE). In the eighteenth century, the Comte du Buffon was one of the first to propose an age based on empirical evidence, suggesting that Earth was 75 000 years old, based on the rate it was cooling. In the following centuries, many scientists from many different disciplines proposed ages of Earth based on their experiments and calculations (ACSES009). The current agreed age of Earth is around 4.54 billion years. This age has been calculated from radiometric dating of meteorites and is consistent with various younger ages obtained from Earth and Moon rocks (ACSES010).

Modern processes as analogues for ancient processes

The principle of uniformitarianism, first formulated by James Hutton and later developed by Charles Lyell, suggests that change is constant and uniform. Therefore knowledge of a modern process can be used to explain similar past events or predict similar future events. For example, as part of studying the enhanced greenhouse effect, scientists have searched for possible previous geological analogues which would help them to make predictions about how the climate might change in the future (ACSES013). To achieve this, the geologic and paleoclimate scientific communities have been studying the collated data on glaciations, inter-glacial periods and atmospheric parameters to find a period in Earth’s history that can be used as an analogue for a future with an enhanced greenhouse effect (ACSES008).

Understanding the interior of Earth

As technology has not yet developed to enable direct study of Earth below a depth of about 10 km, science relies on secondary sources of data to develop models of the interior based on inference. This includes studying the propagation of seismic waves, using gravity maps developed via satellite technology, studying the composition of material ejected from volcanic eruptions and meteorites, analysing the density of rocks, and studying Earth’s magnetic field (ACSES009). The development of supercomputing has enabled the design of complex models of Earth’s interior, demonstrating, for example, the way in which changes in the dynamics of the inner and outer core cause changes in Earth’s magnetic field (ACSES010).

Observation of present day processes can be used to infer past events and processes by applying the Principle of Uniformitarianism (ACSES015)

A relative geological time scale can be constructed using stratigraphic principles including superposition, cross cutting relationships, inclusions and correlation (ACSES016)

Precise dates can be assigned to points on the relative geological time scale using data derived from the decay of radioisotopes in rocks and minerals; this establishes an absolute time scale and places the age of the Earth at 4.5 billion years (ACSES017)

Earth has internally differentiated into a layered structure: a solid metallic inner core, a liquid metallic outer core and a silicate mantle and crust; the study of seismic waves and meteorites provides evidence for this structure (ACSES018)

Rocks are composed of characteristic assemblages of mineral crystals or grains that are formed through igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic processes, as part of the rock cycle (ACSES019)

Soil formation requires interaction between atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic and biotic processes; soil is composed of rock and mineral particles, organic material, water, gases and living organisms (ACSES020)

Development of the atmosphere and hydrosphere

Examples in context

Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.

Monitoring Earth’s atmosphere

Study of contemporary atmospheric changes includes analysis of materials and chemicals present in the atmosphere, as well as properties such as air quality, surface pressure, surface temperature and humidity. Since the 1980s, the Global Atmosphere Watch, established by the World Meteorological Organisation, a United Nations agency, has been monitoring trends in Earth’s atmosphere. The program seeks to identify and understand changes in the atmosphere in order to be able to predict future change and provide advice about ways to mitigate the effect of human-induced atmospheric change (ACSES014). A number of environmental conventions have been ratified as a consequence of information derived from the global monitoring of the atmosphere (ACSES012).

Water and the search for life on other planets

The search for evidence of life on other planets is often initially focused on identification of extraterrestrial liquid water. Based on models of Earth, scientists theorise that planets with surface water will occur within a ‘Goldilocks zone’ of distance from their sun, where surface temperatures are not too hot and not too cold (ACSES009). However new theories suggest that if a planet outside the ‘Goldilocks zone’ is large enough, and produces enough internal heat, it could still contain deep reservoirs of liquid water capable of supporting life. Development of satellite and probe technologies has enabled identification of natural satellites and dwarf planets in our solar system that have evidence of liquids below the surface, and both Venus and Mars are thought to have had large areas of surface water in their past. The Hubble space telescope has enabled identification of the atmosphere of planets outside our solar system (ACSES010).

The atmosphere was derived from volcanic outgassing during cooling and differentiation of Earth and its composition has been significantly modified by the actions of photosynthesising organisms (ACSES021)

The modern atmosphere has a layered structure characterised by changes in temperature: the troposphere, mesosphere, stratosphere and thermosphere (ACSES022)

Water is present on the surface of Earth as a result of volcanic outgassing and impact by icy bodies from space; water occurs in three phases (solid, liquid, gas) on Earth’s surface (ACSES023)

Water’s unique properties, including its boiling point, density in solid and liquid phase, surface tension and its ability to act a solvent, and its abundance at the surface of Earth make it an important component of Earth system processes (for example, precipitation, ice sheet formation, evapotranspiration, solution of salts) (ACSES024)

Development of the biosphere

Examples in context

Support materials only that illustrate some possible contexts for exploring Science as a Human Endeavour concepts in relation to Science Understanding content.

Evidence for the origin of life

Theories of the origin of living organisms from inanimate materials (abiogenesis) in a ‘primordial soup’ were first published in the 1920s, but received little attention. However in the 1950s, experimentation by Urey and Miller indicated that by introducing a spark to an aqueous mixture of compounds likely to have been present on early Earth, organic molecules could form. This is an example of how scientists can theorise about the early conditions on Earth that may have led to the origin of life and then use an experimental design as a ‘proof of concept’ (ACSES013). A wide range of other evidence supports the theory of abiogenesis, however many people also reject this theory in favour of a religious view of creation (ACSES011).

Evidence for a ‘sixth extinction’

Analysis of past mass extinction events, based on evidence in sedimentary rocks and the fossil record, identifies the cause of these events as physical change. Current data on global species loss indicates that a ‘sixth extinction’ of greater severity than previous events may be imminent. Research indicates that this extinction will be caused by biotic rather than physical events, including human transformation of the landscape, overharvesting of species, pollution and introduction of alien species. The fossil record provides evidence for significant ecosystem change and loss of species associated with human activity. Contemporary evidence of human population increase, increase in land clearing, pollution and alien species introduction is theorised to align with evidence of species loss around the globe (ACSES013). Actions to halt the loss of species require social, economic and cultural support and a commitment to global action for sustainability (ACSES014).

Evidence for changes to the Australian environment over time

The fossil record and sedimentary rock evidence, in addition to the oral histories and art sites of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, suggest that Australia’s environments have changed in significant ways since it separated from Antarctica approximately 45 million years ago, including becoming much drier (ACSES009). Evidence indicates that the landscape changed from cool temperate rainforest to deserts, open grasslands and open forests over the last few million years, and that fire stick farming played a significant role in the last 50 000 years. Some aspects of Australia’s past are debated, including the relationship between the extinction of the megafauna and hunting by Aboriginal people. However there is a wide body of evidence that suggests climate change was more likely to have been the cause of megafauna extinction than overhunting (ACSES013).

 

Fossil evidence indicates that life first appeared on Earth approximately 4 billion years ago (ACSES025)

Laboratory experimentation has informed theories that life emerged under anoxic atmospheric conditions in an aqueous mixture of inorganic compounds, either in a shallow water setting as a result of lightning strike or in an ocean floor setting due to hydrothermal activity (ACSES026)

In any one location, the characteristics (for example, temperature, surface water, substrate, organisms, available light) and interactions of the atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere give rise to unique and dynamic communities (ACSES027)

The characteristics of past environments and communities (for example, presence of water, nature of the substrate, organism assemblages) can be inferred from the sequence and internal textures of sedimentary rocks and enclosed fossils (ACSES028)

The diversification and proliferation of living organisms over time (for example, increases in marine animals in the Cambrian), and the catastrophic collapse of ecosystems (for example, the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous) can be inferred from the fossil record (ACSES029)