Sauropod dinosaur excavation in Agadez, Niger (Photo Credit: UNED Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia)

Mass Extinctions in the classroom: Interview with Ends of the Earth Author Peter Brannen

How can teachers use mass extinctions to teach about present-day ecology issues?

Barren, rocky continents with wide, braided streams draining them, a sea full of life but with no fish, and a pink sky above. It may seem alien, but this was our planet 450 million years ago, a far cry from the diverse landscapes filled with trees, cacti, grasses and millions of species of animals and fungi we recognize today. The journey from then to know is punctuated with mass extinction – die-offs that saw the fall of some species, the rise of others, and decisive changes in how complex life evolved. 

Peter Brannen’s book The Ends of the Earth, unlike any other author I’ve read, brings this unfamiliar Earth to life. When I say I couldn’t put this book down, what I really mean is I tore through it. It was so easy to imagine yourself in these bizarre worlds. Brannen gives you an idea of just how terrible these mass extinctions were caused by everything from 6-mile asteroid hurtling towards our planet at almost 100 times the speed of sound to volcanic eruptions that covered Siberia in lava 20 feet deep. The amount of the carnage from these mass extinctions makes the Avengers movies look like an episode of Daniel Tiger. But most significantly, Brannen connects how the geochemical systems of our planet functioned during these times of chaos and the parallels to how humans are affecting those same systems today. 

I sat down with Brannen to discuss what kids need to know about our planet to solve climate change and how teachers can prepare their kids to tackle those challenges. 

Chris Anderson: One of the most interesting things I took away from The Ends of the World was how bizarre and foreign Earth was at different points in its geologic history compared to the planet we see today. What is the value for kids to have this kind of geologic perspective?

Peter Brannen: For one thing, kids just eat it up. People like dinosaurs when they are young, but that sort of goes away as they get older. Science is seen as this nerdy thing where you memorize rote facts instead of an open-ended creative project to figure out more about the planet and how we got here. 

Given we are starting to change the planet in ways that have happened only a few times in Earth’s history, having that long-term perspective is going to be important going into the future. Kids today will be handed a planet that could be quite different than the one we were born into and is changing in ways that are unprecedented in recent geological history. To understand what we are doing to the planet now, kids need to understand how things have changed over hundreds of millions of years. Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was that most people have brushed off mass extinctions as when asteroids hit the planet. There’s so much more to it! 

This figure shows the genus extinction intensity, with the 5 mass extinctions labeled. Brannen explains the causes of each mass extinction in The Ends of the Earth. Photo credit: Wikipedia

CA: How do you think teachers could give their students this perspective?

PB: No matter where you are standing, once you learn about the rocks under your feet, it’s fascinating! You can learn about geology no matter where you are, which isn’t a message that’s emphasized. 

Having grown up in New England, I thought the rock there was all boring granite, but that boring granite formed out of volcanic island chains 450 million years ago that might have caused the Ordovician Ice Age! You can be in a seemingly mundane place and still tell these mind-blowing stories. So for teachers, you don’t have to go very far to learn about Earth’s history. 

CA: Humans will be putting a lot of pressure on the Earth’s geologic systems in the coming decades. What aspect of human impact do you think will be the biggest disruption? 

PB: From a geological perspective, the scariest thing we are doing is changing the chemistry of the ocean, both the rising temperatures and the oxygen loss.  We’ve already increased the acidity of the oceans by 33% – from a geological perspective that’s just off the charts! There isn’t anywhere to hide when you change ocean chemistry. We are going to start pulling the same levers as you see in the big mass extinctions.

CA: What do you think students need to know and master to have a thorough understanding of how our planet has worked over the last half a billion years? 

PB: Understanding the climate as a system and how the planet responds to change is key. We are doing things that haven’t happened in hundreds of millions of years and kids need to understand the systems have caused the previous mass extinctions to know what we are doing on the planet now. 

I’d also say capitalize on your kids’ natural love of science. When I was in school, I was a pretty nerdy kid that just devoured science fiction, but instead of getting out in the field, I had to take AP bio and memorize parts of the endoplasmic reticulum. It just seemed like there was no relevance to anything. Make what you are teaching relevant to your students’ daily lives. 

Lastly, teach kids to seek out good sources of information. Being able to seek out reliable sources of information is a really important skill.

Author Peter Brannen

CA: Your book touches on other aspects of science – what concepts cross over from other sciences and how can educators incorporate them in their classrooms?  

PB: To learn what went wrong in these mass extinctions required geologists to learn chemistry and biology and ecology. Inevitably you’ll be drawing from multiple disciplines if you are teaching about what’s happening to the climate. 

 There’s a movement to teaching science as geobiology, studying how Earth and life sort of feedback on each other have made this planet the place that it is. It encapsulates everything – the sedimentary record, how rocks are made, life’s impact on geology, climate science, how rocks and life influence the climate. It brings all these things together under one umbrella. I think that it would be great for teachers to show their students that Earth science concepts aren’t partitioned into little cubby holes. 

CA: Teaching climate change can be quite bleak as I think it’s hard to teach kids about a future that is going to be challenging to say the least. Do you think we need to teach our kids hope, courage or both? How do you think educators do that? 

PB: I think there is too much fatalism and doom in the public conversation about climate change, mostly from people just learned about it yesterday after scientists have been screaming about this for half a century. The world is not going to end unless humanity puts all our efforts into burning all fossil fuels over the next 200 years. That’s the only way you get the 12 C warming that would make the planet uninhabitable. We’re not in the end-Permian where there are hundreds of thousands of years where you wouldn’t want to even step outside. 

That said, it’s the most interesting and exciting time to be alive in all of human history and one of the most exciting times in the history of the planet. If you want to work for a cause bigger than yourself and will change the world for the better, the next few decades are key. Young people know this and are working for climate change, putting pressure on our elected leaders, something that I only see increasing going forward. They don’t see it as “what’s the use, we are all going to die anyway”, they want to make the future a better place. It’s inspiring. There’s still time to save the world.

Educator recommendations: 

  • GeologyIf you teach any sort of earth science or geologic history, this book is a must-read. You will gain so much context and understanding for the subject you teach, not only will you be able to answer your student’s questions better, but you’ll get ideas of how to put critical geologic concepts into context. I love geology, both learning about it and teaching, and The Ends of the World gave me such a better understanding of life on Earth over the last half a billion years and how life and our planet’s processes respond to stress. 
  • Evolution – Some of the species that have evolved on our planet are so strange, they are beyond anyone’s imagination (and I am not just talking about dinosaurs, even though they are extremely cool as well). Sharing these species and the selection pressures that pushed their evolution with your students would a great way to engage kids. I’d even go so far as to recommend this book for students read in physical geology or AP biology as they would make for excellent class discussions! 
  • KQED Education has some great videos from their series Above the Noise on climate change and other current science issues. The embedded video below talks about how optimistic or pessimistic we should be about our warmer future.



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