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10 Common Misconceptions about Earth Sciences

Ginelle Testa
High School
Teaching Materials
Earth Science

10 Common Misconceptions about Earth Sciences

Earth science can be abstract with complex concepts and theories that challenge students’ existing views of the world, so it’s no wonder misconceptions occur. To help with addressing misconceptions, we’ve outlined some of the most common ones in earth science, what the facts say, and how to address them. We’ve also included Labster simulations to help teach some concepts, such as earthquakes, tectonics, natural climate change factors, and the water cycle.

10 Earth science misconceptions:

1.) Earthquakes are rare events.

Contrary to popular belief, earthquakes happen often but are not covered by international news unless there is a high death toll. According to the Incorporated Research Institute for Seismology, the magnitude of an earthquake ranges from 1-10 and can be categorized as small, major, and great. Small events happen daily, major events (over a magnitude of 7) happen more than once a month, and great earthquakes (over a magnitude of 8) happen about once a year (“How often do earthquakes occur,” n.d).

Learn more with Labster’s earthquake simulation, “Springs and Masses: Learn how to detect and record earthquakes!”

Explore Springs and Masses: Learn how to detect and record earthquakes

2.) All rivers on earth flow south.
Indeed, most rivers flow south, but it is not a rule across all of them. There are a few exceptions, such as the Nile River and the St. Johns River; they both flow north. Some even flow east and west! Ultimately, rivers take the path of least resistance (“Rivers that Flow North, n.d.). 

3.) All rocks are more or less the same.

Although there are similarities between rocks, there are also differences in how they are formed. The three main types are sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. Sedimentary rocks form from sand, pebbles, and other pieces of material. They’re soft and crumbly. Metamorphic rocks form from a great deal of pressure and heat; an example is marble. Igneous rocks form when magma cools and hardens (“How are rocks the same and how are they different?” n.d.).

4.) The Earth’s crust and tectonic plates are interchangeable terms.

They are not the same. The crust is the outermost shell of the Earth, made up of two parts: oceanic and continental. According to the National Ocean Service, “Earth’s crust, called the lithosphere, consists of 15 to 20 moving tectonic plates. The plates can be thought of like pieces of a cracked shell that rest on the hot, molten rock of Earth’s mantle and fit snugly against one another” (“Crust”, n.d.).

Learn more with Labster’s plate tectonics virtual lab, “Drivers of Plate Tectonics: Replicate Earth’s convection currents.”

Drivers of Plate Tectonics Replicate Earth’s convection currents Virtual Lab

5.) Earth is definitely the center of the universe.

It’s natural to think that Earth is the center of the universe, as we earthlings are all we know for sure about life in our universe! However, there’s no proof. James Zibin at the University of British Columbia did relevant research about dark energy and found that: “Since we can only observe the Universe from Earth, it's really hard to determine if we're in a 'special place,’ but we've now learned that our location is much more ordinary than the strange dark energy that fills the Universe” (Zibin et al., 2008).

6.) Dinosaurs are entirely extinct.

Although a leading theory says an asteroid impact 65 million years ago wiped out almost all dinosaurs, birds still exist as part of that family. A Frontiers in Earth Science study found that “The hypothesis that birds are nested within theropod dinosaurs is accepted by most paleontologists” (Agnolin et al., 2018).

7.) Only humans have ever impacted climate change.

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and humans are not the only factor. Astronomical, geological, and biological factors have caused climate change in Earth’s past. The geological record reveals that natural climate variations occurred over short, medium, and long timescales.

Learn more in our natural climate change simulation, “Timescales of Change: Natural climate change factors.”

Timescales of Change Natural climate change factors Virtual Lab 2

8.) Deserts are always hot.

When thinking about a desert, it might seem like they’re always sweltering hot, but this isn’t the case. Actually, some deserts get cold and even have a winter season. Even Antarctica is called a desert! One thing that is consistent across them is that they are dry (Desert, n.d.). 

9.) Volcanoes are only hazardous. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, volcanic materials break down and help cause soil to be fertile, which has helped civilizations across time and the world. It’s possible to harness energy from volcanoes, and humans have done it to produce geothermal energy. Lastly, many metallic minerals worldwide have been associated with magma found deep within volcanoes (“What are some benefits of volcanic eruptions?” n.d.)

10.) The water cycle only involves the freezing and melting of water. 

The water cycle is much more complex than just freezing and melting. According to National Geographic, ”the water cycle consists of three major processes: evaporation, condensation, and precipitation” (“Hydrolic Cycle,” n.d.) 

Learn more with our water cycle simulation, Principles of the Water Cycle.”

Explore Principles of the Water Cycle Virtual Lab Simulation

How to address misconceptions

In “The Dynamic Earth: A Course for Educators,” the instructor, Dr. Kinzler, outlines the variety of misconceptions that can occur in earth science classes. The five ways are factual, analogy, conceptual, language, and non-scientific beliefs ( n.d.). Factual misconceptions are the easiest to address, but when it comes to the others, especially non-scientific beliefs, it can be challenging. Here are some ways you can help to address these misunderstandings: 

  • Research cultural and background factors and anticipate specific themes 

  • Be empathetic of how challenging it can be to confront misconceptions

  • Leave space for questions and confusion

  • Have students debate their views and encourage them to listen to others

  • Assign discussions with other students

  • Let students do research projects

  • Provide labs that expand their understanding

Questions for consideration

  • Have you encountered any other earth science misconceptions among your students? 

  • How could you approach earth science misconceptions in students?

Want access to our earth science virtual labs and more? Try our 30-day all-access educators pass!

Sources

Agnolin, F.L., Motta, M.J., Brissón, E.F., Lo Coco, G., Novas, F. E.. (2018). Paravian Phylogeny and the Dinosaur-Bird Transition: An Overview. Frontiers in Earth Science. Retrieved from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2018.00252 

American Geosciences Institute, (n.d.). How are rocks the same and how are they different?  Retrieved from: https://www.americangeosciences.org/education/k5geosource/activities/investigations/rocks/comparing-rocks

IRIS, (n.d.).How often do earthquakes occur?- incorporated research institutions for seismology. Retrieved from https://www.iris.edu/hq/inclass/fact-sheet/how_often_do_earthquakes_occur 

Leew8. (2020, April). How to Address Misconceptions in the Science Classroom. Exploring Exemplary Science Teaching.  Retrieved from: https://sites.miamioh.edu/edt431-531/2020/04/how-to-address-misconceptions-in-the-science-classroom/#:~:text=In%20order%20to%20address%20the,own%20misconceptions%20about%20the%20topic

Mathez, E. & Kinzler, R. The Dynamic Earth: A Course for Educators American Museum of Natural History. Retrieved from: https://www.coursera.org/learn/earth-amnh 

National Geographic, (n.d.). Crust. Retrieved from: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/crust

National Geographic (n.d.).  Desert. Retrieved from: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/desertNational Geographic, (n.d.). Hydrologic Cycle. Retrieved from: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/hydrologic-cycle

USGS. (n.d.) What are some benefits of volcanic eruptions? Retrieved from: https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/what-are-some-benefits-volcanic-eruptions 

World Atlas, (n.d.)  Rivers that Flow North. Retrieved from: https://www.worldatlas.com/rivers/rivers-that-flow-north.html#:~:text=While%20it%20is%20true%20that,flow%20in%20a%20northerly%20direction.  

Zibin, J.P. Moss, A. and Scott, D.. (2008, December 23). Earth Not Center Of The Universe, Surrounded By 'Dark Energy'. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081219032649.htm