Donald R. Johnson

2010 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

Donald Johnson received the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the 2010 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education by a team, individual, or group.”


We honor Donald R. Johnson for his lifelong quest for understanding and his passion for sharing an Earth system science perspective with faculty and students. Earth system science education has had a profound impact on interdisciplinary understanding of the Earth at all levels, and Don’s contributions have helped to make Earth system science an important part of the undergraduate curriculum at many institutions.

Don’s career as an educator spans more than 50 years. His love for learning and his high regard for education each extend to his youth. With dual undergraduate majors in mathematics and chemistry followed by active duty as an Air Force meteorologist, Don received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He remained as a faculty member in the Department of Meteorology and the Space Science and Engineering Center as both emerged to international prominence, and he supervised 45 master’s and 24 doctoral candidates.

In the early 1980s, Don worked with colleagues in Madison to develop the first video-based satellite meteorology learning modules. Don recognized the need to overcome and bridge disciplinary boundaries for gaining full understanding of the Earth system. In 1991 he set forth a strategy for a collaborative interdisciplinary education program among colleges and universities, seeking to engage faculty from different disciplines to develop the next generation of Earth system scientists, partnering with colleagues at NASA, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Universities Space Research Association. The interdisciplinary focus was to educate students to more fully appreciate the coming wealth of NASA’s Earth Observing System data, thus ensuring understanding and applications to the challenge of viewing the Earth as a system. Known as ESSE, the Cooperative University-based Program for Earth System Science Education, and later ESSE 21, the programs led a nationwide collaborative effort in creating and offering Earth system science courses for the undergraduate classroom and laboratory, and also like efforts among universities of the Americas within the formative years of the Inter-American Institute. From 1993 to 2008 the programs enabled 63 college and university teams to develop over 130 courses, as well as curricula, learning resources, and degree programs in Earth system science within this country. ESSE courses have reached well over 100,000 undergraduate students, and most of the courses continue to be taught today in one form or another. Don’s early leadership in Earth system science education helped set the tone and context for the growth and development of this interdisciplinary thrust, which is today a respected foundation of the NASA and NSF research programs.

Don is also a mentor to many professional colleagues. He never fails to take an opportunity to widen his circle with new colleagues, friends, and ideas. He takes to heart his commitment to a solid understanding of the disciplinary fundamentals of mathematics, physics, and chemistry as a foundation for broader interdisciplinary understanding. He is a master at turning conversation into a learning opportunity. Don’s quiet and thoughtful leadership has had an enormous impact on those around him. His approach sets the bar for academic rigor and interdisciplinary inclusion as a true example of collegial collaboration, always keeping in mind the ultimate benefits to the student.

It has been an honor to work with Don and a privilege to help carry his vision to the next generation of Earth system-aware scientists and citizens. On behalf of ESSE colleagues and members of the Earth system science community, I offer congratulations to Don Johnson as this year’s recipient of the AGU Excellence in Geophysical Education Award.

—Martin Ruzek, Universities Space Research Association, Whitelaw, Wis.


In receiving this award, we all recognize that the exceptional faculty involved in the ESSE program are the deserving recipients. My response is to document why all involved deserve to be recognized. These are the creative individuals who joined with faculty from other disciplines within their own institutions to offer introductory and senior-level courses that present an in-depth perspective of Earth system science.

NASA’s focus on Earth system science as expressed in its presentation document, “Earth system science: A closer view,” emerged following the Global Weather Experiment (GWE) effort to observe and model global atmospheric circulation. Here the improved specification of the global state utilizing Four Dimensional Data Assimilation (4DDA) and numerical models to simulate process led to remarkable advances in medium-range forecast accuracy and to unusual advances in scientific understanding of atmospheric/oceanic circulation including the relevance of the biosphere and lithosphere. The assimilated global data sets now routinely serve to validate models in advancing understanding of climate change globally and regionally. Clearly, specification of state for scientific purposes and societal applications that emerged served as a forerunner for the world’s global change initiative. While the objective to advance accuracy in observing and simulating global circulation is relatively focused, the results obtained from GWE initiated and provided for interdisciplinary focus in the classrooms of ESSE faculty. Clearly, faculty who joined in this effort considered that the Earth system constituted a model for teaching science in the classroom.

Figure 1, created by ESSE participants at an initial workshop, portrays their vision of the multitude of scientific disciplines intrinsic to Earth system science. Within this schematic, ESSE faculty provided for a learning of science that focused on many different segments of society. All are interwoven under an umbrella, with decision making/action and global destiny at the pinnacle of the triangle.

A guiding principle of ESSE involves three inseparable elements in the presentation and learning of science: state, process, and understanding. Implied within this combination is a framework that intrinsically interrelates all three as essential to an appreciation of the importance of interdisciplinary dimensions within Earth system science. Student interest and motivation are at the heart of learning and advancing a student’s intellectual capacity. Interest as a requisite to motivation is the secret to the continuing pursuit of knowledge essential for lifetime success. Let us readily admit that with respect to Earth system science, interdisciplinary breadth, and societal relevance, all of us will be lifetime students. There will always be unanswered questions, challenges to address, and something to learn.

Please understand that the ESSE program was a collaborative effort among faculty, teaching assistants, and students and that all deserve to be recognized. On behalf of all, I thank AGU for this recognition and NASA, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Universities Space Research Association for their support.

—Donald R. Johnson, Emeritus Professor, Department of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The interdisciplinary dimensions of Earth system science education.

Fig. 1. The interdisciplinary dimensions of Earth system science education.