Michael Wysession

2014 Ambassador Award Winner

Michael E. Wysession was awarded the 2014 Ambassador Awards at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. The award is in recognition of “outstanding contributions to the following area(s): societal impact, service to the Earth and space community, scientific leadership, and promotion of talent/career pool.”


Michael Wysession is one of the world’s leading geoscience educators. Most notably, he chaired the writing of national standards requiring, for the first time, that high school and middle school students complete a year of modern, quantitative, -data-​-based Earth and space science.

Wysession is an excellent researcher, who has made and continues to make important contributions using seismology to study deep Earth structure. He has done even more as an educator, showing that it is not “those who can’t, teach” but “those who understand, teach.” Rather than avoid or dumb down complicated concepts, he thoughtfully and clearly explains them.

His interest was already apparent in grad school. While doing a fine thesis, he asked to coauthor the seismology text I was writing. I declined, feeling that he should focus on research until getting tenure. After he had gained tenure, we agreed that the book was largely completed, so he should get 10% of the royalties. Because many figures in texts are schematic, a key goal was to ensure that ray paths and travel times were computed to be correct. Michael produced superb figures explaining the complicated paths and travel times for core phases and clearly discussed their use. He also produced the beautiful cover comparing ray paths and wave fronts in the Earth, which explains their relation, which baffles most students. Michael put much of the book online (a new concept in 2002!) via a widely used website. When all was done, we agreed that Michael deserved 30% of the royalties since he did 3 times more than expected!

Wysession made an equal contribution by developing sophisticated animations showing how seismic waves propagate that give enormously more insight than the ray paths alone. When he presented these at an AGU Fall Meeting as a video, the poster session was crowded with students and senior scientists, who watched the animations repeatedly, gaining new insights into topics such as core-diffracted waves. Michael enthusiastically disseminated the animations on video and on the Web. They are now such a fixture of classes ranging from introductory to advanced worldwide that I cannot imagine teaching seismology without them.

He went on to become a leader in geoscience education, coauthoring more than 20 textbooks at elementary, middle school, and high school levels and authoring video courses on How the Earth Works (35,000 copies sold) and The World’s Greatest Geologic Wonders (15,000 copies sold). He has also taken leading roles in the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology and other community activities.

—Seth Stein, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.


I am honored to be one of the first recipients of the AGU Ambassador Award. Science education, literacy, and outreach are extremely important, and I am very pleased that AGU has decided to recognize these kinds of efforts with a new award. I was also greatly honored to be primarily responsible for the construction of the Earth and space science component of the new national K–12 Next Generation Science Standards, both at the National Academy (for the writing of Framework for K–12 Science Education) and at Achieve (for the writing of the actual standards). We are at a momentous point in the history of American education. Geoscience finally broke through the 120-year-old barrier and joined biology, chemistry, and physics as a science worthy of every student’s high school education. The university presidents who wrote the influential 1893 Committee of Ten report [where (1) 3 years of high school science were codified as being biology, chemistry, and physics; (2) “physical geography” was delegated to middle school; and (3) space science was omitted from secondary education altogether] could scarcely have foreseen the catastrophic impacts of their document in creating an American public ignorant of the critical -geoscience-​-related issues of energy and mineral resources, water availability, natural hazards, climate change and its consequences, and the increasing environmental impacts of human activities. No more. The 2013 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), already adopted by more than a dozen states and countless other school districts (with many more in process), recommend that high school science education consist of a year of life science, a year of physical science (a semester each of chemistry and physics), and a year of geoscience. The same would hold for middle school. NGSS are revolutionary in other ways as well: teaching science and assessing student understanding from a -practice-​-based approach and seamlessly incorporating engineering and technology into the science curriculum. But it is the presentation to American K–12 students of geoscience as a set of modern, complex, fascinating, systems-oriented, transdisciplinary, quantitative, data-oriented, and (most importantly) extremely human-relevant sciences that will prove to be the greatest impact of NGSS. National K–12 science textbooks and curricula are frantically being rewritten to respond to these changes. We at AGU, as a community, need to respond and do whatever we can to help this transition to an eventual -geoscience-​-literate public. Our future funding and work force will depend upon it.

—Michael E. Wysession, Washington University, Saint Louis, Mo.