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Earth & Space Systems: Role in the Program

(Page Prepared for SERC by Sadredin C. Moosavi, Ph.D.)

A discussion of the design and implementation of a pre-service earth science content course directed at secondary science and elementary educators concentrating in science at Minnesota State University - Mankato, created by Sadredin C. Moosavi, Ph.D.

A description of this course and its goals is available.

What Role Does this Course Play in Teacher Preparation?

This course serves as the capstone course in earth and space science content.
  1. Upper level content is introduced within geology, geography, astronomy and chemistry.
  2. The course models integrating the sciences in the K-12 curriculum.
  3. The course introduces Earth System Science from atomic to interplanetary scales.
  4. It enables field examination of fundamental geological structures supporting plate tectonic theory going back over 3 billion years.
  5. The pre-service teachers are prepared for diverse perspectives and belief systems in the modern science classroom.
  6. Content is connected to relevant pedagogical techniques

How does the Course Address Each Role?

Six primary roles Earth & Space Systems fulfills in the MSU pre-service teacher preparation program are discussed with links to detailed descriptions of the method used.

In a capstone course such as Earth & Space Systems students are asked to begin integrating advanced content from subjects that have traditionally been taught as isolated, self-contained units. Integrating the sciences in this way is vital to developing a proper, holistic perspective of how science operates in the real world and to enable pre-service teachers to understand and articulate how the various disciplines of science complement each other.

As the students begin to gain an understanding the systematic aspects of science, they also begin to see the bodies in our solar system from a similar earth system perspective. Beginning to appreciate the range in scales in space and time and complexity of the earth system can be a novel and overwhelming experience for students which can lead to challenging long held personal belief systems, either of the pre-service teachers themselves or of the students they ultimately teach. The pre-service teachers are prepared for this aspect of their upcoming professional role through exercising the scientific method in exploring a range of topics, most importantly field examination of rock types and structures supporting the plate tectonic model for earth's surface evolution and that of other bodies in the solar system. The underlying assumptions and evidence supporting the current scientific understanding form the basis for these investigations.

Alternate explanations and their underlying assumptions which teachers encounter in the diverse classroom population are also examined and discussed so that the pre-service teachers have an opportunity to consider and practice responding to a diversity of viewpoints in a fashion that creates a strong learning environment for science for all students in a classroom. Other aspects of the pedagogical connections needed to convey the science effectively are embedded throughout the course from instructor modeling to open ended questions for students in discussions and assignments.

How do Students Integrate Learning & Teaching?

Linking classroom pedagogical techniques to the teaching of earth and space science while pre-service teachers are learning the content is a major emphasis of Earth & Space Systems

Integrating Learning & Teaching

Earth & Space Systems is a content course without a clinical component, which does not allow for direct interaction between pre-service teachers and students. The course is, however, designed around the premise that all people are learners and teachers at some point in their lives. The diversity of student backgrounds in the class cause different students to find themselves in positions of relative academic strength and weakness at different times during the semester. Hence, there is no reason for students not to experience both roles during the semester as the content and their abilities allow. With most assignments based around conceptual packets, projects and classroom discussions, students have frequent opportunities to work collaboratively as they learn. The field trips provide the most vibrant example of this process as the number and complexity of outcrops explored are challenging to nearly all the students.

Specific assignments also put special emphasis on integrating teaching and learning. All students examine Astroventure (more info) , the web-based space science curriculum produced by NASA Ames. The content contained within this program mirrors, at the middle school level, much of the earth system/space science content of this course affording pre-service teachers the opportunity to examine how their learning was influenced by a teaching tool of a type they may use in the future.

Further instances integrating teaching and learning are summarized under pedagogical connections.

How does the Course Transition Pre-service Teachers into the Classroom?

Preparing pre-service teachers to leave the role of student facilitates their entry into actual classrooms as instructors. By sharing practical tips, the future teachers' chances for a successful transition to their professional lives are enhanced.

Transitioning Pre-service Teachers into the Classroom


As an interdisciplinary capstone course, Earth & Space Systems is the closest experience, other than student teaching, that pre-service teachers encounter to actually combining pedagogical techniques with science content appropriate to middle and high school classrooms. Class discussions surrounding each assignment are designed not only to insure learning of the content, but also to explain why a particular approach to the content and its assessment were chosen. The pre-service teachers are challenged to identify the misconceptions they and their future students may bring to specific subjects and explain the opportunities each topic presents to increase student understanding. An example of an effective strategy for teaching each topic is modeled for the students. Examples include guided inquiry in web or library based literature searches regarding the surface and atmospheric properties of the planets, hands-on experiments regarding the effects of various types of space bodies in creating impact craters, and an extended development of the rock cycle in conjunction with rock identification.

In the increasingly culturally diverse and politically charged arena that teachers must function in, particular effort is directed at preparing the pre-service teachers in the creation of an inclusive classroom environment that permits scientific content to be taught to ALL students without turning off segments of the population adhering to belief systems different than that of mainstream science. Utilizing field trip sites, different cultural explanations for specific geologic features are introduced alongside the scientific explanation to encourage students to look at the diversity of views they may encounter. Along these lines, the pre-service teachers brainstorm effective methods of answering questions on the geologic time scale from students holding a creationist view of the universe. All these insights are brought to bear by the students in creating a diversity lesson plan for a geologic site that includes the scientific explanation and at least 2 other perspectives.

The pre-service teachers are also asked to look at the specific learning opportunities afforded by field trips and the unique pedagogical techniques and skills required to design and conduct safe and successful field trips.

How is the Course Content Aligned with the National Science Education Standards?

Earth & Space Systems meets specific aspects of the K-8 and 9-12 earth & space science and physical science objectives contained within the National Science Education Standards
The National Science Education Standards are divided into 8 major categories with each category addressed by different standards for grades, K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 respectively. Since this course prepares pre-service teachers destined for all these grades, content standards at all levels are addressed although most emphasis is placed on 5 - 12 standards, corresponding to the licensure needs of MN teachers. The categories and aspects which are addressed by this course appear below:
  • Unifying concepts and processes in science
    • Systems, order, and organization
    • Evidence, models, and explanation
    • Change, constancy, and measurement
    • Evolution and equilibrium
    • Form and function
  • Science as inquiry
    • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
    • Understanding about scientific inquiry
  • Physical science
    • Properties of objects and materials
    • Properties and changes of properties in matter
    • Position and motion of objects
    • Transfer of energy
    • Chemical reactions
    • Motions and forces
    • Interactions of energy and matter
  • Life science
    • Organisms & Environments
    • Biological Evolution
  • Earth and space science
    • Properties of Earth Materials
    • Structure of the Earth System
    • Earth's History
    • Earth in the Solar System
    • Energy in the Earth System
    • Geochemical Cycles
    • Origin & Evolution of the Earth System
  • Science and technology
    • Understandings about Science & Technology
  • Science in personal and social perspectives
    • Populations Resources & Environment
    • Natural Resources
    • Environmental Quality
    • Science & Technology in Local, National, & Global Challenges
  • History and nature of science
    • Science as Human Endeavor
    • Nature of Science
    • Historical Perspectives

How does the Course Meet Certification Requirements?

Earth & Space Systems is designed to demonstrate that pre-service teachers fulfill specific content and pedagogical standards required by Minnesota for teacher licensure.

Meeting MN Teacher Certification Requirements

The standards assigned to Earth & Space Systems form a distinct subset of the Minnesota Science Education Standards which are themselves loosely based on the National Science Education Standards. Because of the breadth of areas from which standards (HTML File 36kB Jun5 05) for this course are drawn, each lecture and assignment has been assigned to meet a particular group of standards. The roman numerals shown in the second column (content) of the syllabus schedule (HTML File 26kB Jun5 05) indicate which group of standards is being met by that activity.

Curriculum designers in Minnesota must resolve a conflict between 2 competing requirements. On the one hand, courses must meet the Minnesota Board of Teaching's standards for certification in all content and pedagogical areas. These standards have been made more rigorous in science content in recent years as Minnesota aligns itself with the National Science Education Standards. On the other hand, legislative mandates require that all undergraduate majors be design for completion in 4 years with a maximum of 128 credits. This puts great limitation on the number of content courses pre-service teachers can be required to take.

Earth & Space Systems was created around specific content areas drawn from courses that curriculum designers were unable to incorporate as requirements. The 19 credits that would have been required to take the second semester of freshmen chemistry, geomorphology, weather, climatology, and planetary geology have been reduced to 3 for Earth & Space Systems.

All elementary educators seeking a middle school science concentration (5-8 license) and all secondary science teachers (9-12 license) must gain proficiency in ALL the content areas assigned to Earth & Space Systems to be certified to teach in Minnesota. While this is effectively enforced by requiring a minimum of a C in the course to gain licensure, individual assignments are designed to demonstrate proficiency in the various competencies assigned to the course should such a detailed evaluation ever be required. Designers of such courses in other jurisdictions will likely encounter similar constraints with characteristics unique to their situation.

What Challenges have been Encountered in Teaching this Course? How have they been Resolved?

As an interdisciplinary course with content requirements combined from 4 separate fields serving a population in 5 separate majors with vastly different backgrounds, Earth and Space Systems faces a number of challenges. Fortunately, constructive feedback from students over the first few years of the course have offered at least partial solutions to these problems.
  1. Disparity of Student Background Knowledge

    Earth & Space Systems serves several student populations with very different backgrounds. While all students take the same prerequisite science courses, the pre-service secondary science teachers bring additional background from their respective disciplines, often including content from courses which Earth and Space Systems was designed to replace. They also bring the biases about science arising from the cultures of their home departments. By contrast, the elementary educators working toward middle school science licensure tend to have only the minimal prerequisites and often possess a latent phobia of science. As the content standards for the course are the same for all, this creates a situation where nearly every topic or assignment will be perceived as extremely difficult new material by some students while others see it as irrelevant review.

    This situation is resolved by turning it into an advantage and learning opportunity for students in the class. All assignments and activities are designed to emphasize first principles so novices have a fighting chance to get the main ideas before attempting the more advanced applications of these principles which appear later in the assignments. For students in the advanced group, they are given the opportunity to observe how the novices struggle with the fundamentals while they focus on the more advanced topics. All the pre-service teachers are continually reminded that the students they will ultimately work with will be more like the novice group in their understanding.

    Two results from this process need to be noted. First, the pre-service elementary educators comment that the opportunity to interact with the pre-service secondary teachers aids them in becoming comfortable with material that they perceive as very advanced. This reinforces their own pedagogical training about the benefits of mixed ability group projects and learning. A second outcome of this approach arises out of the difficulty that many of the secondary science teachers experience in finding simple ways to explain complex subjects. Most have been so motivated by interest in their specific science that they have forgotten what it is like to be in the majority who are less inclined toward science. They appreciate the opportunity to explore this aspect of teaching prior to the student teaching experience.

  2. Disparity of Student Course Objectives
    The variety of student populations the pre-service teachers in Earth & Space Systems are preparing to teach leads to one fundamental conflict, best summed up in the student's own words, "When am I ever going to use this stuff. I am going to be teaching—." This is a valid question when more advanced topics are being taught, especially to future middle school teachers. One of the objectives of Earth & Space Systems is to demonstrate the integrated nature of science and the mutual dependence of its subdisciplines. By the end of the semester this question has been answered through the collective interdependent experiences of the students. A further, equally practical answer, also comes as the pre-service teachers come to realize that they will be working in science departments in their schools and must ultimately understand what goes on in each other's courses if they are to be successful at the curricular level. The realization that they may need to teach some courses outside their own content area over the course of their career gives them further incentive.
  3. Seemingly Unrelated Content

    The variety of content areas combined in Earth & Space Systems can lead to a course that resembles an assortment of unrelated topics. This was especially true when the course was taught by multiple instructors. Since most students do not understand the content areas assigned to various courses initially, they often do not know what to expect from Earth & Space Systems prior to attending.

    Approaching the disparate content challenge forthrightly from the begining and explaining it as a common pedagogical problem the pre-service teachers will ultimately face attracts the students interest and gives them a vested interest in implementing a successful solution. Combined with development of the earth system science theme, these steps have brought significant integration of the content areas while providing pre-service teachers a model of how to solve such challenges in their own teaching.

  4. Multiple vs. Single Instructor Model

    Initially, Earth & Space Systems was designed as a team taught course with one instructor from each of the 4 disciplines involved in the course. While designed to tap each specialists knowledge of their respective fields, the model proved far from ideal in practice because the course quickly lost its coherence because no faculty member was in a position to maintain a comprehensive view of what was going on in class or take ownership of the course. The students complained that they were receiving 4 mini-courses without content connections.

    The problem was resolved by returning to a single instructor model with a broadly trained geoscientist possessing a chemistry undergraduate degree as the sole instructor. Input from the various content specialists was incorporated in the design of the material into the earth system science theme. The resulting well integrated course with links between content areas has been far more successful for students and faculty.

  5. Fall versus Spring Schedule
    Earth & Space System must be offered both Fall and Spring semesters to meet the needs of the student population. Given the dependence of the course on 2 all day field trips and the Minnesota climate which limits field trips to the window from April through October requires, it is necessary to offer the course topics in two separate formats, geology first in Fall, astronomy first in Spring. As part of this solution, integration of assignments between content areas must be done very carefully to insure student understanding. Each ordering of the material has advantages and disadvantages, but both are effective in the final analysis.
  6. Time Constraints

    Of all the problems in Earth & Space Systems, the amount of contact time available in the course presents the most intractable hurdle. With competencies from 4 subject areas disconnected from their normal streams of thought, the need for review of prior knowledge and transitions between topics makes demands on the time that compete directly with the attempts at inquiry based learning. This problem has been addressed in 3 ways.

    1. The actual course schedule is set up with two 2-hour blocks of time, thereby limiting start and stop transitions and allowing for more extended activities. Beyond this allotment, 2 all day field trips are required of each student. While these 10 hour field trips do cause scheduling conflicts for students, they allow access to necessary outcrops in the most efficient manner possible and inherently provide the ability to see the bigger picture that the geology is teaching.
    2. Use of the earth system science theme to bind the disparate content areas together aids greatly in providing the unified vision and context lost by removing the content from their traditional course environments.
    3. The assignments and activities in the course are primarily project based, allowing students significant opportunity to interact and develop understanding over time and with outside help beyond regular class time if needed.
  7. Selecting a Textbook
    The diverse nature of the competencies covered in Earth & Space Systems makes selection of a single, all inclusive textbook a futile exercise. Since many of the incoming students complete some of their coursework in other institutions it is impractical to rely solely on their library of textbooks from other courses. The most workable, cost effective, solution has been to select a book that approaches what a true earth system science text will ultimately look like once someone writes one and supplement this material with an extensive reading list (HTML File 44kB Jun5 05) drawn from the general scientific literature. Select chapters from an introductory chemistry text are also helpful. A side benefit of this approach is that the pre-service teachers get exposed to cutting edge discoveries and develop the sense that they should be seeking out new material from sources such as Science as part of their own on-going education.