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Essays on Teacher Preparation by Workshop Participants


Catherine L. Summa

Geoscience Department
Winona State University
Winona, Minnesota



The Geoscience Department at Winona State University (WSU) is a four-person department offering BS degrees in Geology, Environmental Geoscience and Earth Science Teaching. Roughly 20% of our majors are in the Earth Science teaching program. In MN school districts, most earth science is taught at the 8th grade level. The Earth Science teaching program prepares students for MN licensure at grades 5-12; preparation in grades 5-8 focuses on general science by state requirement and grades 9-12 focuses on preparation in the specialty field. In addition to preparing students for 5-12 licensure, we assist in the preparation of elementary education majors, particularly those choosing to specialize in the K-6 with middle-school science licensure.

Students in our secondary earth science teaching program are required to complete a research project. Part of their project focuses on scientific discovery and part of their project focuses on translating that activity into inquiry-based classroom curriculum. Each student develops at least one (and usually several) lesson that builds from the concepts they worked with in their research. Most lessons are designed for an eighth grade earth science class. Past projects have included activities designed to help students understand how karst develops, exploring the evolution of glacial landscapes, developing technology rich meteorology laboratory exercises, and understanding how to sample stream bedload and discharge. When possible, we encourage students to try the lessons they develop in a classroom situation. Depending on the student and the lesson, this may take place in a local middle school class, during a field experience required during one of their education courses, or in one of our introductory-level laboratory sections.

In addition to a research project, each secondary earth science teaching major is required to participate in several out-of-class activities. These are designed to provide the student opportunities that mimic the experiences they are likely to encounter in their future teaching assignments. Students must: judge a science fair and/or mentor a student completing a science fair project; host a (earth-science related) visit by a K-4 student group; host a visit by a 5-12 student group; and serve as a peer tutor or departmental teaching assistant for at least one semester during their undergraduate experience (students are paid an hourly wage for this work, although many choose to volunteer their time). If a student opts to TA an intro-level laboratory course, we make every effort to allow the student to "teach" the laboratory (under faculty supervision). Our graduates often comment that these out-of-class requirements were some of the more valuable experiences of their preparation. They particularly enjoy the opportunities to interact with K-12 students doing science, which is not always possible as part of their field experiences associated with their education courses.

Most of my work at WSU has been focused on developing new courses for all elementary education majors. I work with a faculty team with expertise in each of the natural science content areas and with colleagues from the Education Department. We are developing a three-semester sequence of courses that will be required of all elementary education majors. The sequence of courses is being developed around a learning cycle model with the intent of modeling effective pedagogies for teaching science in the elementary classroom and to build the pedagogical content knowledge of our pre-service teachers. Research shows clearly that teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, thus, we believe it critical to model best practice for pre-service elementary teachers at this important juncture of their careers. Our goal is to develop a sequence of courses that provides all pre-service elementary education majors with a rigorous, standards-based introduction to the scientific concepts they are most likely to teach in their future elementary classrooms. In addition to delivering scientific content, we want our students to develop skills in pedagogy; thus, a second goal is to increase our students' ability to teach science effectively in their future classrooms.

The overall focus of our three-course sequence will be "science in your community," with the broad goal of teaching preservice students science content in a context that will enable them to develop similar activities for their future classroom.

The first course, which will be offered for the first time next fall semester, introduces students to the "exploration" phase of the learning cycle, via an integrated field-based study of water. Since water is integral to life on this planet, we developed this course around a topic that would be accessible to all future teachers in their community, thus ensuring that our preservice teachers would be able to bring their college content to bear in their future teaching assignments, wherever they find themselves. The second course will be a modification of the existing methods course, and will reflect the "term-introduction/ invention" phase of the learning cycle. The second course will focus on the process of scientific inquiry. In this modified methods course, students will study how scientific ideas are developed, the nature of scientific experimentation, and how to bring these concepts to the P-8 classroom. The final course in the sequence will reflect the "expansion/application" phase of the learning cycle; students will explore and research different scientific questions pertinent to the community. Our goal is to have our students investigate environmental issues with strong socio-political concerns. Potential topics include the issues surrounding siting new factory farms; the impact of varying the volume of water released at local dams on both the landscape and on wildlife communities; the impact of dredging local lakes and rivers; the impact of development on local wetland communities; and the impacts of increasing urbanization resulting from increased commercial and corporate development in the community.

Our primary goal in designing our new curriculum around "science in your community" is to help our preservice teachers learn science in a context that will be easily portable to their future classroom. The first course in our sequence is titled "Earth – the Water Planet." Since every community must wrestle with issues of water supply and management, we felt it made good sense to focus the first course in the sequence on this topic. All students, whether they are fully aware of it or not, are already familiar with many of the scientific issues related to water. The same will be true for our preservice teachers once they find themselves in their future classrooms-their students, too, will have some familiarity with water. Because students learn best when they can connect new concepts to preexisting knowledge and experience, this approach should provide all students a framework upon which to situate and connect their new (scientific) understanding to their daily lives.

We plan to include secondary teaching majors in this program by having them serve as teaching assistants for these classes. In this way, we believe that our secondary students will have the opportunities to become immersed in a standards-based approach to science, and will be challenged to integrate their science content and relate biology, chemistry, and physics to their work in earth science. Although perhaps not the ideal forum for meeting the unique needs of preservice secondary majors, the relatively small numbers of secondary science-teaching majors, especially as compared to elementary education majors, makes it difficult to obtain administrative support for the development of classes specifically designed for secondary majors. It is my hope that by developing a strong elementary science education program, we will be able to find the resources to build discrete opportunities for students in our secondary program.

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