Compiled by Debra Reynolds
Background and philosophy
Teachers with diverse backgrounds and teaching philosophies were interviewed. Many elementary teachers reported insufficient science, especially earth science, training in their teacher preparation programs whereas middle and high school teachers had a stronger science background, but not necessarily in Earth Science. Philosophical beliefs for classroom decisions varied tremendously. Elementary teachers typically fostered an activities-based classroom while the majority of 8-12 grade teachers focused on the content, scientific process, and skill level of students.
Successes in Teaching Earth Science
Teachers defined success in the classroom as observing students visibly engage in the lesson. Grades were never defined as success and in many cases the teachers emphasized that grades had nothing to do with achieving.* Successful lessons that teachers mentioned in their interviews correlated with their teaching philosophies. For instance, if the teacher's goal is to relate Earth Science concepts with what the students know, then a successful lesson would contain 'aha' moments of understanding. A successful lesson for a teacher who believes that every student can learn would be one in which they see even small progress in understanding. Elementary teachers' examples of successful lessons were all hands on activities in which the students were fully engaged. Upper level teachers' examples of successful lessons were when students demonstrated interest and understanding, regardless of lesson type.
*As a further study it would be interesting to survey students to compare the two viewpoints.
Challenges in Teaching Earth Science
Challenges in teaching Earth Science fell into two categories. The first relates to the structure and climate of education and is common to most schools. Time to prepare lessons and implement labs or field activities is inadequate. Classroom supply funds are minimal and when materials are purchased, large groups of students must share one set of lab equipment. Physical space limitations were also sited as impediments in executing some labs. Compounding these challenges is the difficulty of teaching a large number of students with a wide range of backgrounds. The second category relates to each teacher's knowledge base. Inadequate preservice training and subsequent professional development leaves teachers feeling frustrated with their lack of a solid understanding of the required topics. In addition, most teachers were not given the tools to develop and successfully execute lab activities.
Effectiveness and Suggestions for Preservice Training
The majority of elementary teachers, regardless of district employment, certification program, or length of service, emphatically expressed concern over insufficient preparation for teaching Earth Science and other science topics. In each case, the lack of required science classes, grade level specific science teaching methods, and concentration on specific state standards were all cited as examples of preparation failures. These were the focus of suggestions for improved teacher programs. Elementary teachers want to learn about what they are going to teach and how to teach it to young children specifically. However, they are responsible for a wide variety of subject matter and, according to survey results, it is unrealistic to think that they will have the time or the inclination to deepen their knowledge in every single area.
Middle School Teachers
Many required Earth Science classes take place at the 8th grade level. Certification for teaching this level can be either an Earth Science or a General Science college major. Levels of science content preparation vary depending on length of time out of college as well as courses in which teachers were enrolled. For instance, eighteen years ago Earth Science was a relatively new field and geography and biology were the majority of required coursework. More recent programs focus on Earth Science and include teaching practices that are not limited to lecture. Cited program deficits most often fell into the categories of subject matter preparation, modeling good teaching practices (especially field work), and addressing age level appropriate teaching methods. Middle school teachers' suggestions addressed a variety of areas in which they were lacking individually. Common suggestions emphasized the need to integrate more fieldwork in a 6-8 setting.
Effectiveness and Suggestions for Professional Development
All teachers were interested in professional development to enhance the success of their Earth Science teaching. Classes focusing on state standards for specific grade levels were cited as critically needed. Teachers felt that such classes should include content and lab and field activities. Many teachers felt that a field experience would be the most effective way to learn the information. Given the constraints of the educational system, sufficient time to discuss the creative execution and implementation of these topics is vital.