Initial Publication Date: July 13, 2016

An Alternate Path into GER

Kim Cheek, University of North Florida

My trajectory in GER is different from many others in our community. Like many children I had a rock collection as a child, but I learned very little geoscience in school, with the exception of one Earth science course in eighth grade. My high school didn't offer Earth science, and neither did the small college where I did my undergraduate work. During my eleven plus years teaching students in grades 3-8, I was a classroom teacher and also taught special education. I always loved mathematics, so I expected to enjoy teaching it. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed teaching science. When I was offered a middle school science position, I jumped at the chance. Our geoscience unit was my favorite, which led me to earn a second masters' degree in geoscience (first one in elementary education). I loved teaching middle school science, but I decided I could ultimately impact more K-8 students, by teaching their teachers. When I entered a Ph.D. program in science education, it seemed natural that I would do my doctoral research on geoscience conceptions.
An experience I had while I was a Ph.D. student strongly influenced my decision to make GER my primary identification. I gave my first research talk at a conference in Ontario, Canada, where there were a number of GERers. I recall being incredibly nervous as a number of people in the audience were ones I considered "giants" and whose work I admired. One of those "giants" in the field, whom I had never met, invited me to eat lunch with the GER group after our session. More significantly, several of them were very encouraging to me as a new researcher. Their simple kindness enabled me to view myself as someone who could become part of the GER community.
People, like me, who come into GER from a K-8 teaching background, need to figure out how to network and develop connections within our broader community, precisely because we didn't follow a more typical GER path, and we tend to reside in colleges of education. The first piece of advice I would give a younger me would be to put yourself out there. Collaborations develop out of relationships. That means reaching out to others at and between conferences. Don't worry so much about how you think others perceive you. Second, carve out a research niche for yourself but don't feel like you are stuck on a particular path. Allow your thinking and research to evolve. Finally, keep yourself grounded in the real world of classroom practice, whether it's K-12, higher education, or both. Ultimately, our aim must be to improve the quality of geoscience education at all levels.
I believe we should encourage more people with extensive K-8 teaching experience to become part of the GER community. We need to take a more longitudinal view regarding GER. People with strong roots at various levels of the educational system enable us to carry out research that will help teachers across K-20 contexts improve classroom practice in geoscience education.