Initial Publication Date: May 11, 2012

Teaching geoscience methods to pre-service elementary teachers

Kyle Gray, Earth Science, University of Northern Iowa

For the past three years, I have been teaching at the University of Northern Iowa – a four-year, public university with a strong emphasis on teacher education. Like many of the institutions represented by participants in this workshop, UNI was formerly known as a teacher's college (Iowa State Teacher's College) and still maintains a state and regional reputation as "the place to go to become a teacher". I am housed within the Earth Science Department but also teach courses for the secondary Science Education program.

I am a relative new-comer to the field of teaching the methods of geoscience. Over the past year I have read several papers describing the key differences and talked with several people in our community about this topic. From my perspective, geoscience inquiry has historically been about observing some phenomenon the natural world (e.g. look at the rocks at a given locality) and determine how or why that phenomenon happened (e.g. determining how these rocks formed). Put another way, geoscience inquiry often takes the form of "What's over there and how did it come to be that way?" This is an inductive approach to scientific inquiry that often includes a historical questions (When did that happen?). This methodology is shared by other disciplines including astronomy, meteorology (both of which could be included within the term geoscience) and stands in stark contrast to the deductive "science fair model" of science where an investigator always proceeds in order through the steps of hypothesis, experiment, results, and conclusions.

My primary teaching responsibility is an Earth Science content course for pre-service elementary education majors. This is an inquiry-based course with students who are primarily freshmen and sophomore women who have avoided taking science in high school and have not had an Earth science course since middle school. At the beginning of each semester I have the students write a reflection paper on their prior experiences in learning science as well as their views of the ideal way to teach science. At the end of the semester I have them reflect on what they have learned and areas in which they have grown in their understanding of the nature of science. I also collect data on their beliefs towards teaching science. Each semester, my students consistently report that they view science as a single, monolithic process that must be rigorously followed. One student even described how she originally thought that scientists only 'did" science when they were using the periodic table. This rigid structure turns many students off to science. By the end of the semester, many express their joy in learning that scientific inquiry is more than conducting experiments.

As I reflect on my teaching, I realize I have been incorporating explicit teaching on the methods of geoscience in my courses. In my inquiry course, my goal is to give my students multiple opportunities to engage the data or phenomenon so they can practice those science process skills of collecting and analyzing data as well as using those data to construct explanations based on known scientific principles. For example, when talking about soils, I have students observe photographs of different types of soils from around the world and then use their observations to identify similarities between soil types. These similarities are then used to define a soil. Another example is my lesson on the behaviors of meandering streams over time. The students observe geomorphic changes in a stream table and infer the general rule for erosion along cut banks. Then they observe a series of Google Earth images from the Wabash River showing numerous abandoned meanders and ox bow lakes and use their previously developed model to interpret the river's history. Even though I have included the nature of geoscience inquiry in my courses, I am looking forward to finding new ways to improve this aspect of my teaching.

Besides reflecting on my own teaching, I have thought about the challenges and barriers we face in communicating the methods of geoscience inquiry and geoscience thinking. The first is the diversity of student populations with whom we are teaching. Geology majors need to a different and deeper skill set than a pre-service elementary teacher. While there will certainly be some overlap in the lessons and activities used to teach each group of students, my guess is that some activities may be needed that specifically target only one group. Second, teaching to think and act like a geoscientist requires significant time outside of the classroom making direct observations of the natural world. Looking at hand samples of limestone and sandstone is not the same thing as standing at an outcrop containing these rock types. Even looking at a picture is not the same experience. From such field experiences, students should come to understand that all products of geoscience inquiry (e.g. geologic maps) began as human interpretations of field relationships like those shown at outcrops. Third, geoscience is a context-specific, place-based discipline that cannot be replicated in all classrooms. Students conducting a chemistry experiment should have the same experience in both Alabama and Zanzibar. For laboratory disciplines like chemistry, place does not matter, but in the geosciences, the location of the classroom greatly influences student learning. Students in Iowa have multiple personal experiences with tornadoes but cannot easily visit a volcano. Similarly, students in the Pacific Northwest have access to volcanic rocks and volcanoes but students in the Midwest do not. These challenges are magnified for those trying to teach in an online medium. Fortunately, advances in simulations and geospatial technologies (like Google Earth) can compensate for the lack of experiences by our students, and I wonder if tools like this can convey the unique perspectives that geoscientists possess.

In the end, I see one element that runs throughout these issues, that is the need for students to directly practice doing geoscience in a real, authentic environment whenever possible. Some localities may provide a wealth of experiences whereas others may provide extra challenges. Also, given the state of many department budgets, it may not be possible to get out into the field very often, so activities that work in campus settings or within the classroom may play a critical role in teaching these skills to our students.

Supporting Attachments

Teaching Geoscience Methods to Elementray Education Majors (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 14kB May11 12)