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Earth Science for Elementary Educators: 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 elementary educators NOT 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 introduces students to core concepts in Astronomy, Geology, Meteorology and Climatology. Students practice and model pedagogical techniques relevant to teaching earth and space science content in the K-8 classroom by:
  1. Engaging in Hands-On Scientific Inquiry of Observable Earth Science Phenomenon
  2. Examining Large Scale Examples of Scientific Inquiry Leading to Core Earth & Space Science Concepts
  3. Developing Lesson Plans for Earth Science Content
  4. Performing Classroom Demonstrations
  5. Providing Feedback & Assessment of Peer Demonstrations
  6. Experiencing Sample Field Trips in Each Subject Area
  7. Utilizing the Internet to Access Earth & Space Science Resources

How does the Course Address Each Role?

  1. Lab exercises in this course incorporate observation of basic principles before extrapolation to larger earth science concepts. For example, students examine the effects of salinity and temperature on density before modeling global thermohaline circulation and examining its possible role in creating ice ages. The exercises selected are specifically designed to model activities appropriate for K-8 classrooms.
  2. Students examine the development of a central theory in each of the disciplines. In astronomy the transition from the geocentric theory of Ptolemy to the heliocentric theory of Copernicus provides an example of scientific inquiry changing human understanding in the distant past. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift and its replacement by plate tectonics as modern technology increased science's ability to observe nature provides a more modern example of scientific inquiry seeking better explanations of natural phenomenon as more data becomes available. Various causes for glaciation and possible anthropogenic climate change are explored as an example of fundamental scientic understandings that are still under heavy debate.
  3. All students participate in a team in designing and implementing an earth or space science lesson with their peers.
  4. The classroom lessons are all required to include a hands-on demonstration appropriate for the age group of the target audience.
  5. Students act as participants in the lessons of their peers providing a live audience and feedback to the lesson designers.
  6. A sample field trip is provided to students in each of the fields covered in this course. All students visit the MSU weather lab for a presentation on weather forecasting through traditional instruments (as may exist at their school) to the most modern computer aided technologies. The pre-service teachers are shown how to blend simple hands-on weather data collection with information available on the internet to create viable weather forecasting abilities for their schools. For astronomy all students receive a tour and presentation of the Andreas Observatory on the MSU campus. The tour is conducted during the day to simulate the likely conditions under which they are likely to visit such a facility. Each student also takes part in a field trip to a local geologic site to explore aspects of the local geology. A significant aspect of this trip is focused on the logistical aspects of conducting a safe and content appropriate trip.
  7. The pre-service teachers examine prominent NASA web sites and the MSU weather lab as examples of the types of resources available to them over the internet.

How do Students Integrate Learning & Teaching?

Integration of learning and teaching occurs through the field trips, classroom lesson, kid questions and unit reports developed from the lab exercises. The large amount of content required for this course to meet certification standards by nature requires that students engage in significant learning outside of class.

In effect, lecture and lab time sets the stage and allows intial hands-on experimentation and data collection. The students must then integrate their learning and their insights on how to teach it largely on their own. For each lab and field trip the student begin with sample 'kid questions" to give the activity relevance and connection to the K-8 curriculum.

Within each unit report the pre-service teachers must synthesis the scientific content of the course by topic (astronomy, geology, meteorology) while examining the pedagogical methods they are exposed to during that unit. The major examples of scientific inquiry introduced at the beginning of the course are also examined to demonstrate the on-going nature of scientific inquiry in these areas. At the end of the semester, the kid questions form the basis of the final exam which assesses integration of learning over the course.

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

This course attempts to transition pre-service teachers to the classroom by providing an opportunity to develop and present a content-relevant classroom lesson (Microsoft Word 29kB Aug22 05). While each student presents a single lesson in groups of 2, they are also participate in the lessons of their peers in the role of the students. Upon completion of each lesson the participants are asked to evaluate the lesson and presenters' effectiveness in meeting the needs of the target audience. In this fashion the each student observes or presents a dozen earth and space science lessons that can be translated into their future classrooms. The experience of giving and receiving feedback is usually new to these students causing significant anxiety. Post course feedback suggests that the students value the experience for the practical pedagogical insights they gain.

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

The design of this course is inspired by the National Science Education Standards relating to Earth & Space Science, scientific inquiry and constructivist pedagogical principles. The time constraints on the course limit the depth to which the standards can be addressed.

How does the Course Meet Certification Requirements?

This course is required to obtain the K-8 elementary education teaching certificate in Minnesota unless the full science concentration is completed with courses including Earth & Space Systems which go into greater depth.

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

This course faces significant which impact its effectiveness and delivery to students.
  1. Insufficient Contact Time

    Earth Science for Elementary Educators suffers from a fundamental design flaw arising from an imbalance in resource and contact time at the curricular level. Whereas the National Science Education Standards call for equitable emphasis to be spent on life science, physics and earth & space science, the 13 credit hours required of pre-service elementary educators are split, 6, 5 and 2 respectively. MSU elementary educators take 100 level courses in life science and physics (similar in nature to Our Geologic Environment) in which they are introduced to the basic content in these fields before taking a 2 credit more advanced course with linkages into pedagogy in each field. Earth Science for Elementary Educators is required to achieve cover both basic content knowledge and pedagogical connections within 2 credits.

    This illogical allocation of resources arose from the political inequity created by the presence of strong biology and physics departments while geology remains as a program attached to the department of chemistry. Resource allocation occurred before an earth science educator was hired. The established programs built their prerequisites on pre-existing courses not tuned for pre-service teachers before taking most of the remaining credits for their advanced courses. The logical correction to this flaw, i.e. adding a geology prerequisite is not possible because state law requires all undergraduate programs to be achievable in 128 credit hours. More time would have to come from elsewhere in the major and is simply not available.

    The structure of assessment in the course was built to achieve the original intentions of the National Science Education Standards despite the inadequate contact time. While officially 2 credits, the work load demanded of students resembles that of a 4 or 5 credit course. The use of the unit reports as summative assessments, lack of quizzes and all tests save a final exam place the burden for learning on independent efforts by the student. Where students rise to the occasion, significant learning occurs. In those cases where the student cannot or will not assume the heavier workload learning is demonstrably less. It should be noted that the hidden overload of the students is shared by the instructor resulting in very slow feedback on student assignments. Additional relief for this course was provided by limiting admission to the course to the final semester before student teaching allowing the students to gain the benefits of maturity and increased knowledge of scientific thinking from the life science and physics courses to become evident.

    The ultimate solution to the time problem is to redesign the life science and physics courses along the lines of this course with each course allocated 4 credit hours with 3 hours of lecture/3 hours of lab available for course operations.

  2. Large Class Sizes

    In contrast to the life science and physics equivalents to this course with enrollments capped at 14 and 16 respectively, Earth Science for Elementary Educators was initially assigned a lecture/lab combination of 120/40 students. Without teaching assistant support, these numbers proved unworkable in the laboratory component.

    Strictly enforcing enrollment controls have allowed the lab size to be cut to 24, the department maximum in all other labs. This is far more manageable though administrative pressure to increase the numbers remains a constant source of tension.

  3. Scheduling Conflict with Clinical Experiences

    One consequence of requiring this course to be taken the semester before student teaching is a direct time conflict with in-school clinical experiences in the students' pedagogy courses. All upper level education courses at MSU are set up via a block schedule in which students must keep a 4 hour block of time, either morning or afternoon free of all other courses to enable students to travel to schools for observation and micro-teaching. Offering this course in the opposite 4 hour window has proven insufficient in the block before student teaching because students take part in a 3 week all day clinical experience.

    To prevent losing 20% of the courses already insufficient time, it's 15 week, 1:2 hour lecture:lab structure was altered to a 12 weeks of 2:2 lecture/lab time. This preserves the overall contact time available to students by creating a 3 week hiatus in which no course work occurs.

  4. Poor Student Preparation

    As the only earth & space science course that most of this population of pre-service teachers see after middle school, this course encounters significant background content weakness and phobia of science. The mismatch between the content to be covered, the students poor backgrounds and lack of contact time places great stress on the students. Many question the need to expend so much extra effort when they are "never going to use this stuff'.

    This problem has been minimized by requiring this course as the last in the science sequence and through careful advising of students regarding the reality of the teaching job market. Elementary teaching positions in Minnesota are extremely difficult to obtain the current job market forcing students to move out of state or teach out of their preferred concentration. Enough recent graduates have shared their real world experiences that the students expectations of their future positions have become more realistic forcing them to take a broader view of the skills and content they must master.

  5. Lack of Administrative Support

    The source of nearly all the challenges faced by this course is a fundamental lack of support for earth science education within the College of Science & Engineering Technology at Minnesota State University Mankato. This lack of support comes from requiring more content to be taught in larger classes in less contact time than in the other sciences. Despite the higher efficiency demanded of the earth science education faculty and course, the administration has also refused to provide permanent or even sufficient staffing to meet student demand for the course. Large numbers of students have had their graduations delayed by inability to get into this required course. Over the 5 years of its existence the course has been taught by 6 separate faculty members only one of whom possessed the Ph.D. The administration's opinion has been succinctly stated as, "They're only going to be elementary teachers. What do they need to know?"

    The solution in this situation must ultimately come from external intervention. It has been suggested that the course be moved out of the College of Science & Engineering Technology to the College of Education whose students it serves. The turf and funding considerations involved are significant, however. In the meantime, the students are voting with their feet seeking courses in other institutions or leaving education for professions they perceive as being more valued.