Earth Science for Educators II: Role in the Program

Prepared for SERC by John McDaris in consultation with Heather Petrovic

A discussion of the design and implementation of Earth Science for Elementary Educators II, a physical geology course serving pre-service teachers at Western Michigan University.

A description of this course and its goals is also available.

What Role Does this Course Play in Teacher Preparation?

This course is one of six science content courses (two courses each in areas of life science, physical science, and earth science) specifically designed for undergraduate elementary education majors. All students who pursue elementary teaching certification are required to complete four of the six courses with at least one course from each area; students pursuing elementary integrated science certification are required to complete all six courses. All six courses share objectives related to teacher preparation, including: (1) to aid students in developing meaningful and functional understanding of key science concepts; (2) to provide student with opportunities to engage in scientific inquiry that facilitate insight in the nature of science; (3) to explore alternate conceptions of scientific phenomena; and (4) to help students develop more positive attitudes about science and increase their confidence in their ability to do science.

How does the Course Address Each Role?

The course addresses multiple roles in preparing elementary teachers as follows:
  1. The course content is focused around four key ideas in geology: plate tectonics, earth materials, surface processes, and geologic time. Deeper understanding of the content is promoted through the inquiry-oriented course format. Each in-class activity utilizes a heuristic based on the learning cycle. First, students are engaged in the activity through a series of questions designed to stimulate thinking about the topic and draw out students' prior knowledge. Next prior knowledge is related to the topic and gaps in knowledge are identified. Students are then invited to engage in the day's activity. Interactions with the instructor, discussions among small groups and the whole class, and questions in the student course pack serve to guide students to correct understanding of the concepts. A homework reading and questions serve to reinforce understanding. Finally, students review their understanding in a whole-class discussion format.
  2. In addition to learning content, scientific ways of thinking and the process of "doing" science are emphasized in this course. In many of the in-class activities, students have to collectively decide what evidence to collect, how to collect it, how best to present their evidence, and what conclusions can be drawn from the available evidence. Explicit discussion of these and other aspects help to facilitate student experience and understanding of the nature of science.
  3. Students' prior knowledge can both inhibit and facilite learning new content. Incorrect ideas about scienctific concepts can interfere with learning, yet prior knowledge can be the basis upon which to build new concepts. Each activity in this course uses questions to draw out students' prior knowledge. In addition, students are often asked to reflect upon what ideas children have about specific earth science topics. In a semester project, students interview children to assess their prior knowledge about a specific earth science topics, and develop a lesson to adress and build upon this knowledge.
  4. The course mainly uses group work to help students develop confidence in their ability to do science. Through interaction with peers (as well as interaction between groups and the instructor) students have a non-threatening domain in which to ask questions and explore their ideas. The course also includes many activities which could readily be adapted to an elementary classroom, giving students examples of lessons they could use in their future teaching.

How do Students Integrate Learning & Teaching?

One goal of the course is that students reflect on how they learn earth science and the implications of learning for their future teaching. In small group and whole class discussions, as well as on assignments, students are asked to discuss how content and experiences from the course might be used in their future teaching. Additionally, the discussions of alternate conceptions (and semester project) bring to light ideas that children often hold and how to address these ideas.

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

The course provides a model of inquiry-based earth science instruction that is adaptable to an elementary classroom. The heuristic used in the in-class activities (engagement, draw out prior knowledge, inquiry, discuss key concepts, review) can be adapted to an elementary classroom. Children's ideas about specific topics in earth science are discusses, and strategies for teaching these topics to elementary children are shared between the instructor and students as well as among students. Individual classroom activities are also adaptable to the elementary classroom.

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

Each in-class activity is aligned with specific Michigan elementary (K-8) earth/space science content benchmarks; state benchmarks are largely aligned with national standards.

How does the Course Meet Certification Requirements?

The course is designed to cover earth science content requirements in the Michigan Test for Teacher Certification #93 (Elementary Integrated Science) and #83 (Elementary Professional Education).

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

The main challenges in teaching this course include:

  1. Bredth of content coverage versus depth of understanding. State and national benchmarks cover a wide range of content in earth and space science. How can a single course (or one of two courses) cover all of these benchmarks and yet promote deeper understanding of the content covered? The current format of this course attempts to strike a balance between bredth of coverage and deeper understanding by limiting course content to geoscience topics that are either critical to a basic understanding of earth science (e.g., plate tectonics), or most often taught in the elementary grades in Michigan (e.g., minerals and rocks).
  2. "Science phobia" and lack of interest in science among students. Many students come into the course with a poor grasp of basic science concepts, fear of science and/or a belief that they are not good at "doing" science, or misunderstandings about the nature of science. These issues are addressed by bringing up the relevance of what students are learning to their daily lives as well as to their future teaching, work in small groups, and constructive feedback from the course instructor.
  3. Student resistance to inquiry teaching methods. Inquiry teaching requires that students take an active role in their learning; that they participate in class activities and discussions, and that they reflect upon and critically evaluate their thinking. Many students are resistant to this work, and demand to simply be told the "right" answer. At the other extreme, some students think that because the concepts are developed from their thought process, that whatever ideas they have are "right." Striking a balance between the process of science (generating conclusions from evidence) and helping students to understand concepts correctly is a challenge in this course. This challenge is met by addressing both needs in forthright discussion with students - acknowledging all ideas, but coming to consensus on what the science says is "right."