Essays on Teacher Preparation by Workshop Participants

Richard Yuretich

University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetss

My experience is that promoting only Earth-Science education at the Departmental level is not an effective strategy. Most faculty members are already extensively committed to research and education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. A specific effort to promote Earth Science teaching, while viewed as a worthwhile endeavor by almost all my colleagues, does not stay on the radar screen for very long. At UMass-Amherst, pre-service teachers are not usually identified as a distinct population from other students. Massachusetts requires that students intending to become teachers major in a liberal-arts or science subject, although they may declare a secondary major in Education. Very few students interested in teaching at the elementary level consider a major in the Earth Sciences, or any science for that matter. For those interested in middle- or high-school teaching, our Department has a separate track in the Geology major that steers students to the content courses required for licensure, and provides a greater degree of flexibility for completing the Education courses they need. There are no separate Geology or Earth Science courses designed exclusively for teachers; they enroll in the same introductory courses as the general student population.

Although there is no concerted Departmental effort to systematically reach out to pre-service teachers, many faculty members have established links on their own initiative. In some of the large introductory courses, we identify prospective teachers and give them peer-teaching opportunities in the course. In a similar manner we provide opportunities for prospective teachers in the Geology major to tutor other students. Some faculty members also make research opportunities available to recent teachers, either to work in the laboratory or to help develop instructional materials based upon the research.

Collaborative efforts among science departments and with the School of Education have been more effective. We were involved in a University-wide initiative to improve the preparation of teachers (through an NSF Collaborative for Excellence in Teacher Preparation), which has left several permanent features on the landscape:

  1. Explicit incorporation of active and collaborative learning strategies into undergraduate courses, especially introductory courses likely to have a high proportion of pre-service teachers.
  2. Development of a course "Exploring Science and Mathematics Teachers" co-taught by science and education faculty members, to give interested science majors some introduction to principles and practices of teaching and learning.
  3. Maintenance of a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Institute to coordinate opportunities for students interested in teaching, and to foster faculty participation.

More recently, we have been part of Stem Connections, an NSF GK-12 initiative to place science graduate students in the K12 classroom). We have two Geoscience students actively participating and others planning to do so in the next year. Active collaboration among science, engineering, and education also led to a successful research proposal that uses in-service teachers as research assistants. In addition to working with one of the project's scientists or engineers, these teacher-associates also participate in a research seminar, and they will design a unit plan around their research experience. For several years we had program for both in-service and pre-service teachers entitled Planet Earth, which use environmental topics as a catalyst to pursue scientific investigations. Description of each of these initiatives can be found online.

There are several challenges that must be addressed to sustain these efforts. In the first place, students must be assured that teaching is a viable career alternative. In the current political climate of high-stakes testing and economic disincentives, it is not an easy argument to make. Likewise, faculty need to be assured that there is a positive payoff for making this part of their agenda, specifically, campus leaders need to emphasize that such efforts are part of the institutional goals. Communication between the science and education faculty is critical, so that the each can be informed and updated of initiatives or improvement in the other field.