Initial Publication Date: April 11, 2006

All Earth Science Teachers are not Alike

Written by Char Bezanson, Science Teacher, Eastview High School, Apple Valley, MN and Instructor in Education, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN.

Earth science teachers work at all levels in the K-12 educational system, and bring a wide variety of backgrounds and experience to their teaching.

Elementary school teachers usually have limited Earth science content preparation. They may have taken an introductory geology, meteorology or astronomy course as a college science distribution requirement, or they may have taken a science course designed specifically for teachers that includes content from several science disciplines. Some programs, especially those preparing teachers for K-8 licensure, require a subject-matter concentration. Those choosing a science concentration may take three or four courses selected from introductory life, physical, and Earth science offerings. Most take less.

Unless preservice elementary teachers take teacher-specific science courses with pedagogical topics and practice embedded in the course, they take a separate "elementary science methods" course to introduce them to school science materials, science safety issues, and science-appropriate teaching strategies. Elementary school teachers hold a "multiple-subjects" license or credential, and usually teach these subjects in a self-contained classroom. The emphasis at this level, especially in an era of high-stakes testing, is reading, writing, and elementary mathematics. Science is usually not considered a "core" subject, and the amount of time devoted to science may be at the discretion of the individual teacher.

Secondary school Earth Science teachers, on the other hand, are usually science majors. Like other science and geoscience majors, they are drawn to the science content. Their orientation to the content, however, tends to become broader as they gain teaching experience. Good secondary teachers "teach the student, not just the subject", so their focus shifts toward human relationships and science learning as well as science content; if it does not, they are unlikely to remain in teaching at this level. They are specialists in translating science to a tough audience, and are always on the lookout for "the hook" that will catch a student's interest. Like their students, they often prefer the larger science "story" to the details of research, and good teachers enjoy interacting with that story in a concrete way through "hands-on" experiences with materials and data as well as through traditional means.

School Earth and Space Science, as defined by the National Science Education Standards and most state standards documents, includes topics in meteorology, geography, astronomy, and geology. Earth science teachers also teach about technology, the history and nature of science, and the interactions between technology and human society. Because of this breadth, Earth Science teachers need broad preparation in science, science-related social sciences, and education. They also need several areas of deeper preparation, including field and research experiences, in order to teach about how science knowledge is created and used.

Not all Earth Science teachers planned to teach earth science when they were in college, and not all college students who prepare to teach enter or remain in teaching. Often, science majors are attracted first to the science, and decide to teach as they explore the interface between "what can I do with this?" and "what do I really like to do?" Geoscience majors, especially at liberal arts colleges or research universities that don't emphasize teaching, may move into teaching through graduate teacher preparation programs, often several years after graduating from college.

The reality of high school teaching is that school administrators see "science teacher" where universities see "geology major" or "biology major". Schools need flexibility to adjust to changes in student enrollments and state standards, and often require a teacher who majored in biology to teach one or more sections of Earth science, especially at the eighth or ninth grade level. At the high school level, many courses with interdisciplinary titles such as "environmental science" or "integrated science" are taught by teachers with little formal training in the Earth sciences. If it is available, affordable, and convenient, such teachers often seek out additional Earth science coursework and professional development opportunities during summers and evenings.

Middle schools and junior high schools may be organized in various ways, but usually include at least two grades in the range of 5 to 9. Many schools, especially charter schools, magnet programs and urban schools, are even returning to the K-8 model of school organization. Middle level Earth Science teachers may be trained as secondary teachers with a discipline-specific or broad-field science major. In many states, elementary teachers who have completed a science concentration of four or five science courses can be licensed as middle school science teachers. It is common for middle school teachers to be considered "general science" teachers, and they often teach in an interdisciplinary way. Since the emphasis of the middle school is on the transition from the nurturing environment of elementary school to the increased academic independence of high school, middle school science teachers often work in teams with English or Social Studies teachers. They may "loop", staying with the same students through several grades. This is the level with the most variation in the balance between focus on the student and focus on science content.

Licensure requirements and state standards for Earth science content vary significantly from state to state, but it is generally true that the amount of specific science preparation increases with the grade level of the teaching assignment. Since most Earth science is taught at the eighth or ninth grade level, most secondary teachers of Earth science are not majors in the geosciences, but have completed the general science distribution requirements of their state. To the extent that states implement the goals of the National Science Education Standards and other science education reform documents, Earth and Space Science will grow in prominence in the K-12 curriculum. In order for K-12 schools to meet these standards, the quantity of Earth and Space Science specialists at the secondary level as well as the subject matter competence of science teachers at all levels must increase.