Geoscience Education

Early Impact: EarthComm Lands in Los Angeles
Jan Childress

With California operating under a $35 billion budget deficit, it is facing more funding cuts to its programs, including education. As a result, the announcement in December of a partnership to support professional development and provide new classroom materials to the earth-science teachers in its public high schools was welcome news to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Earth System Science in the Community (EarthComm), an innovative earth-science curriculum for high schools, was introduced nationwide in September 2000 and had been well received in California. Training science teachers to use the EarthComm is key to the curriculum’s success, but stringent budgets leave few schools with funds to send teachers to training workshops.

The American Geological Institute (AGI), which publishes Geotimes, led the development of the EarthComm curriculum. The institute approached ChevronTexaco with a proposal: would the corporation provide financial support for EarthComm training workshops in Los Angeles? Yes, they would, was the reply.

“As a company, we place a very high value on the quality of K through 12 education in the communities we serve,” says Don Paul, vice president and chief technology officer of ChevronTexaco. “We are proud to be part of this partnership.” Noting that he began his career with ChevronTexaco as a geologist, Paul added: “Earth science is so important because it is a naturally integrative discipline that brings together the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics to help us better understand what impacts all of us everyday.”

The new partnership, known as the Earth System Science in the Community Teacher Enhancement Project, joins AGI, ChevronTexaco and the L. A. school district. At a December announcement of the partnership held at North Hollywood High School, LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer used the occasion to share his growing fascination with earth science.

“I’ve got a practical problem,” he explained to students at the press conference. “I’ve got an earthquake fault under Belmont School and I realized that I had to get a better understanding of what was going on. So I went to a geologist and asked for some books. What I’ve learned is that there are plates moving under Earth’s surface. Where those plates come together, you get seismic activity, such as the San Andreas Fault.”
Romer’s challenge with Belmont School brought him into the world of earthquakes and volcanoes and the painstaking research of many scientists. “Science is all about the techniques of exploration — of thinking things through, looking at the evidence and seeing how the evidence can be used to prove a theory,” he told the students. “That’s what this grant is about. We want to give you the tools to be creative thinkers
throughout your life.”

Over three years, ChevronTexaco will provide $360,000 for student books, teaching guides and classroom equipment kits. LAUSD will provide training pay, expertise and follow-up to the 300 teachers expected to attend the workshops. AGI, led by Director of Education Michael J. Smith, will supervise the workshops and provide stipends to the mentor coaches (teachers within LAUSD who piloted EarthComm in their classrooms and are experienced at teacher professional development). It’s About Time Inc., the publisher of EarthComm, is offering curriculum materials at a reduced price.

EarthComm is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the AGI Foundation. The curriculum was developed to comply with the 1996 National Science Education Standards and other major curriculum reform proposals, which recommend a new approach to teaching science that emphasizes the development of critical thinking processes. Rather than skimming lightly across many topics in a broad course of study, students will learn the analytical skills of real scientists. In the process, they are introduced to the exacting procedures of inquiry and a more in-depth exploration of the most important earth-science concepts.

While the EarthComm curriculum dramatically expands the students’ learning environment, it also places more demands on teachers. Beyond traditional classroom and lab activities, teachers must guide their students through fieldwork projects that focus on geoscience issues of concern to their local community. Students must also be taught telecommunications skills to do Internet-based research, gather scientific data and interact with other learning communities.

Fifty-eight teachers (recruited as two-person teams from the same school) and four mentor coaches took part in the first EarthComm training workshop on Jan. 6 through 8. The workshop focused on the “Earth’s Dynamic Geosphere” module and covered components within its three divisions — volcanoes, plate tectonics and earthquakes. Workshop leaders devised a suite of activities that teachers could readily incorporate into their classrooms and which would prepare their students for the California State Science Standards exams. The teachers also will work in a computer lab to become familiar with the EarthComm Web site.

More than half of the workshop participants had bachelor’s degrees in science and another 35 percent held master’s degrees. Five out of the 58 had degrees in geology or earth science. Most teachers reported that they had taken up to two earth-science classes in college; however, 28 percent had never had a college-level earth-science course. On average, they had 10 years teaching experience, seven of those years spent in high schools.

On the first day of the training workshop, the teachers took a pretest to determine their knowledge of earth-science content. Their responses indicated that they understood the volcanoes section best and felt least secure about plate tectonics.

On the final day, teachers took a post-workshop test, which revealed significant gains in their knowledge of earth science content. Most of the teachers plan to include elements of EarthComm in their classes this spring, introducing close to 5,500 Los Angeles students to the new curriculum in 152 classes.

The partnership provides support for 100 teachers per year, and a workshop to train 42 more teachers has been scheduled for the week of April 14 through 18. The goal is to reach all the earth-science classrooms in Los Angeles’ 49 high schools, 20 magnet schools (often attached to a high school) and nine multilevel schools (grades K through 12 or 6 through 12) by the end of three years.

The ultimate goal is to reach all students in LAUSD taking any course that covers California earth science standards. An advisory board of ChevronTexaco and LAUSD staff will review the partnership’s progress.

ChevronTexaco is tracking the program with interest. “We have ongoing investments throughout the state,” says Rod Spackman, Manager of Government and Public Affairs for Chevron Products Company. “But this partnership is unique among the kinds of grants that we make to school districts. Before we take it anywhere else, we want to see that it is successful in Los Angeles.”

Childress is a former managing editor of Geotimes and now works as a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. E-mail her at

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