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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

September 2000


Why Science Education Became One Unversity's Priority

Michelle Hall-Wallace

Fortuitous events and deliberate actions over the past decade have made science education a priority at the University of Arizona. The College of Science has been building an environment that promotes and values community outreach and good teaching. As a result, the college is home to a growing number of innovative programs that advance teaching and learning of science for students in kindergarten, middle school, high school and, almost serendipitously, in the university itself.
In the early 1990s, Edgar McCullough, then dean of the College of Science, and his successor, Eugene Levy, took a bold step for science education. They developed and instituted a process of promotion and tenure evaluation that allowed faculty actively pursuing research in science or mathematics education to be evaluated for tenure by peers who have similar research interests. This meant science professors who conducted research in education could continue on the tenure path.

Before McCullough took this step in the mid-1980s he pushed an agenda of excellence in both research and education even as the university achieved higher national rankings in research. He worked with the College of Education to form the Science and Mathematics Education Center ónow a focal point for scientists, mathematicians, engineers and educators to share ideas and build innovative K-16 science and mathematics education programs.

Anne Kramer Huth works with fellow student Scott Walker on GIS 
curriculum materials. The University of Arizona students will help 
a teacher in an Arizona public school use the curriculum in the 
classroom. Photo courtesy of Michelle Hall-Wallace.

These two changes created opportunities for departments within the college to hire faculty members, such as me, who research science and mathematics education. It also set the foundation for an academic culture that valued excellence in education and teaching and promoted research in science education as a new frontier that could help achieve that excellence.

Scientists preparing science teachers

These changes spurred a tremendous growth in the universityís outreach to K-12 teachers and students. As a result, the university re-evaluated its science teacher preparation program. In the early 1990s, enrollment of science education majors was down when demand for science teachers was increasing. Surveys of science education majors and classroom teachers showed they wanted a more comprehensive background in science and wanted to maintain their identities as scientists. Students majoring in geosciences were reluctant to explore a degree in earth science education because it required changing majors and colleges. At the same time, national leaders were calling for science departments to play a larger role in teacher preparation and to improve teaching in the universities themselves.

The university initiated a program in secondary science education in the College of Science. The program will accept its first students this fall: eight majors, two in geosciences, and 31 students in the introductory course on science teaching. Students can remain in the department of geosciences, for example, and major in earth science education or geosciences. By taking an extra year, they can obtain a double major in geosciences and science education.

In 1997, the department of geosciences hired me to pursue geoscience education research in the College of Scienceís teacher preparation program. The department already had one faculty member, Peter Kresan, devoted to undergraduate education. He was instrumental in developing an active undergraduate geology club, building cooperative learning experiences with local businesses, and teaching most of the introductory geoscience courses. The faculty appreciated his contributions but realized one person could only do so much. Hiring a second faculty member to pursue geoscience education research was a major step and unprecedented among top-ranked geoscience departments. As the newly hired faculty member, I broadened the departmentís efforts in geoscience education and began laying a foundation for the collegeís teacher preparation program.

The goals of our geoscience education program are to promote the study and learning of the geosciences in K-16 and to increase public awareness of how the geosciences relate to our everyday lives. Current programs include summer camps for middle school students, research experiences for undergraduates, workshops for middle and high school science teachers, graduate courses for K-12 science teachers, graduate studies in geoscience education research, graduate fellowships for students to work in K-12 classrooms, and technology-based earth science curriculum development.

No one person can lead all these efforts. The diversity of activities has prompted many faculty to get involved in ways that suit their interests. Initially, the unique nature of my position left some faculty wondering how my research would fit within the department. Not everyone is a convert, and some are decidedly against a greater emphasis on education. However, collaborations within the department and university continue to grow.

Reforming undergraduate science teaching

This new focus on education had an unexpected advantage for the department of geosciences. To be successful, the departmentís new program in secondary science education must teach science content and teaching methods in ways that promote inquiry and problem solving. This need gave a new emphasis to the teaching methods the department was using for its own students. At the same time, the emphasis in the College of Science on science education had brought four science education faculty members to the college. These new faculty members developed the teacher preparation program and, at the same time, helped their colleagues implement teaching reforms in undergraduate science courses.

Driven by tight budgets and state mandates, in 1996 the university limited all degree programs to 120 semester credits and developed a general education program that eliminated the requirement for science labs in introductory courses for nonscience majors. With enrollments down, the department of geosciences also faced potential budget cuts.

These changes required an overhaul of the departmentís core undergraduate curriculum, which hadnít significantly changed in 20 years. They also presented an opportunity to evaluate how and what we teach undergraduates. Faculty recognized that the hands-on problem solving we incorporate into the introductory lab courses was a critical element for student learning. The loss of these labs required a new approach to teaching introductory science. Similarly, the undergraduate core curriculum required better integration of technology and modern scientific inquiry. The challenge was in learning new ways to teach.

Many of the departmentís top faculty members stepped forward to mold these new introductory courses. Several faculty members who had never taught at the introductory level approached these teaching challenges in the same way they approach their research. They investigated the cutting edge developments in science teaching and learning. Then they collaborated with Kresan, other science educators on campus and me to implement these new ideas and techniques. Through a process of trial-and-error experiments, these professors learned new teaching methods that worked for them and their students. Faculty discussions of collaborative learning, peer teaching and problem solving are almost commonplace. The result: tectonics and geochronology professor George Gehrels received the universityís highest teaching award, and geophysics and paleomagnetics professor Robert F. Butler earned the collegeís highest teaching award.

A core group of faculty members also initiated a plan in 1995 to integrate computing skills across the undergraduate curriculum by teaching desktop computing skills in the context of geoscience problem solving. This plan required developing engaging materials, acquiring computer facilities for teaching and collaborating with other faculty to promote the concept across the curriculum. With National Science Foundation funding, the department built a computer lab and developed a suite of classroom activities for introductory geoscience courses. Now students can explore the causes and life cycles of hurricanes, water use and its availability in the United States, the impact of overdraft on an aquifer and investigations of geologic hazards with a geographic information system. In just three years, we integrated computer-based learning experiences into every required undergraduate course and many of the electives.

Balancing teaching and research

These changes did not come without a cost. One of the departmentís primary concerns was how this new teaching load would affect faculty research. Without question, revamping the undergraduate curriculum and developing new courses for nonscience students has required an enormous amount of work. Collaboration among the faculty lightened the load somewhat. But many of the faculty members who redesigned or developed new courses say it slowed their research progress. At the same time, they say the new teaching methods made teaching more enjoyable, and that, with the courses in place and well tested, their research is now back at a level they enjoy. Over the past decade, overall research productivity has remained steady, extramural funds have increased, and the U.S. News and World Report ranking of the department and university has improved from ninth in 1996 to seventh in 1999.

One of the most exciting changes in the department is a new graduate program in geoscience education research. A graduate student can pursue a doctorate in geosciences while conducting research on geoscience education. The geoscience community needs more scientists who embrace science education research as a career. Few who are working in geoscience education have training in education. Most, like me, became interested in educational research when faced with challenges in the classroom. We have learned the ropes on the job. We need graduate students who want to become multidimensional professionals, equally successful in the classroom as in the research laboratory.

Geoscience education research is the study of effective methods of learning and teaching the geosciences. By developing a research base in geoscience education, we can make the geosciences more accessible to everyone and promote deeper understanding of the geosciences among our students.

This decade-long journey offers many lessons. The most encouraging is that positive change occurs when people choose to resolve problems rather than ignore them. Lasting resolution of problems requires development of long-term objectives and a plan that can lead to those objectives. Higher education is a profession that succeeds best when faculty members achieve balance in their teaching, research and service efforts.

More colleges and universities need to make teaching an equal partner with scholarly research and professional service. One path toward that goal is to embrace science education as a valued scholarly research discipline.

Hall-Wallace is an assistant professor in geosciences at the University of Arizona.

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