Why We Need a Corps of Earth Science Educators
Robert Ridky

Web Sidebar: Postdocs needed in schools

In 1892, the National Education Association, chaired by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot, gathered a historic group of scholars. The Committee of Ten was one of the most influential groups in establishing our present structure for educating children in kindergarten through high school. It recommended eight years of elementary education and four years of secondary education. And it defined the curriculum appropriate for high school.

A key part of that curriculum, as presented in the Committee’s 1893 Eliot Report, was geology and physical geography. The Eliot Report said that students in their fourth and fifth years of secondary school should spend a class period learning earth and atmospheric studies. The Committee included such geologic luminaries of the time as Thomas C. Chamberlin, George L. Collie, W. M. Davis and Israel C. Russell.

More than a century later, today’s education leaders are having many of the same conversations as those in the Committee of Ten. The impact of a host of initiatives intending to spur on instructional improvements and greater public knowledge of the importance of earth science, has been limited. Despite past and present efforts, many of the same fundamental problems recognized in 1892 still prevail.

The push for establishing geoscience education in our public schools goes beyond the Eliot Report. History is replete with examples of geoscience education interest and effort. Grove Karl Gilbert, serving as the Association of American Geographers President, convened a special Round Table Conference in 1909 to discuss some of the problems associated with secondary school “physical geography.” Writing in the Journal of Geography (v.7, p 145-157), they cited some of the problems in education as “not meeting the real needs of most students … being over-systematic and often unreal … not providing useful knowledge of the subject.” Optimism prevailed, though, as conference participants noted that “time is ripe for a change” and that “the chief problem of lacking proper instructional materials will undoubtedly promptly be met by publishers as soon as change is seen to be imminent.”

In 1957, participants in The International Geophysical Year, spurred on by Sputnik-driven attention to science education in the United States, spoke frequently about the need for better earth science instruction in our public schools. The Earth Science Curriculum Project (ESCP) of the 1960s was a significant response to this national interest. J. Tuzo Wilson, Richard Jahns, Mason Hill and Rachel Carson were just a few of the distinguished ESCP Advisory Board members who were enormously influential in formulating the instructional philosophy and course content. They, with the help of the American Geological Institute (AGI), were responsible for the rapid growth and expansion of earth science in the school curriculum. At the same time, even though more than 190,000 students were taking ESCP earth science, the ESCP staff and board members frequently expressed concern over the availability of a competent corps of earth science teachers (ESCP Newsletter, 1963, v.1, n.1).

Science and educational organizations have worked during the past decade on a range of instructional reform efforts to set forth what students should know and be able to do in science. In order to bring some coherence to well-intentioned but increasingly voluminous, overlapping and at times contradictory recommendations, the National Research Council developed the National Science Education Standards. Released in 1996, the NRC Standards grew from a multiyear effort involving hundreds of scientists and educators. By most assessments, the NRC Standards have been successful in presenting the principles and vision for science education, and they serve as the keystone for most instructional and curricula reform efforts.

More importantly, the NRC Standards show not only geoscientists, but also physicists, chemists and life scientists all calling for a strong and fully equal earth science presence in the curriculum. This attention to earth science is driven, in part, by the increased focus on the usefulness of science and the recognition that earth science contributes significantly to how we utilize our resources, manage our land and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Moreover, scientists from other disciplines recognize how the earth sciences provide important context and meaning for acquiring fundamental understandings in their disciplines.

History repeats itself

According to State Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education 2001, published by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), of the roughly 13 million high school students in our nation, less than 7 percent (860,000) will take a high-school earth and space science course, a number far lower than the 88 percent of students who will take biology. In 1962, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 190,000 students per year, or 760,000 over four years, out of almost 9 million would take high-school earth and space science courses. That’s about 8.5 percent. Since 1962, the number of secondary school students has increased by 31 percent. Given this increase, the enrollment situation in earth science appears to have gotten worse, not better.

With all the interest in enhancing geoscience education, why does this apparent disconnect remain? Why haven’t interest and activity led to greater achievement? Indeed, other disciplines face similar, ongoing educational challenges, and their leaders recognize that their health and viability are ultimately linked to these educational efforts.

What these other science areas don’t face, at least to the extent that earth sciences do, is the challenge of having an adequate, well-trained corps of teachers. This lack of certified teachers is especially problematic to our discipline and historically has been the limiting factor in our enhancement and development efforts. National initiatives may spur on a need for earth science teachers and even create new positions, but the opportunity they provide for a new-found presence can disappear like skywriting. An inadequately prepared teacher, or even a well-prepared teacher who is teaching out of their certified area, is not likely to develop that necessary level of course “following,” to establish the course as worthwhile, or to inspire student interest. The subject matter might not be their first love and, consequently, they are not the best ambassadors for our science. The result: earth science courses decline in enrollment and, sadly, many school systems take the expeditious action to simply eliminate the requirement.

The National Science Teachers Association’s National Teacher Registry shows 17,658 teachers instructing grades seventh through 12th in classes categorized as earth science. (An undeterminable number could have a split assignment, teaching one other course or several other courses.) Also, the most recent CCSSO report shows slightly more than 14,000 earth science teachers for ninth through 12th grades, compared to slightly more than 51,000 biology teachers. Of especially important note, the CCSSO reports in State Indicators that “many states and districts are having difficulty hiring and assigning well-prepared teachers in the field of earth science.”

Time for a new strategy

Over the years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported many local and national teacher enhancement programs — short-term training programs that add to teachers’ knowledge of their subject areas or teaching methods. Many of these programs are summer workshops, while a smaller number are part-time through the academic year. All of these programs are needed and worthwhile initiatives that give earth science teachers more competence and confidence.
Yet, the percentage of teachers affected by these programs is relatively small and this percentage doesn’t begin to factor in the huge number of new earth science teachers needed to advance the teaching of earth science. While these enhancement programs make significant contributions, they simply do not put us on the “right side of the curve” of our national need. We need to initiate programs that will develop a far greater number of earth science teachers.

In State Indicators, CCSSO also writes: “Many states have moved their policies on teacher licensure toward requiring teachers to have more subject knowledge preparation in the field they will be teaching. In the 1990s, states established policies that require new teachers to have an undergraduate or graduate major in their chosen teaching field. These states are acting to prevent a path to teaching with a bachelor’s degree in education but without a major in a particular subject area.”

On June 11, the Department of Education delivered a new report to Congress called Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge. The report makes a key recommendation: “States across the country should revamp their certification requirements by de-emphasizing traditional education courses and requiring prospective teachers to pass rigorous exams in the subjects they plan to teach.” This inaugural report goes on to say that states should do more to deepen the pool of potential teachers by opening alternative routes to the classroom for those who have strong content knowledge but lack some of the “education theory” classes.

We have a need and a historically unprecedented invitation that we should not let pass by.

The geology education degree

We need to facilitate ways for students to earn both geology degrees and education degrees. Students holding such degrees will provide a teacher corps that can correct this historic underrepresentation of earth science in education.

Colleges and universities offer programs that lead to teacher certification, but only states have authority for granting certification or, in some cases, licensure. (A program of study can be submitted to the state’s education department for approval.) Courses in teaching and education are important and officials will want to see some appropriate amount of professional course and field-based experience. But most states do provide alternative routes to certification, and education course work need not be a limiting factor for someone who wants to teach. The benefits of such programs to both the pre-college and college sectors are enormous (Geotimes, September 1999). Many colleges or departments of education also see the broader benefits of opening their programs to a more diverse group of majors. Through careful planning, departments can often use areas of a degree program, such as distributive studies, electives or advanced courses, for the requisite education courses.

At some liberal arts colleges, students who want to obtain teacher certification simply earn a second major in addition to their geology major. At other liberal arts colleges and at larger, comprehensive colleges and universities, the programs proceed on two somewhat similar, yet different tracks. To broaden the science base of the pre-service teacher, the teacher preparation track may actually include a greater number of science courses drawn from other discipline areas than the geology major.

At many of the research universities and doctoral granting universities, students find that in order to enroll in science education programs they have to drop their science majors. As can be expected, most of these students are unwilling to make this choice. The result is that, all too often, science majors graduate with a weak background in pedagogy, or education majors graduate with a weak background in science content. Collectively, these institutions have huge undergraduate enrollments — approximately equal to five times the collective enrollment of all liberal arts institutions and even larger than the total enrollments in all comprehensive colleges and universities. Students pursuing geoscience degrees at research universities are frequently unable to take the courses necessary to earn state certification for teaching.

Creating programmatic opportunities for students to become geologists and teachers will not only help geoscience education, but also the geoscience profession as a whole. Throughout most academic institutions the story is the same: a student taking an introductory geoscience course to fulfill a science requirement finds, usually unexpectedly, that they enjoy the material; they “stumble” into geology. This practice speaks to the inherent interest and appeal of our discipline, but it is a highly limiting and restrictive mechanism for generating broad awareness of and interest in the discipline. David Curtiss, this year’s AGI Congressional Science Fellow, writes in the May 2002 Geotimes that “if a student is not exposed to earth science in high school, the chance of that student pursuing it in college is slim.”

This year’s Geoscience Trends, compiled by AGI’s Human Resources Department, shows that the current number of geoscience degrees granted is less than half of what it was just six years ago and a third of what it was 20 years ago. These historic lows in the number of geoscience degrees being awarded is cause for concern as program support, in most instances, is inherently based on interest, need and production.

It’s also true that students taking science classes just to fulfill science requirements for other majors make choices based on some level of interest and familiarity. In this sense, the health of every geology department, in terms of student interest and enrollment, is linked to the state of our pre-college earth science instruction and, as a result, the quality of the national earth science teaching corps.

Works in progress

Some encouraging signs show that the recommendations for establishing discipline-based teacher preparation programs are beginning to take hold. For example, The Geological Society of America’s (GSA) Education Task Force report, New Directions for Excellence, identifies the need for a teacher preparation initiative that visibly and tangibly contributes to “fundamental and durable change.” The report goes on to state: “a geoscience education effort directed toward enabling faculty to establish programs to help geology majors obtain teacher certification in conjunction with their geoscience degrees can be shown to provide direct benefits to a much larger sector of societal members. Preparation of competent earth science teachers attracts students, contributes to departmental growth, and develops a cadre of professionals who can further contribute to the mission of the Society.”

Recognizing that earth science — with its increased emphasis on Earth as a system and expanded use of Internet resources — is emerging as an exemplar for innovation and science education reform, a national conference last year focused on developing effective instructional approaches and finding ways to broaden student participation. Supported by NSF, the conference report Revolution in Earth Science Education states the need for programs “to produce, recruit and retain earth science teachers.” It calls for a national campaign that would reach out to departments with undergraduate programs and to professional societies to recruit sufficient numbers of trained and qualified teachers. (Geotimes, September 2001).

The American Geophysical Union (AGU), with support from NSF, formed a collaboration of universities to address the obstacles geoscience majors face. The collaboration, called Linkages, is working to design programs that would link teacher preparation classes and science content classes. Participating institutions have grown to include: University of Arizona, University of Oklahoma, University of Washington, Montana State University, New Mexico State University, San Diego State University and Northern Arizona University. Programs being developed at these institutions take various forms. Some are developing four-year programs, other programs include a fifth year.

Institutional programs involve a level of curriculum revision, with some requiring new courses. All of the programs include a research experience for students. Because of needed revisions, many of the programs remain works in progress. But the work these schools are doing has, in recent years, garnered interest and has been reported on at AGU and GSA meetings, and at meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Michigan Tech recently instituted a teacher program that allows undergraduates to obtain both a bachelor’s degree in geology and an earth science teaching credential in four years. The program is designed for undergraduates who are interested in becoming teachers but who also wish to maintain strong ties to the academic department that most closely matches their content area. The dual degree gives students the flexibility to either pursue a teaching career or to continue their disciplinary studies by attending graduate school and seeking employment as a professional geologist. This flexibility is attractive to many students who would like to teach at some point in their careers but who are unwilling as undergraduates to commit themselves to a single career path.

Also this academic year, the University of Maryland has introduced a bachelor’s degree in geology and secondary education. The program retains all the supportive science and mathematics requirements, field camp and senior thesis, and also adds a course in meteorology and 12 credits of course work in education. The undergraduate program prepares students for taking the Praxis teaching certification exams and, in some cases, allows graduates to start teaching in school districts. The university is also offering an optional, one-year, full-time graduate program within the College of Education that leads to a master’s of education and permanent state certification.

This attention from universities and colleges on developing well-trained science teachers is belated but welcome. Initiatives for developing a sufficient and well-prepared pool of earth science teachers is, at long last, positioning us to better contribute to broad public awareness of the profound importance of our science.

Postdocs needed in schools

Qualified science and math teachers are a scarce commodity in U.S. schools. And that needs to change, according to a National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) report released in July. The report recommends the creation of a national fellowship program to attract recent science and math doctorate graduates to kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) teaching.

"The committee believes that the nature of the problem is such that success will require the prestige and momentum that can only be achieved through national attention," write the authors of Attracting PhDs to K-12 Education: A Demonstration Program for Science, Mathematics, and Technology. With a projected shortage of two million elementary and secondary teachers over the next decade and a diminishing pool of academic research positions for postdocs, the national program is necessary, the report says, both to help meet the needs of U.S. science education and to further career opportunities for postdocs in science, math and engineering.

During the two-year fellowship, fellows would receive a stipend of about $35,000. The national program would pay the fellows' stipends in the first year, and each participating school would support its fellow during the second year.

The NRC report constitutes the second part of a three-phase project to infuse recent doctoral graduates into K-12 science and math education. During the first phase of the project, the NRC surveyed recent graduates, finding a high level of interest among the participants in pursuing careers in secondary education.

To assess the practicality of the fellowship, the third phase of the project would be an evaluation of a demonstration program. The NRC committee suggests four years with about 15 fellows each year to test the fellowship's feasibility. It also adds that a comprehensive assessment of the success rate of the fellows in teaching K-12 science and math will require a program of at least 30 fellows each year for a decade.

Lisa M. Pinsker

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Ridky has directed national curriculum and teacher development programs and is a long-time contributor to the American Geological Institute’s education initiatives. He was recently appointed Educational Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.

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