Educational researchers target earth and space sciences

October 27, 2010

Climate change, energy, natural resources and the health of planet Earth are major modern day concerns; but Americans' grasp of Earth and space sciences is, according to scientists and educators at Penn State, not strong.

"We are not teaching Earth and space science well nationally," said Tanya Furman, assistant vice president and associate dean for undergraduate education and professor of geosciences. "That is particularly critical considering the worldwide concern about energy, the environment and natural resources."

A new five-year program, funded by a National Science Foundation Targeted Math Science Partnership grant of $9.2 million, including $5.4 million for the first three years, focuses on two aspects of the problem. First, Penn State researchers will investigate young people's understanding of fundamental scientific concepts and map patterns of changes in the students understanding as they grow from fourth grade to college. Second, the team will work to improve the teaching of the Earth and space sciences in middle grades and beyond.

The partnership builds on a three-year project, also funded by NSF, previously carried out by Furman and Laura Guertin, associate professor of earth sciences, Penn State Brandywine. Christopher Palma, senior lecturer, will help the group capitalize on more than 15 years of work by the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics working with middle and high school teachers to improve their teaching of key astronomy content areas for middle grades that are found in Pennsylvania's Academic Standards for Science and Technology.

"The grant represents a partnership among faculty at three University Park colleges and two campuses at Penn State and 12 school districts within Pennsylvania," said Furman.

In Pennsylvania, high schools no longer require Earth and space science, although Pennsylvania student enrollment in Earth and space science is higher than in most states. Fewer than 25 percent of those teaching Earth and space sciences are certified in the subject.

"We have worked with many teachers who do not have content preparation in science who were suddenly asked to teach eighth grade Earth science," said Furman. "Earth and space science has a rich vocabulary, so often teachers fall back to teaching the words, but not necessarily the concepts."

The partnership aims to find out how students can be taught to conceptualize time and space in age appropriate ways. Included is research about the types of assignments that can be used to examine students' understanding of the concepts.

"Conceptualizing large numbers like 4.5 billion is difficult," said Furman. "How old are students when they begin to conceptualize very big and very small numbers?"

Scott McDonald, associate professor of education, Penn State University Park, and Jason Petula, assistant professor of education, Penn State Harrisburg, will develop and study professional development approaches for Earth and space science teachers that focuses on videotaping master teachers to create a video library of best practices in teaching. They will also develop new assessments of students' understanding of key concepts.

In addition, the project team will revise the undergraduate preparation of Earth and space science teachers to increase the rigor of required course work and to provide more focused pre-professional teaching experiences within urban partner districts. The goal of these placements is to increase the likelihood that preservice teachers will seek employment in urban settings. As part of the research team, Theresa Lewis-King from the Rudolf Blankenburg Elementary School in Philadelphia will help recruit cohorts of Earth and space science teachers and work with them to improve both content knowledge and inquiry-based teaching practices.

The project will employ two postdoctoral fellows, four graduate students and will help support Earth and space science teachers' participation in the professional development components. Included in the project design are workshops for 80 teachers a year including expenses paid and a stipend.

The project will also partner with Upward Bound Math Science, Summer Experience in Earth and Mineral Sciences and Summer Experience in the Eberly College of Science, which provide team-based research projects for high school students. The researchers hope to be able to send teachers to professional meetings in the Earth sciences and education.

Penn State

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