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An Immersion Professional Development Program in Environmental Science for Inservice Elementary School Teachers

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Poor performance by elementary school students on science assessment tests is due in part to inadequate science education for teachers. Environmental Science for Elementary School Teachers (ESEST) is a 14-year collaboration between university faculty in geology and biology and public school teachers in Ohio. The primary goal or this immersion, field-based program is to increase K-6 teacher knowledge of basic principles of environmental science. Participants and instructors take daily trips to field locations; hands-on activities are used to illustrate concepts such as geologic time and use of biotic indices to assess stream quality. Qualitative and quantitative assessments indicate a two-fold increase in content knowledge and an improvement in teaching skills by our participants. Further, participants return to their classrooms with the confidence to teach state academic content standards and an increased sense of independence. We argue that partnerships between K-12 and post-secondary institutions are critical to effective teacher education: most school systems do not have the infrastructure or funding to deliver a program of this nature on their own. ESEST meets multiple criteria for professional development for teachers. Our experience indicates that the program is successful because participants are immersed in a physically and mentally challenging, collaborative, outdoor learning environment.

INTRODUCTION

Only one third of 4th grade students in the United States performed at a level of 'proficient1 or above on recent science assessment tests (Grigg et al., 2006). In part, poor performance by students is related to inadequate science preparation for teachers. Teachers with strong subject-matter proficiency tend to have positive impacts on their students' achievement test scores and attitudes toward science and mathematics (Darling-Hammond, 1999; Kahle et al., 2000; Feller 2001; Wayne and Youngs, 2003; Borman and Kimball, 2005). Despite the documented relationship between teacher quality and student achievement, subject-area education degrees tend to emphasize courses in education to the detriment of content courses in the subject itself (Ingersoll, 2003; Desimone et al., 2003; Stamp and O'Brien, 2005). In a survey by Horizon Research (2002), only 25% of teachers responding received more than 15 hours of science-related instruction in the three years before the survey. In summary, there is a clear need to address the problem of insufficient subject-matter knowledge in the existing educator workforce.

For the past 14 years, we have attempted to meet this need by offering a professional development program entitled Environmental Science for Elementary School Teachers (ESEST). Our program's goal is to provide K-6 educators with the content knowledge and preparation to teach their students with an inquiry-based approach. Environmental science - the core of ESEST - is less abstract and more tangible than other sciences and lends itself to a "hands-oir approach that keeps children interested and stimulated (Sussman, 1993; NSRC, 1997; Riggs, 2004). In this article, we describe our long-running program and highlight particularly successfuielements of the course.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION

The first part of ESEST is a two-week, four graduate-credit summer session held at Miami University's Geology Field Station near Dubois, Wyoming. A professional geologist, a professional zoologist, a master botanist, and eight public school Master Teachers provide instruction to 85 participants (divided between two 14-day sessions) on two interdisciplinary and interrelated topics. The first topic, Geological Evolution, focuses on earth science and on interpreting the landscape by understanding the rock cycle and other geological phenomena (Table 1). The second interdisciplinary topic, Biological Communities, concentrates on understanding biological communities and succession using the principles of plant and animal diversity and adaptation to the environment (Table 1). …