Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Laboratory Earth: A Model of Online K-12 Teacher Coursework

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Laboratory Earth: A Model of Online K-12 Teacher Coursework

Article excerpt


Laboratory Earth, a series of three NASA-Sponsored, on-line graduate courses for K-8 teachers, was designed to meet a variety of learning styles and appeal to teachers' motivation to learn the content and improve their teaching. This is especially important to teachers as they seek to demonstrate "highly qualified" status to meet No Child Left Behind standards. These graduate-level courses consist of four modules of two to four lessons each. Pre- and post-course surveys indicated significant increases in teachers' (n=51) content knowledge, science teaching efficacy beliefs (STEBIA), sense of community within the course (LEO) and science teaching enjoyment (STES). Qualitative data indicated teachers valued the cohort system, content aligned to teaching needs, and the instructor's response to requested feedback. Results indicated that online courses can provide valuable professional development opportunities for K-12 science teachers to deepen their knowledge, sharpen their skills, and maintain their knowledge of science developments. Because teachers play an important role in the development of their student's attitudes towards science, it is extremely important that science and education communities collaborate to create courses that use contemporary pedagogy to address the content-knowledge needs of teachers required by National Science Standards criteria.


Through the Nebraska Earth Systems Education Network (Gosselin and others, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2002), we have worked to design professional development opportunities for pre- and in-service K-12 educators related to Earth system science that are learner-, knowledge-, assessment-, and community-centered as advocated by Bransford et al. (2000). Over the past few years, we have transitioned much of our professional development activities from traditional, face-to-face environments to the on-line environment. A recent report on online learning (DOE, 2009) indicates that the on-line environment is an effective educational option across different content and learner types for both undergraduate and graduate students as well as professionals in a wide range of academic and professional disciplines.

Not only are online courses effective, they are an attractive professional development option for educators, who are place-based or have travel and time limitations. These limitations are especially prevalent in much of the Great Plains region and the western United States where many rural teachers live as far as 200 miles from an institution of higher education. In an open-ended response survey item, 211 respondents (29%) spontaneously described that they desired online professional development. As this was unprompted specifically by the survey, the authors argued that the actual fraction of teachers who might take advantage of online professional development is likely much higher (Slater and others, 2009). To meet these needs, we initiated the Laboratory Earth on-line, distance-delivered professional development series to improve K-12 educator's knowledge, understanding of content connections, and ability to teach science in the context of the Earth as a system.

One of the major goals of Laboratory Earth is to help improve teacher's content knowledge through the use of effective science teaching methods, which Cox and Carpenter (1991) aggressively argued is required to improve science teachers' skills. The purpose of this paper is two-fold. First, we present the course design and assessment approach used for the courses in the Laboratory Earth series as a potential model for other instructors. Second, we specifically focus on data collected to address the following questions from one of the Laboratory Earth courses, Earth's Natural Resource Systems (or Lab Earth 2) as measures of successful online K-12 teacher professional development:

1. Does the Lab Earth approach achieve the cognitive goal of increasing teachers' knowledge and understanding of Earth science content? …

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