A Story of Changing Instructional Practice by a Research Scientist Learning How to Turn Future Earth Science Teachers into Masters of Content in a Clinical Preparation Pilot Program

By Zirakparvar, N. Alex | Journal of Geoscience Education, August 2014 | Go to article overview

A Story of Changing Instructional Practice by a Research Scientist Learning How to Turn Future Earth Science Teachers into Masters of Content in a Clinical Preparation Pilot Program


Zirakparvar, N. Alex, Journal of Geoscience Education


COMMENTARY

A 2010 report commissioned by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) calls for "the education of teachers in the United States to be turned upside down," with a systematic move towards teacher preparation programs "fully grounded in clinical practice" and focused on preparing teachers certified in subjects where there is a critical shortage (NCATE, 2010, p. ii). This is pertinent to developing the geoscience workforce of the 21st century because in the U.S., by year 2020 relative to year 2009, there may be as much as a 28% increase in the number of certain Earth Science jobs with an annual salary at or above $75,000 (USDL, 2012). However, some school districts lack qualified Earth Science teachers (e.g., NYSED, 2008) and are populated by a majority of students who lack basic science proficiency (e.g., Livingston and Wirt, 2005). Compounding the problem, these high-paying Earth Science jobs will require advance degrees, but nationally from 1980 to 2009, the percent of MS and PhD degrees awarded per year in the physical sciences (of which geoscience is a subset), compared to the total number of these degrees awarded in all disciplines, has decreased from 2.48% to 1.47% (SAUS, 2012). Specific to university geoscience graduation rates, it is even more troubling that the ~5,000 undergraduate and ~2,500 graduate geoscience diplomas awarded in the year 2009 actually represent an overall decline relative to the number of degrees awarded annually in other STEM disciplines (e.g., Gonzales and Keane, 2010). Putting more qualified geoscience teachers into the public school system will hopefully result in more high school graduates entering college with an interest in geoscientific study. However, if these "new recruits" then encounter university instructors who are using teaching methods that have been repeatedly proven ineffective at fueling interest and success in a subject (e.g., Mervis, 2013), there will likely be high attrition rates within this group of potential college geoscience degree recipients, and university-level geoscience achievement will continue its downward trajectory (Gonzales and Keane, 2010).

Research shows that, similar to students in grades 7-12 (e.g., NSB, 2007, 2010), students in university-level courses respond positively to improved teaching (e.g., Terenzini and Pascarella, 1994). At many American universities, large numbers of lower-level science courses (including introductory geoscience) are taught by graduate assistants, postdoctoral researchers, and other contingent nontenured faculty (Diamond and Gray, 1987; Stokely, 1987; Sykes, 1988; Boyer, 1991a, b). These instructors typically lack formal training, and sometimes interest, in how to be effective and engaging science teachers (e.g., Ethington and Pisani, 1993; Shannon et al., 1998; Volkmann and Zgagacz, 2004; Muzaka, 2009; Dillow and Snyder, 2012). There is also evidence suggesting that physical science graduate assistants, postdoctoral researchers, and early faculty (e.g., Markley et al., 2009) do not have any tangible incentive in side-tracking their own research and educational goals to pursue formal education training (e.g., Guskin, 1994; Shannon et al., 1996; Terenzini and Pascarella, 1994). This is probably because their success is primarily measured according to whether or not they publish scientific research and attain their MS and PhD degrees.

Assuming that low quality instruction contributes to the >50% attrition rate for incoming STEM college degree aspirants (e.g. Hurtado and Chang, 2010), a key question becomes; Is it possible to systematically improve the quality of teaching taking place in introductory-level university geoscience courses without compromising the primary measure of success for those doing the teaching?

Many universities already have graduate assistant training programs (Park, 2004), but the majority last less than 1 week and focus more on university policy than effective pedagogy (e. …

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