How a Penn State partnership reshaped science education

Earth and Space Science Partnership
Credit: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Seven years ago, Katie Bateman, then a middle school science teacher in the Philadelphia area, started benefiting from the Earth and Space Science Partnership (ESSP), a program funded by the National Science Foundation designed to help Pennsylvania science teachers build upon their understanding and teaching of big ideas in Earth and space science. Since then, she joined Penn State and has been part of the more than $9 million initiative aimed at reshaping the teaching and learning of Earth and space science in Pennsylvania.

For years, Bateman sought professional development opportunities to improve her teaching before enrolling in a series of summer workshops at Penn State, which were part of ESSP, an interdisciplinary and multi-campus project spearheaded by Tanya Furman, professor of geosciences and former associate vice president and associate dean for undergraduate education. The ESSP Leadership Team included faculty members Scott McDonald (College of Education), Chris Palma (Eberly College of Science), Laura Guertin (Brandywine), project manager Sue Lauver, web developer Eric Aitala, and middle-school teacher Theresa Lewis-King (School District of Philadelphia).

“The workshops were absolutely life-changing. What separated them from the others was that they focused on both pedagogy and content,” Bateman said. “They weren’t just working on giving us information. They also focused on how we could engage students in the practices of science.”

Through the workshops, Bateman was able to make connections with faculty from the colleges of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Education and Science. After becoming frustrated with issues surrounding state testing and a lack of available resources, she used those ties to continue her education and take part in a broader quest for change.

“I really respected the way those workshops were implemented and the faculty I had worked with and the way that they were thinking about teaching, teacher education and student learning,” said Bateman, now a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction (science education) at Penn State. “That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something bigger than sit in my classroom pounding my fists on the desk and saying ‘this isn't OK.’ I wanted to be able to look at how we can change education on a bigger level.”

Rethinking the approach

The professional development workshops were one of four components of ESSP. The other areas included creating a statewide organization to continue the legacy of the project, researching how students understand Earth and space science concepts in an effort to promote more effective teaching and learning, and, finally, catalyzing change in introductory science courses at Penn State.

“Our stated mission was to improve the teaching, learning and status of Earth and space science in the middle grades with an ideal spillover toward college,” Furman said. “We’ve worked with more than 120 teachers who wanted to increase not just their content knowledge but their skills around helping others gain that content knowledge.”

Furman said the workshops had a huge impact because they gave teachers the scientific knowledge to teach the subjects while offering creative ways for educators to approach them. Additionally, teachers met peers from schools in underserved urban and rural Pennsylvania districts with whom they could discuss instructional strategies. An external evaluation team from WestEd also found that teachers who participated in the program went on to guide and support colleagues when they returned to their districts.

When students fail to grasp key concepts in middle school, Furman said, they’re unable to move on to more advanced concepts in high school and college. Without the fundamentals, she said, it’s like trying to put a complicated item together without instructions.

“The real change is in the teachers,” Furman said. “Our external evaluators from WestEd uncovered that there really has been a cultural change in how Earth science in particular is being taught at the schools where we had teacher participants. And that’s an important legacy.”

That’s key, she said, because more than 120 teachers took these workshops and will go on to teach, on average, about 25 students per class, six classes per day, and many will do so for decades. For educators, it’s analogous to teaching someone to fish, instead of giving them one.

Many of the schools were in majority minority districts where few of the students were proficient in science, according to statewide test scores. Helping students from a variety of backgrounds was a goal of the project, said Sue Lauver, academic support coordinator at Penn State.

“All students should have an opportunity to learn about the world around them,” Lauver said. “Students from these districts have a little better understanding about climate or about the solar system and its formation, which is a victory for us because they go on to make an informed decision about something else. These aren’t just science skills. They’re life skills.”

Chris Palma, senior lecturer in the Eberly College of Science, said the partnership paired expertise from several different areas to address education.

“Prior to ESSP, I only had a modest amount of background in modern science pedagogy,” Palma said. “By partnering with our colleagues in education, we worked hard to infuse the ideas of coherent science content storylines and claims-evidence-reasoning into the curriculum of the workshops. Thus, the teachers were both exposed to content in astronomy and the geosciences and modern methods for teaching the content through structured investigations.”

Assessing education

About 600 students from school districts in Centre County, Philadelphia, Reading and York were interviewed by ESSP-supported graduate students to assess levels of understanding on key concepts related to Earth and space sciences. The goal was to identify students’ levels of knowledge, and also how their understandings of key concepts developed during the learning process.

By analyzing these interviews, Penn State researchers were able to take two key concepts, the theory of plate tectonics and the formation of the solar system, and give teachers a clearer view of how students develop an understanding of these concepts, and the small concepts that are a part of the bigger picture as well.

Researchers are sharing this analysis with teachers and educational researchers to help them better approach educating students around these concepts by adapting stronger content storylines and using new inquiry-based instructional activities that teach the material in a way that makes sense to the students.

Scott McDonald, associate professor of curriculum and instruction (science education), co-PI on ESSP and director of the Krause Innovation Studio, said his involvement in the project focused on working closely with K-12 educators because, as a former high school physics teacher, he knew there were opportunities to support changing science teachers’ vision.

It’s a catch 22, McDonald said.

“When you’re trying to get people to understand a new way of teaching one of the challenges is that they can’t imagine something they have not seen or experienced,” he said.

He also said in particular that Earth science has suffered because it’s not a core tested subject for high school students. He said the grand challenges facing society, such as climate change and energy resources, rely on an understanding of Earth sciences.

McDonald worked on many facets of the program, from leading the design and implementation of the teacher workshops, to overseeing the research around student learning, to continuing to mentor teachers who had completed the workshops.

“I’m involved in this project because I see a way that teaching can be better and this is putting into action something that I care deeply about,” McDonald said. “I get excited whenever I see amazing science teaching and it’s what I want to see more of.”

Starting at the top

Furman said this project helped the investigator team to illuminate many grassroots efforts to reshape the way gatekeeper courses are taught at the college level. Through the grant, the project was able to leverage funding and expertise into these efforts, and also connected math and science faculty members with colleagues in the College of Education to rethink how these courses are taught.

Linking professors with education experts led to development and dissemination of redesigned courses that better engaged students and improved their understanding of core concepts.

Community of educators

Another legacy of the grant, the Pennsylvania Earth Science Teachers Association (PAESTA), connects like-minded teachers together, expanding on the bonds formed during the workshops. Teachers can continue to inform one another and share education strategies through the association’s newsletter, professional development events and curricular resources aligned with state standards.

The group, which comprises more than 800 members, is also a clearinghouse for information related to science education, as well as a bulletin board for education-improvement events.

“Middle-school teachers are critical in not only teaching students Earth science, but also helping students see the importance of the discipline, why Earth science matters in their lives now and in the future, and that Earth science is an exciting career field to enter,” said Laura Guertin, professor of Earth sciences at Penn State Brandywine. “As a result of this partnership, teachers are more confident with their own Earth science content knowledge, know where to seek out reliable sources of science updates and quality pedagogical materials, and encourage students to pursue career opportunities in Earth and space sciences.”

Legacy of the program

Furman said watching approaches to education change across all levels was one of the most exciting aspects of the effort. It cements a legacy for a program that officially ends this year.

A program set to rethink education, said Furman, has her peers improving, too.

“We learned how to be administrators, leaders and a team, and we’ve been able to apply what we’ve learned into our other projects,” Furman said. “We’ve learned a lot.”

Lauver said the network of teachers formed through PAESTA and the shift in learning approaches will continue to improve education.

“We really have done tremendous things together. I’m also incredibly proud of the teachers in our project who have chosen to become leaders in their districts and take on new responsibilities while advocating for change,” Lauver said. “Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say ‘yes you can do this’ as long as they know you’re behind them and if they start to falter you’ll be there. We’ve worked with some genuinely fantastic teachers who have really done amazing things for their students.”