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Jackson School faculty work with Texas high schools to train teachers

The state of Texas is in the midst of a major overhaul of high school science education. To graduate on the preferred or distinguished track, students will soon be required to complete four years of science.

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The state of Texas is in the midst of a major overhaul of high school science education. To graduate on the preferred or distinguished track, students will soon be required to complete four years of science. When the new guidelines were approved in 2006, only two other states, Alabama and Idaho, required four years.

Texas will also bring back earth science (after cutting it in the 1990s) as one of several options to fulfill the required fourth year. The new course, Earth and Space Science (ESS) will be taught as a “capstone course,” integrating material from a range of disciplines to help students make connections across subjects.

The changes could help catapult Texas to the vanguard of science education in the nation. But with the first high school seniors starting their required fourth year of science in less than two years, from where are the teachers for ESS going to come?

The state of Texas already struggles with a chronic shortage of science teachers. In 2008/09, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) designated science as one of six “subject-matter teacher shortage areas,” making teachers who are willing to teach science eligible for special benefits. Another indicator is the proportion of teachers who are not certified in the subjects they teach. According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, in 2006, 24 percent of high school chemistry classes in Texas were taught by non-certified teachers. The proportion is higher for other sciences (28 percent for biology and 46 percent for physics).

Scientists and education experts at The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences were instrumental in convincing the state to change the science requirements and options. Now they’re working to boost the state’s capacity to teach the new course through the TeXas Earth and Space Science Revolution (TXESS Revolution), a five-year, $2.38 million initiative to train eighth through 12th grade teachers in earth science.

“Teacher preparation for the new capstone course is essential to help ensure that the course remains a viable option for core credit to satisfy the fourth year of science in Texas,” said Kathy Ellins, TXESS Revolution lead principal investigator.

Talking About a Revolution

During the five-year program, two cohorts of about 70 teachers each attend a series of professional development academies (PDAs) and two-week summer institutes. In the training that began last year, they learn innovative techniques such as inquiry-based learning and develop classroom activities based on real data and research stories from scientists.

Like ripples in a pond, they then train colleagues in their own regions. Those teachers in turn use the unique teaching methods and activities with their own students. Through this multiplier effect, the 140 participants will eventually affect hundreds of other educators and thousands of students.

Researchers from the Jackson School share their research stories and data with the teachers who then use that information to step into the scientists’ shoes and try to solve a problem.

“It’s not too often that teachers can get real data and talk with people who collected it,” said Hilary Olson, Institute for Geophysics researcher and co-principal investigator for the program. “They go from not knowing about a topic to several hours later, they feel pretty confident with their answers.”

The TXESS Revolution project is designed to inspire teachers so that they can in turn inspire their students.

“Research shows that unless kids are exposed to a career, they will never think of going into it,” said Karen Ostlund, chair of the TXESS Revolution Advisory Board. “Perhaps some kids have never thought of being a scientist, but this would show them this could be an exciting life.”

In other words, the program isn’t just about filling a need for outstanding science teachers in the next two or three years, it’s about stoking the cycle of excitement around science and science teaching as vocations.

“If we don’t have the teachers who are energetic and who love the content and are exemplary, then the kids aren’t going to be interested enough to go to college to study science and become a science teacher,” said Ostlund. “It’s a cycle. At some point, you have to get someone that turns you on to science. That’s obviously what teachers who go through TXESS Revolution are meant to do.”

Another thing that sets TXESS Revolution apart from other teacher training programs is its emphasis on inquiry-based learning in which students generate their own questions, make a prediction or form a hypothesis they can test, set up an investigation and create a process they can follow to answer the questions. They collect data, look for patterns and draw conclusions. According to Ostlund, the inquiry-based approach leads to deeper learning.

“Good inquiry leads to two questions where there was only one,” she said. “In the process, you learn thinking skills that you use to ask and answer questions. Teachers have to challenge the students with questions that cause them to connect the dots and find out what is going on.”

Cupcakes for Science

The professional development academies (PDAs) last two-and-a-half days and include training with geoscience data, field trips, guest lectures and other special programs. Each cohort of teachers participates in four PDAs. The first one, “Poking Holes Into the Planet,” held in February 2008 focused on how geologic cores and geophysical logging can help scientists better understand Earth processes and improve the search for resources.

One of Meredith Keelan’s favorite exercises involved taking an earth science activity and modifying it for different grade levels. Keelan, a high school science teacher from Van Vleck, Texas, chose the drill core activity in which teachers examined clear plastic tubes filled with sand, gravel and other materials. These tubes simulate the core samples drilled out by geologists searching for oil and gas or trying to understand events in the geologic past such as flooding, volcanism and climate change.

Reading cores is an important, yet difficult skill for geologists. But how can a teacher convey a sense of this complicated process in the classroom without the real cores that scientists use, and make it interesting for students from fifth through 12th grade?

“I wrote an activity using cupcakes,” said Keelan. “I baked them with different layers of white and chocolate cake and layers with or without chocolate chips or nuts. The students stick hollow glass rods into the cupcakes and pull out cores. Then they can measure the thicknesses and types of layers.”

She planned to use the activity in the coming year in her high school classes. Her elementary school colleagues planned to use it, too.

When she presented it to her fellow teachers in the second TXESS Revolution professional development academy, most liked it. But being teachers, they couldn’t resist grading it. During her demonstration, the rubber cork on the end of her glass rod popped off and the “core” began to ooze out. The teachers suggested not using the cork because it allowed pressure to build up in the rod. When one of the geologists leading the trainings commented that that sometimes happens at real drill sites with real cores, she felt vindicated.

“Teachers are hard to teach,” she said. “They are a tough audience.”

The program received $1.48 million from the National Science Foundation’s Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program with matching grants from two divisions within the university: the Jackson School and the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching within the College of Education.

In addition to the Jackson School and the College of Education, major partners include The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, TERC and the University of South Florida.