Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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U.Va., JMU Professors Receive Grant for Earth Science Teacher Education

Professors at the University of Virginia and James Madison University will teach earth science courses to more than 100 middle and high school teachers in Virginia over the next 18 months. 

The teachers will receive Virginia earth science endorsements upon completing four courses in oceanography, astronomy, meteorology and Virginia geology. They will also earn three graduate credit hours per course.

U.Va. and JMU professors formed the Blue Ridge Earth Science Collaborative and received a $211,210 grant from the federal Improving Teacher Quality State Grants (Title II, Part A) Professional Development Program, administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Additional support comes from U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences, the Curry School of Education, the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, the Center for the Liberal Arts and the Friends of the Leander McCormick Observatory.

The idea for the project started with Ed Murphy, a professor of astronomy in the College, who recognized the need for professional development for earth science teachers. He served as co-principal investigator of the grant, along with Curry School assistant professor Jennifer Maeng and JMU geology professor Eric Pyle. 

“A large percentage of [high school] students take earth science courses, and they need a certified teacher,” Pyle said. “But earth science is not the area where most teachers have expertise. It’s hard because you have all these elements: astronomy and oceanography, geology, meteorology.”

As a result, Virginia has a shortage of well-qualified Earth science teachers. “There are many teachers that would like to be updated, but those opportunities aren’t as available,” Pyle said.

With help from the Center for the Liberal Arts at U.Va., the Virginia School-University Partnership at U.Va. and the Southwest Virginia Public Education Consortium, Murphy and his team have partnered with 46 school divisions, including 19 high-needs school systems, to give teachers access to earth science certification at a significantly reduced cost.

“The grant funding allows us to purchase materials for the teachers, provide food and housing during the course, and provide the course at a nominal cost to the teacher,” Murphy said.

When the first course was announced in early June, the 27 available spots filled quickly. Teachers from Bristol to Fairfax are enrolled, with many from Southwest Virginia and the Charlottesville area.

U.Va. environmental sciences professor Steve Macko and Kristen St. John, professor of geology at JMU, are teaching the nine-day oceanography course, which started this week. The class, taught at U.Va., mixes instructional lecture-based learning with interactive projects.

“The goal is to help teachers who aren’t experts in an area they’re going to have to teach or are already teaching,” St. John said. “We do lots of small-group work and hands-on activities, and then pull it all together in lecture in the afternoon.”

One such activity includes having teachers take local water samples and measure their nutrient levels and oxygen content – an exercise they can take back to the classrooms in the fall.

“We’ve had a number of teachers ask great questions on how to accommodate these projects to serve different kinds of student needs,” St. John said.

Near the end of the session, the class will take a weekend field trip to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall, where they will learn how museum specimens are preserved and prepared for display.

The class will also visit the National Zoo, where guides will give them a behind-the-scenes look at caring for aquatic invertebrates.

Three other science courses will be offered over the next year. Murphy will teach an astronomy course next summer at U.Va. Maeng will teach lessons about scientific inquiry and the nature of science at the U.Va.-based courses.

JMU’s Pyle will teach meteorology and Virginia geology courses next summer, with help from JMU geology professor Lynn S. Fichter.

For information on the Blue Ridge Earth Science Collaborative and how to enroll in future courses, click here.

by Lauren Jones

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