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Earth System Science Education Alliance
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The K-4 ESSEA course is designed to engage teachers in inquiry for the dual purposes of having them learn Earth systems science and as a model for how to engage their students with Earth systems science. Each week's activities are designed to use the strengths of K-4 teachers, while extending their skill and knowledge to new areas. K-4 students need short, focused activities to engage their attention (AAAS, 1993). These activities need to reveal student thinking so as to give the teacher the opportunity to coach students and plan additional activities to evolve their understanding. Although the Earth systems science topics considered in each cycle are different (Land, Living Things, Water, and Air), the framework for every learning cycle is the same.

In 2007, the K-4 courses were significantly upgraded to reflect the International Polar Year.  This observance celebrates the richness and environmental diversity occasioned by the Polar Regions.  It also brings to tour attention changes apparently brought about by significant polar climate change.

Design - Week 1

The goal of the first week of each cycle is to give teachers a new perspective on their students as they are engaged in activities. What are their theories or beliefs? What satisfies them, or qualifies as true? By shifting the teachers' focus to understanding student thinking, they can be the "thinking coach" while the students inquire into content. The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) suggests a substantive change in how science is taught. Much current professional development emphasizes traditional lectures with the usual focus on technical training about teaching. Instead, suggests the NSES, "…professional development must include experiences that engage prospective and practicing teachers in active learning that builds their knowledge, understanding, and ability" (p. 56). Teachers must experience science and the way it is learned in accordance with the standards if teachers expect to use them with students. 

Design - Week 2

The goal of the second week of each cycle is to have teachers experience inquiry with coaching. They are guided by their own questions as well as some essential questions provided to them. Examples of essential questions are: How do rocks change? Where does soil come from? How does soil help plants grow? What happens to plants when they die? How do Earthworms affect the soil?  Teachers are asked to state what they know, what they believe, and what their own private beliefs are. They then use print and Internet resources to research the answers to the questions, alone and then in teams, to build their own Earth systems science content understandings.

Design - Week 3

The third week of each cycle has teachers apply what they have learned to their classrooms through designing lessons that incorporate the content and methodology they have learned in the first two weeks. They reflect, create, give each other feedback and present their lessons for evaluation with a rubric that was applied in the first week of the cycle.  To prepare teachers to function in an inquiry environment, the NSES standards state that college faculty must develop courses based on investigations.

View this course from a learner's perspective


This 16-week course was created to provide professional development in Earth system science for middle school teachers.  The course addressed the US National Research Council's standards for including inquiry-based approaches in science through explicitly modeling a collaborative, student-centered environment in which teachers relied on each other for input, knowledge-building and feedback.

The course addresses teachers' knowledge about Earth systems science and resources and their use of constructivist teaching practices, particularly collaboration, rubrics and the use of journals.  Teachers work in groups to develop knowledge of individual spheres and create Earth system diagrams as teams.  They create Earth system science lessons and local event analyses.  Teachers are administered an exploratory pre course survey to guide ongoing development and formative assessment, as well as a post-course content assessment to capture knowledge gains.

Topics such as ozone depletion, hurricanes and global climate change immerse teachers in problems on a global scale.   The implications for course methodology are to:

  • Define the team task.
  • Provide a model of an Earth system science analysis of an event.
  • Plan repeated experiences for teams to do Earth system science analyses.
  • Plan to provide feedback on analyses.
  • Develop guidelines for evaluating Earth system science diagrams (rubrics).

The complex task is provided by the very nature of the Earth system science content. By viewing Earth as a system, in which the land, water, air and living things are interdependent and co-evolving, students learn each of the areas in the context of the others, as well as applied to familiar settings and events.  Event teams are asked to create an Earth system diagram supported by a description for each of four events.


Like the middle school course, the high school course deepens teachers’ content knowledge.  It also prepares them by giving them a new tool to use in the classroom.  Sometimes one hears that elementary and middle school teachers teach students; high school teachers teach content.  Like the other two courses, the high school course features inquiry-based learning methodology that takes teachers out of the role of “middle man” (i.e., the deliverer of content) and creates a climate for a student-centered classroom.

Inquiry lessons start by introducing students to a problem through a story or scenario.    Here is an example of a scenario that could be presented to students in an Earth science or ecology course:

Scientists are concerned about the increase in atmospheric gases over the past 100 years.  They suspect that the cutting of vegetation in the tropical Amazon has had a significant impact on the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Your group has been asked to look into this situation to determine the impact of deforestation.  Needed is evidence as to whether deforestation is in fact taking place and if so, whether the deforestation contributes directly to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

While the scenarios in the high school course are more detailed or complex, the foregoing scenario provide a simplified look at what drives learning in the high school ESSEA courses.

Participants collaborate in learning teams of four-six teachers and cycle through four three-week units, each unit providing an environmental context for developing deep understanding of the biogeochemical linkages between each of the Earth system spheres. Each unit culminates in designing a related lesson plan for participants to use in their own classrooms.

As in the middle school course, the high school course was designed to support creation of Earth system knowledge through reflection, analysis and self-discovery, familiarize participants with systems analysis and provide a suite of techniques that can be employed to facilitate student analysis of simple systems in a classroom context, and engage teacher participants as learners in inquiry-guided instruction and problem-based learning. The last outcome is one of the most significant contributions of the ESSEA course, because teachers are now being asked to teach science in ways very different from those they typically encountered in their own science education. Experiencing the effectiveness of the inquiry approach in a teacher’s own learning has been demonstrated to be a powerful motivator to emphasize inquiry in their own classrooms.

Through the cyclic and iterative design of the curriculum, participants have the opportunity to develop and internalize a step-wise approach to systems analysis that can be generalized to a variety of contexts. Typical contexts are the Coral Reefs (oceanic), Tropical Forests (terrestrial), or Ozone (atmospheric).  

The pedagogic approach thus engages teachers in a strategy that could also be employed in their own classroom to scaffold their students in the development of systems thinking skills.

View this course from a learner's perspective

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