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Survey says...

Precollege education activities in the community: Good signs, and room for improvement

The results are in from a comprehensive survey on educational outreach in the atmospheric and oceanic science communities. The survey was conducted by a subcommittee of the UCAR Academic Affiliates chaired by David Smith of the U.S. Naval Academy. At the annual meeting of UCAR members' representatives last month in Boulder, Colorado, Smith reviewed the results, noting some encouraging news as well as possible areas for improvement in meteorological and oceanographic education.

The survey was designed to assess the involvement of the atmospheric and oceanic science communities in precollege educational and outreach activities and to determine the extent of university offerings of introductory courses for future science teachers. Surveys were sent to 102 institutions; responses were received from 71, including 38 UCAR members, 16 UCAR affiliates, and 17 other institutions. These respondents represent, Smith says, an excellent cross-section of the atmospheric and oceanic programs in the country, including those that offer both undergraduate and graduate courses. The survey did uncover a variety of activities, and also pointed out some potentially fruitful opportunities for the community to exploit more fully.

Although there are national networks of precollege teachers who serve as resource agents for the atmospheric and oceanic sciences and most respondents are familiar with the programs, less than a third of the universities interact with these teachers. This is unfortunate, Smith says, because these teachers could serve as a conduit to reach other precollege teachers.

Currently, most institutions are not actively involved in in-service training sessions or summer workshops for teachers, where they could reach large numbers of teachers with minimal commitment of resources. Only about a third of the responding institutions conduct in-service training sessions at local schools; about an equal number conduct summer workshops for teachers, with funding often coming from federal (NSF) or state (Department of Education) sources. Generally, credit for such programs is offered either as graduate college credit (by 84% of respondents) or continuing education units.

University faculty continue to be significantly involved in judging science fairs (85%), giving guest lectures at schools (92%), and providing student field trips to their institutions' weather stations (82%). These activities are very commendable, says Smith. However, he adds that far greater return for the time invested can be achieved by providing instruction for teachers, who can then pass on their knowledge to students: "If you really want to improve things, work with the teachers and let the teachers work with the students." On the other hand, some faculty at responding institutions are actively involved in curriculum development, and many programs offer access to weather data (by computer or hard copy)--"excellent ways to enhance instruction."

Few institutions (only 21%) offer enrichment courses for promising elementary or high school students. Smith believes this represents a missed opportunity to reach students who might have an interest in science or might aspire to careers in meteorology or oceanography.

Both meteorology and oceanography courses are offered as electives or to satisfy science electives for nonscience majors at a high percentage of respondent institutions--81% for meteorology, 40% for oceanography. Meteorology courses are more likely to have a laboratory component than are oceanography courses (two-thirds vs. one-third). Meteorology courses also tend to have higher enrollments. In fact, says Smith, "I was surprised at the number of institutions reaching over 100 students a year. That's the good news. The bad news is, few of these students taking meteorology and oceanography courses are majoring in education." Fewer than 21% of the students in the meteorology service courses and 10% of the students in oceanography courses are preparing for precollege teaching careers. Looked at another way, the percentage of education majors enrolled in these courses is relatively low, largely because few education programs require courses in meteorology or oceanography, even for majors in science education (15% for meteorology, and only 5% for oceanography). "This is most unfortunate, considering that weather and ocean topics are included in science curricula at all levels, yet may be taught by teachers without a background in meteorology or oceanography," says Smith. "Encouraging education majors, especially science education majors, to take such courses would not only increase student enrollments, but would provide much-needed environmental education for prospective teachers."

Often education majors take courses in science methods rather than science content, which means, says Smith, "they're learning great ways to teach science, but may not know any science to teach." One encouraging statistic, Smith adds, is that most institutions are relying on science departments to provide science courses for science education majors (30% taught exclusively by science departments and nearly 40% in concert with education departments). "This suggests that courses taught to science education majors are of high scientific integrity." Smith urges greater interaction between science and education faculty to encourage greater inclusion of atmospheric and oceanic science in science education programs.

"The results of this survey suggest that our community is certainly involved in promoting educational outreach at the precollege level and general education at the university level," Smith concludes. "Further, considering the evolution of programs such as the American Meteorological Society's Project ATMOSPHERE and Maury Project and NCAR's Project LEARN (Laboratory Experience in Atmospheric Research at NCAR), to name a few, the future is quite bright. However, there is still need . . . to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. Perhaps the best ways to enhance our involvement within the confines of limited resources is to interact with teachers in our respective states who have participated in the above programs and to become more actively involved in the science education programs in our respective institutions, insuring that meteorology and oceanography are an integral part of the curriculum. By doing so, we can reach greater numbers of students and provide them with a basic knowledge of their physical environment."

For more information, contact Smith (410-293-6553 or drsmith@nadn.navy.edu).


Susan Avery, chairwoman of the UCAR Board of Trustees, chats with Timothy Wirth, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, at the annual meeting of UCAR members representatives in Boulder, Colorado. Speaking at the meeting, Wirth enjoined scientists to become more active in explaining their work and its results to the public and to political leaders. He offered pointers on contacting and communicating effectively with policymakers. The previous evening, Wirth had made a public presentation, "Global Change and Sustainability," and participated in a panel discussion with NCAR's John Firor; Patricia Limerick, a history scholar at the University of Colorado; and John Parr of the National Civic League. The event was sponsored by the Center for the American West, the CU/NOAA Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and UCAR's Walter Orr Roberts Institute. (Photo by Robert Bumpas.)


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