9. Leveraging the Next Generation Science Standards in Introductory and Non-Major Courses to Recruit Majors and Prepare K--12 Science or Geoscience Teachers

Introductory and non-major courses should leverage the Next Generation Science Standards to engage all students and preservice teachers in the geosciences.

Challenges and Opportunities

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)1 are fueling a major reform in K–12 science education in the U.S. and offer an unprecedented opportunity to expand the reach of the geosciences (Wysession, 2014). Introductory and non-majors courses can leverage the NGSS to better engage all students and support pre-service teachers in the geosciences. As of 2020, 20 states have adopted the NGSS and 24 others have developed standards based on the Framework for K–12 Science Education2. In using these standards, K–12 education focuses on active-learning pedagogies, student-centric education, cross-disciplinary science, and key disciplinary concepts. Within this approach, the geosciences are well-positioned to serve as a vehicle for addressing the requirements for integration of the science disciplines while simultaneously incorporating mathematics, engineering, communication, and societal considerations (see Box 9.1 for specific information). Although most states do not require students to take an Earth science course in middle or high school, the NGSS elevate the importance of Earth and space science in pre-college science education to a level equivalent to that of the life and physical (physics and chemistry) sciences.

As NGSS adoption expands, students will enter college with different expectations for how science works and is taught. We need to prepare for these students by becoming familiar with NGSS and adapting our undergraduate programs. If we use the recommendations discussed in previous sections regarding active learning pedagogies (Section 5), and a focus on concepts, skills, and competencies (Section 3), our courses will align with the expectations of the NGSS and these future students. Reforming introductory and non-major geoscience classes is essential for all students, including geoscience majors and pre-service K–12 science and geoscience teachers (e.g., PCAST, 2012), because it will contribute to improving geoscience literacy for all. Effective pedagogues, including societally relevant, active-learning opportunities, in introductory courses may entice more students to major in the geosciences. Departments should provide faculty teaching introductory and non-major classes with opportunities for professional development related to implementing NGSS guidance and strategies so that they can learn about the research-based strategies that are being implemented in K–12 classrooms.

A group of teachers examine samples in a courtyard
Courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin

Preparing geoscience-literate K–12 teachers will help the geosciences to address critical workforce needs while also promoting development of a geoscience-literate citizenry. Some of the most pressing problems facing the world are related to the geosciences, and it is crucial that the public, most of which will not pursue a post-secondary science credential, has a basic understanding of the Earth and its systems. The 2014 and 2016 Summit participants overwhelmingly agreed that our best approach is to train K–12 educators, from any disciplinary background, to integrate geosciences into their classes in accordance with the NGSS. The participants' recommendations for developing the next generation of introductory courses are outlined below. K–12 teachers who have taken effective geoscience courses in college are better equipped to educate their students about how the world works, demonstrate the relevance of this knowledge to local and global issues, and instill enthusiasm and interest in the geosciences.

A cultural shift to focusing on the role of geoscience programs in influencing K–12 teacher preparation is needed. Of all the sciences, Earth science has the fewest disciplinarily trained K–12 teachers (Wilson, 2019). We need to expand efforts to prepare geoscience-literate K–12 teachers to increase pre-college exposure to geosciences. By helping teachers use authentic geoscience examples to promote science literacy, geoscience departments can strengthen public understanding and promote recruitment of future majors.

Box 9.1: Pre-College Science Education in the U.S.

K–12 science education in the U.S. is currently undergoing major reform that has produced the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). For the Earth and space sciences, this reform began with a series of community-based collaborations that produced the “Blueprint for Change: Report from the National Conference on the Revolution in Earth and Space Science Education” (Barstow et al., 2002) followed by a series of materials (UCAR, 2007; ESLI, 2010; OLN, 2015; EERE, 2017; CLEAN, 2018) designed to promote understanding of the “big ideas” in the geosciences. These documents, among others for other disciplines, guided the development and release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013a) that continued reframing science disciplines that started with National Science Education Standards in 1996.

The three-dimensional nature of the NGSS is truly revolutionary. The standards are articulated as a series of “performance expectations” that include a component drawn from each of the three dimensions (that is, they each include a practice, a crosscutting concept, and a disciplinary core idea). The performance expectations specify what a student should be able to do in order to demonstrate mastery of all three dimensions of the standard. Evidence statements (NGSS Lead States, 2013c) for the NGSS provide teachers and administrators with guidance regarding what should count as credible evidence that a student has mastered a standard. Comprehensive three-dimensional assessments address all components of the target performance expectation(s) simultaneously. A series of comprehensive assessment examples addressing multiple performance expectations is available online from the NGSS website (NGSS Lead States, 2013b). The standards development was based on decades of research on effective practices in science education, much of which was summarized in the National Research Council’s publication “A Framework for K–12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas” (NRC, 2012).

Redesign of Introductory and Non-major Courses

Faculty teaching introductory and non-major courses should become familiar with the structure and expectations of NGSS. The NGSS has three core disciplinary domains: Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Science; Engineering is treated at the same level as Science. For the first time, Earth and Space Science is considered at the same level as other sciences. Instead of emphasizing disciplinary content above all other considerations, the NGSS pay equal attention to three different dimensions of science:

  1. practices of science and engineering;

  2. crosscutting concepts that span and unite all of science; and

  3. disciplinary core ideas.

This “three-dimensional” nature of the NGSS is truly revolutionary. As students proceed through the learning process, they employ the scientific practices and use the crosscutting concepts to develop a deep understanding of the disciplinary core ideas. They demonstrate mastery of a standard by using all three dimensions of science to investigate a phenomenon or develop a solution to a problem. The NGSS were developed based on evidence of what works, and through an extensive community-based process. The recommendations for geoscience majors as discussed in previous sections (Sections 3, 5 and 8) are fully aligned with this process.

The NGSS call for implementation of student-centered pedagogies that empower students to drive their own learning. Teaching with real data and models can support student-centered pedagogy while also promoting a deep understanding of material (e.g., Freeman et al., 2014; NRC, 2015; Miller & Kastens, 2018; Kastens et al., 2019).

To increase the relevance of introductory geoscience courses to all students, majors and non-majors alike, faculty should focus on phenomena and problems. An earth-systems approach, which emphasizes the integration of physics, chemistry, biology, math, societal implications, and communication will help increase students' perception of the relevance of the geosciences. By employing active-learning strategies, instructors can help their students develop an awareness that the Earth acts as a complex system and to recognize the nature of the linkages between different parts of the system. The students should have opportunities to explore the causes, effects, and feedback loops within the Earth system, and investigate how geoscience processes impact humans and how humans impact the Earth systems (Ireton et al., 1996).

Preparing and Supporting K–12 Teachers for Success

Most K–12 and Earth science teachers only take introductory or non-major geoscience courses (Banilower et al., 2013; Gilbert et al., 2019); thus redesigning these courses to incorporate the NGSS framework and pedagogy is imperative to preparing pre-service teachers (Egger, 2019). Integrating the vision of the NGSS into university curricula using the geoscience literacy documents3 will strengthen the curriculum and improve the preparation of future teachers.

Teachers' preparation will be enhanced if geoscience-related phenomena and problems are included in introductory and non-major courses in ways that can be modified for implementation at the K–12 level, whether in K–12 Earth and space science courses or as geoscience examples in other disciplines' courses, such as physics, chemistry, biology, and math. The introductory geoscience courses need to model the best pedagogy and investigation of scientific phenomena and problems that can be adapted by future teachers. Such courses will prepare future science teachers to use the NGSS and real-world examples in their K–12 classrooms.

Pre-service teachers who major or minor in the geosciences need to engage in authentic geoscience experiences (i.e., field trips, service learning, laboratory-based projects or work experiences) along with rigorous disciplinary preparation. They also need methods courses that emphasize strategies and pedagogies validated by education research, designed in collaboration with education and/or geoscience education faculty. Pre-service teachers who have the opportunity to do research and get early experiences in K–12 classrooms while completing their undergraduate degree will be well-prepared to introduce their future students to the geosciences.

K–12 teachers, who are already in the classroom, will benefit from efforts undertaken by the geoscience community to develop low cost resources, including laboratory, field, and problem-solving exercises that can be easily adapted for high school classes. Useful teaching materials and methods are crucial to increasing geoscience content in K–12 classes. The best repository of tested undergraduate-level teaching resources resides on the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) website accessible through NAGT’s “Teach the Earth” portal4. Other excellent resources are available through geoscience consortia and organizations such as IRIS, UNAVCO, and AGI, and government agencies including NOAA, and NASA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey that can be used anywhere in the U.S..

Geoscientists, and especially faculty, need to value K–12 teaching as a career. Education majors and pre-service Earth science teachers are as important as geoscience majors and are critical to developing the next generation of geoscientists and Earth literate citizens. In all classrooms, there are a diversity of skills and trajectories and each is important to develop.

K–12 Teacher Education Programs

For 2YC and 4YC geoscience programs already invested in K–12 teacher education, contributing to K–12 education reform is necessary. Even a cursory review of the NGSS performance expectations and evidence statements makes it clear that teachers can no longer rely on worksheets or multiple-choice tests to gauge student learning. Thus teachers, to be effective and prepare their students for success on state-based high-stakes tests, must learn how to develop and score three-dimensional assessments. These new types of assessments typically ask students to demonstrate mastery in ways that differ significantly from traditional pencil-and-paper classroom-based exams. Although guidance exists for developing three-dimensional performance-based assessments (NRC, 2014), pre-service teacher education programs must increase the focus on this activity because it is challenging for both new and experienced teachers. Programs must give teachers time to practice and reflect on the nature of assessments to prepare them for success in the classroom. These assessment strategies will also contribute to improved assessment of student learning that can be adapted for undergraduate classes as well.

One of the most significant aspects of the vision underpinning the NGSS is the transition from a traditional teacher-centered classroom to student-centered classrooms in which the teacher serves as a guide on the side rather than taking on the role of a sage on the stage in the traditional classroom model. In a fully student-centered classroom, the students ask the questions and develop the answers to those questions. The teacher keeps the learning process moving forward and helps to provide resources as needed, but does not serve as the ultimate source of knowledge.

The transition to student-centered pedagogy requires implementation of NGSS-aligned curricula by teachers who are prepared to implement NGSS-aligned pedagogy (NRC, 2015). Novice teachers will find effectively implementing NGSS-aligned instruction challenging if they have not had the opportunity to experience it as part of their education (NASEM, 2015). It will also be difficult for experienced teachers unless they have intensive and sustained professional learning involving substantial hands-on practice. Thus, effective implementation of the NGSS and other Framework-aligned standards will require more, and a different type of, pre-service and in-service teacher education. Geoscience faculty, particularly those who work with pre- or in-service teachers, need to be prepared to implement student-centered teaching and the three-dimensional approach to learning in their own classrooms.

To develop proficiency with student-centered teaching methods and the NGSS, geoscience faculty involved in K–12 teacher education should engage with the colleges/schools of education and effective K–12 teachers to understand how they are addressing NGSS. Collaboration with two-year college faculty who teach a broad spectrum of students can support development of culturally relevant practices. The broader the engagement of geoscientists with pre-service and in-service teacher professional development, the larger the potential for K–12 students exposure to geoscience.

The 2014–2015 survey shows institutions beginning to integrate the 2013 NGSS into curricula and 51% integrating math and basic sciences into undergraduate courses (Fig. 9.1). In addition, about 30% of the respondents indicated that their institution is involved in K–12 teacher preparation and 36% offer professional development programs for in-service K–12 teachers (Fig. 9.1; Appendix A). Very few participating Heads and Chairs at the 2016 Summit and subsequent workshops that submitted a progress report, however, indicated any changes in in K–12 teacher preparation.

For faculty working with pre- and in-service teachers it is important to:

  • be a good geoscience role model and mentor;

  • demonstrate respect for the role of K–12 teachers as academic professionals;

  • be willing to discuss different pedagogies pros and cons;

  • connect to the NGSS whenever possible;

  • devise strategies to address and assess multiple dimensions of the NGSS simultaneously;

  • continually inform local teachers about new Earth science resources, including locally relevant project;

  • and develop local field guidebooks.

Departments should also consider more involvement with in-service teachers and engage with teacher networks in their area. Seek out and work with existing professional development programs for in-service teachers, or if none exist in your area, use existing resources to develop one.

Survey Question: Which of the following does your department do to help with preparation of K-12 teachers?

Pre-service teachers, like all students, need career advice, information about job opportunities, and mentors. Connecting pre- and in-service teachers to professional organizations (GSA, AGU, NAGT, etc.) will help them develop professional networks. Departments should foster personal connections among faculty and pre-and in-service K–12 teachers and continue to build those long-term collaborative relationships as the teachers enter the classroom. Collaboration with teachers may involve science or educational research, professional development, outreach, or development of standards-based teaching resources. Many possibilities exist, including using in-service teacher’s expertise to design non-major and introductory undergraduate classroom and laboratory activities, or developing pilot programs combining geoscience content with content from other fields for use in high-school, introductory, and non-major geoscience courses.

When collaborating with in-service teachers, it is important to recognize their expertise as educators. Pre- and in-service teachers should be included as co-authors on scholarly works, supported to attend state, regional, and national conferences, and encouraged to present at those events. Encouraging interaction between undergraduate and graduate students and K–12 teachers, including K–12 classroom involvement, is valuable in expanding the teachers' network of geoscientists, improving graduate and undergraduate students' communication skills, and providing the K–12 students with geoscience role models. The NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K–12 Education program was successful in this effort, and projects supported through that program provide good models for success (Ufnar et al., 2012).

By inviting K–12 teachers to participate in activities, including attending and/or presenting seminar talks, participating in field trips, serving on advisory boards, and other activities, post-secondary institutions can contribute to teachers' professional development while also promoting development of sustainable collaborations among teachers, faculty and students.

If teacher education is an important aspect of an undergraduate geoscience program, departments should provide incentives for faculty to participate and include such activities in the reward structure.

In addition to being familiar with NGSS, key faculty members and staff involved in training teachers should also be aware of state education and licensure requirements and state expectations for K–12 instruction and assessment of students in the content areas. The available and required training, individual state standards, and certification requirements vary widely by state, and sometimes even by school district. It is also critical to engage with local school administrators, local school boards and state education boards as changes to K–12 curriculum and requirements can have a major impact on your future students. “In order to fully realize a diverse and well-prepared K–12 Earth and Space Science teacher workforce, teacher education research must also recognize the complex landscape in which teacher education takes place, involving an interplay of programmatic, institutional, demographic, political, state, and national factors” (St. John, 2018).

Few teachers teach Earth science full-time, driven by partial allocations because of limited discipline awareness and licensing limitations. Many formally-educated Earth science educators teach other topics, just as many of the teachers of Earth science come from other disciplinary backgrounds, such as biology. To increase the number of Earth science teachers to meet increasing demand because of the elevation of geosciences in NGSS, institutions of higher education should consider offering a master’s in Earth science education (non-thesis), having separate labs and/or classes focusing on how to teach geoscience, and offering field courses designed for pre- and in-service teachers.

Implications of K–12 Science Education Reform for Undergraduate Geoscience ​Education

As student-centered, three-dimensional science education becomes the norm at the K–12 level, students entering post-secondary institutions are likely to have new expectations for undergraduate education. Undergraduate geoscience programs will need to respond accordingly to remain relevant and interesting as the expectations of students evolve. Also relevant to undergraduate education is conducting research on whether student-centered courses that provide practice with all three dimensions of science are effective in achieving valuable intended learning outcomes.


  • Revise introductory and non-major courses using the NGSS approach focusing on active learning pedagogies, problem- or project-based learning, cross-disciplinary concepts, emphasis of disciplinary core ideas, and investigation of phenomena

  • Provide and take opportunities for geoscience faculty to participate in professional learning experiences that introduces them to the nature of the three-dimensional NGSS and associated pedagogies

  • Prepare geoscience majors, non-majors and future K–12 science and Earth science teachers by focusing on processes and systems, integrating content from other sciences and math in introductory and non-major courses, using active learning and student-centered pedagogies, and developing and using resources that can be easily adapted for use in middle and high schools

  • For pre-service teachers, use and explicitly identify geoscience examples that connect to other sciences, math, social sciences, and communication. Take into consideration that an introductory geoscience may be a student’s only science course and that future teachers will be more likely to use geoscience examples if they also support learning of other subjects

  • Develop a focus on K–12 teacher education if appropriate to your institution. Include courses that provide practical applications of strategies informed by the literature on geoscience education and other education research and offer training on the implementation of NGSS-aligned teaching resources

  1. https://www.nextgenscience.org/ ↩︎

  2. see https://ngss.nsta.org/about.aspx ↩︎

  3. http://www.earthscienceliteracy.org/ ↩︎

  4. https://serc.carleton.edu/teachearth/ ↩︎