Real earth system science


What features do effective science teacher professional development programs share?  The ReaL ESS program is designed with the clear intent of improving teacher and student learning of scientific skills, processes and ideas.  We are especially attentive in our program design to research in three areas:

  1. BulletEffective science teacher professional development

  2. BulletHow people learn

  3. BulletThe nature of science and scientific inquiry

Effective Teacher Professional Development

According to a study of many effective professional development programs by Garet et al (2001) six aspects emerged as extremely important:

  1. BulletForm. Traditional classes, workshops or a "hands-on" activity like mentoring were less effective than reform types of activities, such as teacher networks or study groups.

  2. BulletDuration. Longer professional development programs are more likely to make an impact. Sustained and intensive programs are better than shorter ones.

  3. BulletCollective participation. Activities designed for teachers in the same school, grade or subject are better than professional development programs that do not target groups of teachers who work together.

  4. BulletContent. Professional development courses that focus on how to teach but also on what to teach-the substance and subject matter-are key.

  5. BulletElementary schoolteachers especially may have taken fewer courses in science or math and may be less familiar with the subject matter, the researchers note.

  6. BulletActive learning. This aspect is fostered through observing and being observed teaching, planning for classroom implementation, reviewing student work, and presenting, leading and writing.

  7. BulletCoherence. Teachers need to perceive professional development as part of coherent programs of teacher learning and development that support other activities at their schools, such as the adoption of new standards or textbooks.

what does effective science teacher professional development look like?

Click here for information on current professional development programming!

DRAFT syllabus for ReaL Earth Inquiry Course.

ReaL ESS is designed and implemented with careful attention to research on effective science teacher professional development; to the science of how people learn; and to the nature of scientific inquiry. 

Other studies and policy statements addressing teacher professional development resonate with these findings.  A few (hyperlinked) examples can be found at the end of the page and at the right. 

Research on How People Learn

Harmonizing with this research is the more broad area of research on how people learn.  The National Research Council Committee on How People Learn has issued several reports (all found here, some of which are available as free pdfs).  These reports all include three key findings about how people learn as an organizing framework. 

These key findings are central to our work, and, if our work is effective the findings are also central to the work of the teachers we serve. 

Briefly, those findings are

  1. 1.Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.

  2. 2.To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.

  3. 3.A "metacognitive" approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

Scientific Inquiry

The ultimate goal of the project is to foster scientifically proficient citizens.  What does that mean?  According to the National Research Council (NRC) Report, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, Students who are proficient in science:

  1. 1. know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world;

  2. 2. generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations;

  3. 3. understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and

  4. 4. participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

How do you get them there?  Our intended vehicle is scientific inquiry in the field and in the virtual field.  According to another NRC report, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards : a guide for teaching and learning, inquiry learning has the following characteristics:

  1. 1.Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions

  2. 2.Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions

  3. 3.Learner formulates explanations from evidence

  4. 4.Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge

  5. 5. Learner communicates and justifies explanations to others

Perhaps it goes without saying, but these approaches to inquiry stem from the National Science Education Standards

In the design and implementation of ReaL ESS, we strive to incorporate all of the above.  We engage teachers in programs that include workshops, but extend them through online study groups.  These study groups engage teachers working together to learn science content and jointly develop materials and strategies to enrich the learning experiences of their students.  It encourages their active exploration of the environment near their schools and accessible to their students and we provide resources like The Teacher Friendly Guides while working with teachers to build a collection of Virtual Fieldwork Experiences for teaching with inquiry.  The experience is coherent with these learning principles and around a small set of inner-connected Earth Science Big Ideas.

Selected Publications on How People Learn; Effective Science Teacher Professional Development; and Inquiry: 

Here is a brief (two page) summary of both Garet et al and Kaser et al.:


Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L., and Cocking, Rodney, Editors; Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, National Research Council, & National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Expanded ed., p. 374). Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. Retrieved from*

Center for Science Mathematics, & Engineering Education. Committee on Development of an Addendum to the National Science Education Standards on Scientific Inquiry. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards : a guide for teaching and learning. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.*

Donovan, M. S., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (p. 78). Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from* (Cited above)

Donovan, S., & Bransford, J. (2005). How Students Learn:  History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (p. 615). Washington, D.C: National Academies Press. Retrieved from*

Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., Shouse, A. W., & National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Science Learning Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. (2007). Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Garet, M., Porter, A., Desimone, L., Birman, B., & Yoon, K. (2001). What makes professional development effective: Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal., 38(4), 915-945.  (Cited above)

Kaser, J.; Bourexis, P.; Loucks-Horsley, S.; Raizen, S. (1999). Enhancing program quality in science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, Calif., Corwin Press.

Loucks-Horsley, S. (2003). Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics (2nd ed., p. 376). Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC.: National Academy Press.*

NSTA Board of Directors . (2006, May). NSTA Position Statement
Professional Development in Science Education . . Retrieved from*

Penuel, W. R., Fishman, B. J., Yamaguchi, R., & Gallagher, L. P. (2007). What Makes Professional Development Effective? Strategies that Foster Curriculum Implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 44(4), 921-958.

*Full text available on linked website.