October 10, 2016

Improving Science Literacy – from classroom to community

Posted by smaguffin

As part of Earth Science Week, we’ll be highlighting different leaders in the geosciences – from research to education and community outreach. We are posting Q&A’s on The Bridge asking geoscientists about the work they do.

Today’s topic is Earth Science Literacy Day and our featured member is Jennifer Spirelli. Jennifer is currently the Assistant Principal in Somers Middle School in upstate New York.


Could you summarize your job in a sentence or two?

The Assistant Principal’s primary job responsibility is the supervision, discipline, and monitoring of students. I work under the direction of the Building Principal. I implement and enforce the school board policies, administrative rules and regulations and support the pedagogical growth of the teachers.


I understand you were a science teacher in NYC for many years, how did you decide what science curriculum to teach? How did you improve upon it?


A student learns about contour maps through an interactive exercise.

I have previously worked as a science teacher in Manhattan and Bronx, NY. While teaching in the Bronx, I also worked as the Science Department Chair and together with my colleagues we vertically planned our 6th-8th grade science curriculum with a focus on 7th grade earth science.   During my years as a middle school science teacher I found that using inquiry as a foundation for each lesson was an effective tool to intrigue students. It helped them to start thinking critically and independently. Furthermore, for many of them it was the beginning of a love of science.  Sometimes students would bring in rocks that they found on the streets of the Bronx to identify in class; when students started doing that, I knew I had sparked an interest.

Currently, we are restructuring our 6th-12th science department to create more student choice in science electives.  We are looking at ways to offer new electives to students and finding alternative science pathways so that students can enroll in science courses that they are interested; ergo, we hope to encourage them to explore STEM as a career choice.


Why is Earth science literacy an important topic to teach in the classroom?

I believe that every student should have knowledge of the fundamental concepts of Earth science so that they can make informed and responsible decisions about public issues. In order for our students to make responsible and intelligent decisions as members of our community and society we want to educate them on important issues such as climate change, energy, natural resources, and earthquake hazards.  For example, our school is currently installing solar panels on the roof; our math and science teachers are working with the installation team to have them speak to the students about the scientific principles involved.


What are some unique ways you’ve tried to enhance earth science literacy?

We currently have 60% of all our 8th graders taking the New York State Earth Science course, this is a rather high percentage for 8th graders.  Typically, Earth Science is only offered in high school, if at all.  We believe in a hands on approach to teaching; we use labs, authentic geoscience scenarios, and literature to support the students learning.


How would you describe to policymakers the value of earth science education?

It is critical that students know about their surroundings and what is best for their environment.  They need to know about the causes and potential societal consequences of natural Earth processes so they can make better informed decision for their own lives. Earth science is an all-encompassing science, which includes biology, chemistry, and physics as they apply to the workings of Earth. Math, technology, and engineering are also weaved into the Earth science curriculum and exposes our students to STEM careers.  Earth science helps students to see the importance of these fields and how it is relevant to their own lives and communities.

One of our district goals is to engage all students in learning. Earth Science supports this goal because it has the potential to development student problem solving and critical thinking skills. Students are immersed in contemporary geoscience problems and work to apply their knowledge to real world issues instead of just learning the material via rote memory.


How do you see the role of science and earth science in society?

Personally, I know of many schools that are very focused on reading and writing but not on science literacy.  Unfortunately, science is being put on hold or relegated to a lesser priority.  I think that educating students to be scientifically literate should be a parallel goal with reading and writing.

From a broader perspective, I think much of society does not understand how many earth systems work and how they are connected.  As an educator I fight this battle daily. In our daily lesson plans we always identify “common misconceptions” to the standards being addressed.  Confronting these misconceptions and asking students to share what they are learning with their families is one way to further educate the community about science and empiricism.


Are there any social media or website links you would like us to promote?

Yes, when I taught middle school science this was my favorite website for students to use to collect real-time data, pose questions about earthquakes, and do their own investigating.  i.e. Does the depth of an epicenter affect the magnitude of earthquake on the surface? I encourage fellow educators to take a look: http://www.iris.edu/hq/programs/education_and_outreach