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New Earth Science Degree
Earth science now offered as major
New degree takes aim at state teacher shortage

By Eric Gorton, JMU Media Relations

A new undergraduate degree program at James Madison University could put a dent in a statewide shortage of high-school teachers of Earth science as well as serve as a model for other state universities interested in starting similar programs.

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Beginning this fall, the department of geology and environmental science will begin offering courses in a new bachelor of arts in Earth science program. Students who complete the program, along with their training in secondary education, will be certified to step into a classroom and begin teaching Earth science.

Certifying teachers to teach Earth science has become a top priority in Virginia since the state started implementing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, said Eric Rhoades, secondary science coordinator for the Virginia Department of Education. The federal law requires high-school teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree in the subject they teach.

Until now, however, Earth science degree programs didn't exist in Virginia. Because science teachers have not had the option of majoring in Earth science, they have had to return to school and complete at least 18 hours of additional coursework to meet state and federal requirements as "highly qualified" teachers.

The new degree at JMU "really streamlines the opportunity for teaching Earth science," Rhoades said. "I feel programs like this will be beneficial to the state."

Rhoades said George Mason University is the only other state university he is aware of that offers a bachelor's degree in Earth science. The GMU program also is new this year.

Rhoades said the state has put significant money into grants for science teachers to get "add-on endorsements" to the degrees they already have to meet the certification requirements. Teachers who have biology, chemistry or physics degrees, for example, still need 18 hours in the geological and Earth sciences to become certified to teach Earth science. Among courses they must complete are oceanography, meteorology and astronomy. While Earth science is not a required course for Virginia high schoolers, Rhoades said a significant number take it.

Over the past several years, JMU has been one of six state universities offering working teachers the courses they need to get the add-on Earth science endorsement. Teachers can take the courses during the summer as well as during the school year.

Now, aspiring Earth-science teachers can come to JMU and meet the requirements by earning the new degree. "We've come up with a very clearly laid out set of courses that they will need to obtain a B.A. in Earth science," said JMU geology Associate Professor Eric Pyle.

Pyle and geology Associate Professor Kristen St. John spearheaded a move to create the Earth science degree at JMU by restructuring the former bachelor of arts degree in geology. The B.A. degree in geology was broadly defined, Pyle said, and had a set of core requirements that were common with the bachelor of science degree in geology, which still exists.

"When you look at what the B.A. (in geology) had been, there was a long list of courses and you had to figure out a curriculum. Along those lines, if you didn't pick exactly what you needed for certification to teach Earth science, then you had trouble, because you had to go back and take additional courses," Pyle said.

Even students earning a bachelor of science degree in geology, which is generally geared toward students planning to go to graduate school, wouldn't have all the requirements to be certified to teach Earth science unless they also took oceanography, meteorology and astronomy, in addition to their required courses. "So we had a scenario of having to take more courses just to teach in high school than to go on to grad school," Pyle said.

While the new B.A. program very closely matches Virginia Board of Education policies for preparing Earth science teachers, Pyle said it also will benefit students planning a variety of other careers, including law and public administration.

"They can have a solid science background and go on to law school or go into business or go into public administration. Imagine this, a public administrator who knows something about the environment that the town is in and what impacts are going to be seen as a result of certain decisions," he said.

For more information on JMU's Earth science program and the department of geology and environmental sciences, visit the Web site at www.jmu.edu/geology/.

Published August 2006 by JMU Media Relations