Earth Science Careers in K-12 Education

by Mark Johnston, Kindergarten-Grade 12 Science Supervisor, Arlington Public Schools

In a 2000 study conducted by the Virginia Department of Education and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, it was found that Earth Science has the largest number of teacher positions in Virginia that are unfilled or filled with un-endorsed personnel. This study also found that Earth Science comprises over 30% of the projected science teaching positions.

Compounding the shortage of qualified candidates is an increasing number of teacher retirements, in part because of an aging workforce and because of changes in the retirement system that have resulted in retirements statewide in Virginia which increased from 1,453 in 1997-98 to over 2,500 in 1999-2000.

Yet, of the 27 Virginia state colleges and universities reporting, only 13 candidates completed teacher preparation programs in Earth Science in the 1999-2000 school year. This is out of a total of nearly 2,400 candidates completing programs in "high-need" areas, such as special education, English as a second language, physics, and chemistry. Reasons for this shortage may include starting salaries that lag behind the private sector as well as varied coursework in the areas of geology, meteorology, astronomy, and oceanography.

Given this, K-12 teaching in the Earth Sciences can be a very rewarding experience. Those who find it most rewarding have a thorough content background and are innovative in their approach to teaching and learning. Many people, including teacher candidates, envision today's classrooms as they were from their own experiences. However, those who envision earth-science classrooms with students sitting in neat rows and listening intently to the teacher impart knowledge, will be disappointed to learn that this scenario seldom plays out in classrooms today. Even if students seem to be listening intently, they seldom gain little if any understanding of information that is simply "told" to them. Also, classrooms today are more ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse than classrooms of yesterday. For example, in 2000, while 4.3% of the student population in Virginia was Hispanic, Fairfax and Arlington Counties reported Hispanic populations of 11.8% and 32.4% out of total school populations of over 145,000 and 18,000 respectively.

Given demographic changes and general overall changes in American youth culture, successful learning experiences are those that are designed to allow students to interact with content. Activities that encourage collaborative interactions between students and with the tools and materials of Earth Science help students to learn and remember concepts more clearly and with greater depth of understanding. For many teachers, this translates into lesson planning that is a backward process. A backward-planning teacher begins by first determining what exactly students should know about a particular topic. National, state, and local science standards are a good place to begin this examination. Once a teacher knows what to teach, they then identify and/or design activities that are relevant and engaging and that lead students to begin to know what they need to know. It is therefore critical that prospective teachers are familiar with National, state, and local standards. Note that this process is extremely difficult for a teacher with little or no background knowledge or coursework in the Earth Sciences (un-endorsed or un-certified) who is asked to teach these subjects.

Teaching can be a very fulfilling avocation. There is no greater satisfaction than to connect with students in such a way as to make their learning about the Earth Sciences enjoyable and fulfilling. The value to students of having a qualified, interested, and knowledgeable teacher is immeasurable. This is easily recognized if one reflects on their own experiences and the impact that a "good" or "bad" teacher played in career decision-making and their lifelong interest in science.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy [Online]. Available:

National Research Council (1995). National science education standards [Online]. Available:

Virginia Department of Education (2000). Report on supply and demand of instructional personnel in Virginia: 1999-2000. [Online].

Virginia Department of Education (2001). Earth science standards of learning [Online]. Available:

Mark is currently the Kindergarten-Grade 12 Science Supervisor for Arlington Public Schools in Arlington, Virginia.

Mark began his career as an earth science teacher in Virginia Public Schools having graduated from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

Mark's interests are in teacher professional development, particularly in effectively integrating technologies into instruction. Mark is a PhD candidate at George Mason University's Graduate School of Education where he is specializing in instructional technology.