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Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science

This video course for elementary school teachers covers Earth and space science concepts needed to teach today's standards-based curricula.

A video course for grades K-6 teachers; 8 one-hour video programs, course guide, and website. (Please pardon the dust as we work to finish this series on the new website. The videos are now published for each unit.)

Exploring topics that range from soil to the solar system, Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science provides participants the opportunity to increase their science content knowledge and develop new understandings of how this content connects to K – 6 classrooms.

This course is composed of eight sessions, each with a one-hour video program addressing a topic area in Earth and Space science that emphasizes the science content that is likely to be part of any elementary school science curriculum.

Posing the question “What is Earth’s structure and its place in the universe?”, the course begins by looking at soil, the top layer of the solid Earth and interface between rock, water and atmosphere. We then explore the nature of the dynamic Earth and the internal and external processes that are continually at work shaping the planet. Moving on from the Earth, the course continues with an investigation into Earth’s neighborhood in space. Video examples, colorful graphics, lively animations, models, and other visual strategies are used as learning tools to bring meaning to the content being addressed.

Essential Science for Teachers

The Essential Science for Teachers courses are designed to help K-6 teachers gain an understanding of some of the bedrock science concepts they need to teach today’s standards-based curricula. The series of courses will include Life ScienceEarth and Space Science, and Physical Science.

Earth and Space Science consists of eight one-hour video programs accompanied by print and web materials that provide in-class activities and homework explorations. Real-world examples, demonstrations, animations, still graphics, and interviews with scientists compose content segments that are intertwined with in-depth interviews with children that uncover their ideas about the topic at hand. Each program also features an elementary school teacher and his or her students exploring the topic using exemplary science curricula. Use the complete course for teacher education or professional development, or individual programs for content review.

Course Overview

From the soil and rocks beneath our feet to our connection to the Moon and Sun, the story of Earth is a fascinating one — and most of what is known about the Earth has been gathered through observation and interpretation. Children are careful observers of their surroundings, and try to make sense of their world from a very early age.

As teachers, it is important to encourage students’ curiosity, help them sharpen their skills of observation and interpretation, foster their development of science knowledge, and share with them the excitement of exploring Earth and the solar system. The challenge is to ensure that their understandings are scientifically accurate. To do this, teachers need to be comfortable with the science content they teach, and to have their own sound understandings of core science concepts. Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science is a content course designed to help K-6 teachers enhance their understandings of “big ideas” in Earth and Space Science.

This course is composed of eight sessions, each with a one-hour video program addressing a topic area in Earth and Space science that emphasizes the science content that is likely to be part of any elementary school science curriculum. Posing the question “What is Earth’s structure and its place in the universe?”, the course begins by looking at soil, the top layer of the solid Earth and interface between rock, water and atmosphere. We then explore the nature of the dynamic Earth and the internal and external processes that are continually at work shaping the planet. Moving on from the Earth, the course continues with an investigation into Earth’s neighborhood in space. Video examples, colorful graphics, lively animations, models, and other visual strategies are used as learning tools to bring meaning to the content being addressed.

Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science also highlights the ideas that children bring to the classroom about these topics. The programs include interviews with children that uncover their ideas about science concepts related to the content of each program, providing participants the opportunity to confront their own science ideas. The programs also feature first- through sixth- grade classrooms in which students and teachers explore Earth and Space Science topics. Connections to current science knowledge are made through scientist interviews about the ideas they apply on a daily basis.

By exploring topics that range from soil to the solar system, Essential Science: Earth and Space Science strives to provide participants the opportunity to increase their science content knowledge, become better informed of students’ science conceptions, and develop new understandings of how this content connects to K – 6 classrooms.

Session Descriptions

Session 1. Earth’s Solid Membrane: Soil
How does soil appear on a newly formed, barren volcanic island? In this session, participants explore how soil develops, its composition and structure, its role in certain Earth processes, and its place in the structure Earth.

Session 2. Every Rock Tells a Story
How can we use rocks to understand events in the Earth’s past? In this session, participants examine the processes that form sedimentary rocks, learn how fossils are preserved, and are introduced to the theory of plate tectonics.

Session 3. Journey to the Earth’s Interior
How do we know what the interior of the Earth is like if we’ve never been there? In this session, participants investigate the internal structure of the Earth and focus on features that are connected to tectonic plate movement.

Session 4. The Engine That Drives the Earth
What drives the movement of tectonic plates? This question is explored by looking at how plates interact at their margins, what makes volcanoes work, and the story of Hawaii’s formation.

Session 5. When Continents Collide
How is it possible that marine fossils are found on Mount Everest, the world’s highest continental mountain? In this session, participants examine what happens when continents collide and how this process shapes the surface of the Earth.

Session 6. Restless Landscapes
If almost all mountains are formed the same way, why do they look so different? This session focuses on forces continuously at work on the surface of the Earth that sculpt the ever-changing landscape.

Session 7. Our Nearest Neighbor: The Moon
Why is the Moon, our nearest neighbor in the solar system, so different from the Earth? This session explores the complex connections between the Earth and Moon, the origin of the Moon, and the roles played by gravity and collisions in the Earth–Moon system.

Session 8. Order Out of Chaos: Our Solar System
Why do all the planets orbit the Sun in the same direction? Why are the planets closest to the Sun so different from the gas giants farther out? In this session, participants examine the nature of the solar system by considering scientific evidence about its formation.

Course Structure

On-Site Activities

Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science consists of eight sessions, each of which includes group activities and discussions as well as an hour-long video program.

This guide provides activities and discussion topics for pre- and post-viewing investigations that complement each of the eight one-hour video programs.

Getting Ready (Site Investigation)

In preparation for watching the program, you will engage in 60 minutes of investigation through discussion and activity.

Watch the Video

Then you will watch the 60-minute video, which includes classroom footage, commentary, science demonstrations, and more.

Going Further (Site Investigation)

Wrap up the session with an additional 60 minutes of investigation through discussion and activity.

Between Sessions

Homework Assignments
Each session will contain the following homework activities. All participants should complete the assignments marked with *—the Reading Assignment, the Problem Set, the Ongoing Concept Mapping, and Preparing for the Next Session.

Reading Assignment*
The reading assignments for this course are selected and assigned to expose you to the research literature on children’s ideas about Earth and space science and reinforce your understanding of the science content included in each of the sessions. In some cases, there will be a specific homework task associated with a reading. In all cases, there will be small group work connected with the assigned readings occurring during the next session.

Earth and Space Science Problem Set*
Each session will be accompanied by a problem set that will reinforce content learning by asking questions that apply or extend Earth and space science concepts addressed in the video. Possible answers for the problem set will be provided at the end of the session materials. It should be emphasized that many questions have a variety of answers – answers that vary depending on the understandings of the person answering the question. The intent is not to give you “right answers,” but to suggest one answer for each question that is considered scientifically accurate.

Ongoing Concept Mapping*
Within each session, several fundamental concepts are explored. Creating a set of concept maps will provide you with an opportunity to reflect on your understandings of these concepts and their connections to one another as well as to see how the content in each session relates to that of other sessions. A more detailed explanation of concept mapping is included in Session 1.

Guided Journal Entry
As you proceed through this course, one way of building and connecting understandings is to reflect upon your learning as you go. In each session, one or more questions will be suggested to guide a journal entry. At the end of the course, these entries should help you see how your ideas have progressed.

Textbook Reading Suggestions
We strongly recommend that you acquire introductory college-level geology and astronomy texts to refer to in this course. Reading topics will be listed in each session and can be located in most textbooks in the Table of Contents or Index.

Preparing for the Next Session*
This section will get you thinking about upcoming topics and remind you to bring materials needed for the next session’s activities.


Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science is a video course for grade K-6 teachers, consisting of eight video programs, a print guide, and this Web site. Use these components for professional development in two-hour weekly group sessions, or on your own.

Getting the Materials

You may watch the videos streamed from the course unit pages. The print guide is available as a PDF under Support Materials (PDF) on this website.

If you are participating in a group session, your facilitator will give you a copy of the print guide or request that you print the PDF for yourself from this website. Your facilitator will give you any instructions concerning meeting time and place, what you should bring to sessions, and work you should do outside the group sessions.

Using the Materials

The guide and website provide background, activities, discussion questions, homework assignments, and resources to supplement the video programs and provide a robust professional development experience. They also provide information for facilitators to plan and structure group sessions.

Workshop sessions generally are held weekly for at least two hours. The workshop guide describes pre- and post-viewing activities and discussion to fill out the remainder of the session. The guide also provides homework to expand on what you have learned and prepare you for the next session.

If you are leading a group session, read our Facilitator Guide and the workshop guide for more information on planning and facilitating this workshop.


Course Developer

Chris Irwin, Ed. D. c.
After graduating from the State University of New York system with a BS in elementary education, Chris worked in private and public education in Vermont for thirteen years. After obtaining an MS in K-8 Math and Science Education from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts, she stayed on as a faculty member in the Education Department, teaching early childhood and elementary curriculum courses and mathematics and science methods courses to pre-service and in-service teachers. During this time, Chris held visiting instructor status at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and served as an educational researcher on several science education projects. After teaching college for nine years, Chris joined the education staff at the Science Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts, and maintains an affiliation with the museum. Chris is currently an Ed. D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying inquiry-based teaching and learning and children’s science conceptions.

Onscreen Guides

Brittina A. Argow, M.S.
Britt Argow received her BA in British literature with a minor in geology from the College of William and Mary. She worked as a nursery school teacher before pursuing a MS in Geology at Stanford University, focusing on coastal sedimentology and micropaleontology. While there, she was involved with the Center for Teaching and Learning, where she developed workshops to better prepare teaching assistants in science and engineering. After graduate school, Britt accepted an assistant professorship at Westchester Community College in New York, where she taught Earth Science, Oceanography, and Physical Geography. She received recognition for her innovative approach to science education, employing and developing new curricula, teaching, and testing methods. Britt has also worked for the National Park Service, where she specialized in public education and developing new science education curricula, for the United States Geological Survey, and as a consulting geologist. She has recently returned to graduate school at Boston University and is pursuing a Ph.D. in coastal geology as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

F. Joseph Reilly
After earning a B.S. in elementary education from Boston University, Joe Reilly has spent his entire professional career as an educator of children and adults. Joe is a master teacher with more than twenty-five years of experience teaching kindergarten, first, and second graders in the Greater Boston area. He was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow, spending a year abroad in Oxfordshire, England, and received a grant to travel to Cuba to study Literacy Achievement. Along with teaching elementary students, Joe currently teaches pre-service and in-service teachers in the School of Education at Boston College, and supervises student teachers as well. Joe has been an on-camera teacher for the McGraw Hill Educational Psychology Series as well as for the Teaching Math Library for the Annenberg Media. Joe is also a consultant and pilot teacher for TERC, a non-profit education research and development organization dedicated to improving mathematics, science, and technology teaching and learning.

Julie Libarkin, Ph.D.
Dr. Julie Libarkin is currently a member of the faculty of the Geology Department at Ohio University in Athens, where she teaches undergraduate geology courses. She has done extensive science study, starting at the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. Julie next completed a BS at the College of William and Mary with a dual focus on geology and physics, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in geosciences at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Moving to a research position at the Science Education Department of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was granted several National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowships in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education. Julie conducts research on mountain building processes, cosmogenic isotopes, student conceptions, cognition, and assessment, and publishes numerous articles on these subjects.


Oliver Chadwick, Ph.D.
Dr. Chadwick is one of the world’s leading scientists in relating soils to ecology and Earth system science. He is a joint professor in the Geography Department and Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work for the Department of Geography is in the areas of soil sciences: soil formation and advanced classification and evolution of soil landscapes. Dr. Chadwick’s research interests include soil classification, the evolution of soil landscapes, soil geochemistry, quaternary geology (the study of the Earth over the last 1.6 million years), and interactions between soil, atmosphere, water, and vegetation. His current work includes the “Hawaii Ecosystems Project,” utilizing Hawaii as a model ecosystem to understand changes in soil and the sources of nutrients to rainforests.

Carol de Wet, Ph.D.
Dr. Carol de Wet is an associate professor in the Geosciences Department at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There she teaches courses in geology, specifically sedimentology (sedimentary rocks and their formation), coral reef geology, and environmental geology. Dr. de Wet also works one-on-one with students, mentoring them in their individual research and publication efforts. Her personal research interests are in sedimentology and geochemistry. Dr. de Wet has done extensive research on carbonate deposits, submarine processes of rock cementation, sedimentary rocks in lacustrine (lake) environments, paleoclimates (ancient climatic conditions), and plate tectonics. Dr. de Wet was a Recipient of the Geological Society of America Donald L. & Carolyn N. Biggs Earth Science Teaching Award in 2000.

R. Hank Donnelly, Ph.D.
Dr. R. Hank Donnelly is a research astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He studies the formation of clusters of galaxies to learn more about the formation and evolution of structure in the universe. Dr. Donnelly is also a specialist in astronomical instruments and he is the calibration scientist for the High Resolution Camera at the CHANDRA X-ray Center. He is active in improving science education and literacy and brings astronomy to elementary and middle school classrooms through Project Astro, as well as teaching undergraduate astronomy at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1993. He is an outdoor enthusiast and he enjoys playing lacrosse and scuba diving.

Scott J. Kenyon, Ph.D. 
Dr. Scott J. Kenyon is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Kenyon’s research focuses on the formation and evolution of stars and planets. His Ph.D. dissertation on symbiotic stars was expanded into a monograph and still remains the primary reference in the field. Dr. Kenyon’s research lies at the boundary between observations and theory: he uses observations to test theories and theories to make predictions, which in turn can be tested with observations. His recent work includes the formation of Kuiper Belt Objects like Pluto. He is the author or co-author of more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers. And he is a member of several academic societies including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Astronomical Society, and the International Astronomical Union. He received the Copernicus Medal from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in 1987, and in 1995 shared the Hoopes Prize of Harvard University with Jane Luu and Sarah T. Stewart. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keith Klepeis, Ph.D.
Dr. Keith Klepeis is a structural geologist in the Department of Geology at the University of Vermont. Prior to that, he was a lecturer in structural geology (the study of the geological processes that deform the Earth’s crust and create mountains), field geology (the methodology of field investigations), and plate tectonics at the University of Sydney in Australia. Dr. Klepeis was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Bryn Mawr College and Princeton University, working on tectonic problems in Alaska and coastal British Columbia. Keith’s current research centers on examining interactions between rock deformation, metamorphism, magmatism, tectonic plate motions, processes at plate boundary zones, and orogenic (mountain building) systems. His interests are diverse, but focus on the structure and evolution of convergent, divergent, and transform plate boundaries, orogenic belts, and fault systems.

Andy Kurtz, Ph.D.
Dr. Kurtz is an assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Earth Sciences. His research involves studying the geochemistry of Earth’s surface, Earth history, global cycles of carbon, sulfur, and silicon, and the evolution of Earth’s surface environments throughout geologic time. Particular areas of interest include understanding the connections between terrestrial and marine processes, and the relationship between silicate weathering and climate. Ongoing collaborative research projects use the Hawaiian Islands as a “natural laboratory” to study geochemical, soil, and ecological processes. For several years he has been involved in a multidisciplinary project with Oliver Chadwick (see below) developed by leaders in the fields of soil science, ecology, and geochemistry. The “Hawaii Ecosystems Project” uses the Hawaiian Islands to examine the evolving relationship between ecosystem function, soil development, and weathering based on a series of sites ranging in age from a few hundred to several million years old.

Myron Lecar, Ph.D. 
Dr. Myron Lecar has been a lecturer in Astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics since 1965. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an undergraduate and received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1963. He was one of the founding members of the NASA Institute for Space Physics at Columbia University, while he was a graduate student at Yale. In 1972 he was involved in building the first astronomical observatory in Israel. Dr. Lecar’s research interests include gravitational dynamics, planet formation, and the dynamics of our solar system. He has authored or co-authored more than 90 scientific articles. A paper he wrote with Dr. Paul Gorenstein and Dr. Daniel Farbricant, his colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was included as one of fifty path-breaking papers of the 20th Century in the centennial edition of the American Astronomical Society. He currently works with Dr. Dimitar Sasselov and Dr. Matt Holman on planets orbiting other stars.

Elissa Levine, Ph.D. 
Dr. Levine has been studying soil properties since the 1970s. She is a soil scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There, using satellite imagery, computer technology, and fieldwork data, she studies ecosystems, focusing on the role soils play in ecosystems in order to better understand how soils affect and are affected by climate, acid rain, land use, and other processes. Dr. Levine is also the principal soil scientist for GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment). GLOBE, an international program for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, promotes partnerships between students and scientists. Dr. Levine is the recipient of the 2003 Association of Women Soil Scientist Mentoring Award for her work with the Soil Characterization Investigation at the GLOBE Program and her ongoing efforts to educate youth about soil science.

Michael Manga, Ph.D.
Dr. Michael Manga is an associate professor of Earth and planetary science at the University of California at Berkeley. He received his B.S. in Geophysics from McGill University in Montreal, and his Ph.D. in Earth and planetary science from Harvard University in 1994. Dr. Manga studies a wide range of geologic phenomena including fluid mechanics, hydrology, and physical volcanology, all in order to better understand planetary evolution. He and his collaborators study geological processes by devising models that compress geological time scales from billions of years to hours. He has authored or co-authored more than 75 peer-reviewed scientific papers. He is a fellow of the Geological Society of America, and the recipient of numerous medals and awards for achievements in research and teaching.

Ursula B. Marvin, Ph.D.
Dr. Ursula B. Marvin is a senior geologist emerita of geology and historian of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She studied history as an undergraduate at Tufts University and earned a masters and doctorate degrees in geology from Harvard University. From 1952 to 1958 Dr. Marvin and her husband, a mining geologist, spent six years in Brazil and Angola examining mineral deposits. Between 1978 and 1985, she spent three field seasons in Antarctica, two of them collecting meteorites and one sampling the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary for evidence of the impact that is thought to have triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Dr. Marvin is the author of more than 120 scientific articles and a book titled, Continental Drift, the Evolution of a Concept. Asteroid Marvin was named for her in 1991 by the Minor Planet Bureau of the International Astronomical Union, and Marvin Nunatak, a mountain peak in Antarctica, was named in her honor in 1992. Dr. Marvin officially retired in 1998, but continues her research. She is also active in resolving problems in undergraduate education, especially the personal and professional problems women face pursuing careers in science.

Harrison H. Schmitt, Ph.D.
Dr. Harrison H. Schmitt received his doctorate in geology from Harvard University in 1964 and went to work with astrogeologist Eugene Shoemaker at the United States Geological Survey developing lunar field geological methods and mapping the surface of the Moon. In 1965 he was selected into NASA’s scientist-astronaut training program and in 1972 he became the first scientist-astronaut to walk on the Moon. Dr. Schmitt was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 17. He and Gene Eugene Cernan, the Commander, spent 22 hours and 4 minutes on the lunar surface. In 1975 Dr. Schmitt resigned from NASA to serve as one of New Mexico’s senators for one term. He is currently an adjunct professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

David Sherrod, Ph.D. 
Dr. David Sherrod is a volcanologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS). He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He was stationed at the USGS Cascade Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington until 1996, when he transferred to the USGS’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory on the big island of Hawaii. In 2004 he returned to the Cascade Volcano Observatory. Dr. Sherrod’s recent research focuses on the evolution of the Hawaiian volcanoes after they traveled over hot spots.

Sarah T. Stewart, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarah T. Stewart is an assistant professor of planetary science in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She received her A.B. in astronomy and astrophysics and physics from Harvard University in 1995. In 2002 she earned her Ph.D. in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Stewart’s research interests include collisional processes, planet formation, and the evolution of planetary surfaces. She is the director of the Shock Compression Laboratory at Harvard University, where she conducts impact experiments on planetary materials to simulate large impact events and collisions in the solar system.

John A. Wood, Ph.D.
Dr. John A. Wood is a senior scientist of planetary and lunar science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He received his Ph.D. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1958. Dr. Wood’s research interests include the study of primitive planetary material, and meteorites in particular. He also works on the origin of planets and our solar system. He was part of a team of scientists who first theorized that rocky planetary bodies start out molten and cool over time. This idea is known as the magma ocean hypothesis and grew out of Dr. Wood’s research on the lunar samples returned by the Apollo missions. Over the course of his career Dr. Wood has served as an advisor to many NASA missions and programs and authored or co-authored over 150 scientific papers on planetary science topics.

Support Materials

The support materials for Essential Science: Earth and Space Science are available here for download as PDF files.

Course Guide:

Series Directory

Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science


Produced by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. 2004.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-742-8