Another Node On the iNternet : ANON


Online Communities Created for Earth System Science Teacher Professional



James A. Botti, Ph.D.

Instructional Designer

NASA Classroom of the Future

Center for Educational Technologies

Wheeling Jesuit University

Wheeling, West Virginia 26003


The Earth System Science Education Alliance, or ESSEA, is a partnership among universities, colleges, and science education organizations dedicated to improving Earth science education in general and Earth system science in particular.  Led by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) and the Center for Educational Technologies˙ (CET) at Wheeling Jesuit University, ESSEA is supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Earth Science Enterprise (ESE). 


Over the past ten years, a wave of science education reform and the exponential growth of the Internet for educational purposes have stimulated the formation of dynamic new online communities of learners.  ESSEA's three new online courses focus on Earth system science content and guide participating teachers into collaborative, student-centered science education experiences.  ESSEA's electronic environment structures clear expectations that encourage teachers to reexamine their responsibilities for their students' learning. 


An overriding objective in the development of each of the online courses was to create "high-impact, motivating reasons" for individuals to engage in the material.  Course developers purposely designed an online learning environment where interdependence among participants would provide the glue that holds together a successful community of learners, learners who would rely on each other for input.  Interdependence is built as a result of a complex task, roles, shared resources, and joint products (Johnson, and Johnson, 1992).   The course content is shaped to challenge the teachers' prior learning experiences and knowledge-building skills through group problem solving, online research, and constructive feedback as part of the ESSEA learning experience. 


The ESSEA online learning environment provides "spaces" that define, support, and refine participant roles and tasks. Discussion roles that occur within the personal journal , and learning spaces are carefully scaffolded to promote the modes of thought required for each task. Fundamental skills, such as "how to contribute to the conversation" within the discussion spaces, and establishing criteria for how to be a "critical friend" are carefully developed. Bereiter's discussion of inquiry (1992) guides the framing of the ESSEA course structure as one in which participants


         o  work toward a common understanding satisfactory to all

         o  frame questions and propositions in terms of evidence

         o  expand the body of valid propositions

         o  subject any belief to examination.


The ESSEA experience has demonstrated that the design features of online structures and spaces replicate the energy and momentum generated by normal human face-to-face interaction.   Capra (1997) stated that sustainable communities are characterized by information available on demand, feedback loops for individual self-regulation, clearly-defined niches or roles, and clear goals.  Davis (1997) suggested that community-building principles can be translated into the online environment by having clear goals supported by carefully defined rubrics, by creating challenges that cause relationships to form through the exchanges of ideas, by providing regular reflection for individuals and groups, and by creating a structure or place that mirrors the key forms of social interaction to occur that permit the virtual community to form.  These pioneering ideas led the ESSEA staff to formulate experiences that guide participants through the social dynamics of the online learning process. 


The ESSEA online learning environments are places for collaboration and knowledge building, not simply a repository for Earth system content. Participants are mailed necessary background reading materials, CD-ROMS, and other supporting materials.  The online sites offer week-by-week instructions, information regarding rubric-supported expectations, guidance for thriving in online communities, and discussion areas.  Facilitators support, coach, reply to journal entries, and intervene only to provide administrative instructions, to maintain the flow and direction of the course, or to address specific Earth science or pedagogical issues.


Course Descriptions


The ESSEA partnership features online Earth system science graduate courses for teachers of grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. Developed over the past five years by the CET at Wheeling Jesuit University, these courses have undergone an independent, NASA-sponsored peer review and were rated "Outstanding."  Each of the semester long courses for elementary, middle, and high school teachers begins with three weeks of introductory activities, and then develops content, pedagogical, and technological knowledge through four, three-week learning cycles.  ESSEA's Earth system science courses for educators feature student-centered, knowledge-building,

virtual communities where teachers participate in collaborative exercises and threaded discussions. A master teacher and an Earth scientist, who assists with the science content, mentor each section of 20-24 students.


To view courses at the addresses below, use "cet" as your user name and password.


         K-4 Earth System Science Course – 

The elementary school course focuses on basic Earth system interactions between  land, life, air, and water.  In week A of each learning cycle,teachers do Earth system activities with their students.  In week B, teachers investigate aspects of the Earth system including how rocks change to soil, the relationships between rock, weathering, and soil nutrients, and the consequent development of biomes. In week C, teachers develop activities for their classroom and share the activities online with other course participants.


         5-8 Earth System Science Course –

The middle school course stresses the effects of various real-world EVENTS such as volcanoes, hurricanes, and destruction of rainforests on Earth's lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. Teachers work in teams during week A of each cycle to research the impact of an event on individual spheres.  In week B, participant groups jigsaw to study the interactions between events, Earth's spheres, as well as positive and negative feedback loops.  During week C, teachers develop Earth system classroom activities for their own students.  


         9-12 Earth System Science Course – 

The high school course is centered on problem-based learning in such critical areas of global change as degradation of coral reefs, ozone depletion, and climate change.  During week A, participants work in teams listing what they currently know about the subject, then searching for information via the Web and other resources. During week B, the group constructs an Earth system science diagram that describes the "sphere" interactions (atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere) from the various known causes of the event. In week C, each teacher/participant designs a lesson for classroom use and reflects upon what he or she has learned during the previous two weeks.




ESSEA was established to provide teachers with rigorous, online professional development courses that feature student-centered, knowledge-building communities in which teams of teachers solve problems, build models, and design original classroom activities.  By offering state-of-the-art online courses, the ESEA national professional development effort aims to improve the knowledge, skills, and resources of Earth system science educators.  Participants benefit from a deeper understanding of Earth system science and from the opportunity to use methodologies in their classroom that reflect current, cutting-edge research on how students learn. Course experience also encourages communication and cooperation among practicing science teachers.


Universities, colleges, and science education organizations that wish to join the ESSEA collaboration and deliver ESSEA graduate courses online for K-12 teacher are encouraged to inquire.  For more information about the Earth System Science Education Alliance (ESSEA) and information to complete "Requests for Proposals," please visit the ESSEA website at




Bereiter, C.  (1992) Implications of postmodernism for science, or, science as progressive discourse.  Educational Psychology, 29, 3-12.


Capra, F.  (1997) The Web of Life: A New Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Doubleday.


Davis, H.B.  (1997, January)  Building virtual communities: Parallel universes of the mind,


Johnson, D.W., & Johnson, R.T. (1992). Positive interdependence: Key to effective cooperation. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz & N. Miller (Eds.),


Interaction in cooperative groups: The theoretical anatomy of group learning (pp. 174-199). New York: Cambridge University Press.



Associate Editor

John C Butler

Department of Geosciences

University of Houston

Houston, Texas 77505