Overview and history of the Honors Earth Science Course
By Wendy Van Norden
There are very few Earth Sciences courses taught in High Schools across the nation. The few Earth Science courses that are available are often low level courses designed for students that are not college-bound. This is particularly true in California. The University of California has a history of denying “d” lab credit for Geology or Earth Science courses. A few have snuck through in the past (Harvard-Westlake’s Regular Geology Course, for example), but in general, few have received lab credit. The criteria for “d” lab credit is as follows
(d) LABORATORY SCIENCE
Two units (equivalent to two one-year courses) of laboratory science are required; three units are strongly recommended. The intent of the laboratory science requirement is to ensure that entering UC freshmen have a minimum of one year of preparation in each of at least two of the foundational subjects of biology, chemistry, and physics. This requirement can be satisfied by taking two courses from among these specific subject areas. However, other courses may also qualify, if they provide a core set of knowledge in one of the three foundational subjects.
Certification Categories. Generally, courses that are suitable for satisfying the minimum requirement will fall into one of three categories:
1. College preparatory courses in biology, chemistry, or physics.
2. College preparatory courses which may incorporate applications in some other scientific or career-technical subject area, but which nonetheless cover the core concepts that would be expected in one of the three foundational subjects. A few examples could include some courses in marine biology or agricultural biology, which may qualify as providing appropriate content in basic biology; and some advanced courses in earth and space sciences, which may provide suitable coverage of chemistry or physics. These are only examples; other possibilities exist. However, it is emphasized that courses in this second category must cover, with sufficient depth and rigor, the essential material in one of the foundational subjects in order to qualify for “d” certification.
3. The last two years of three-year sequences in Integrated Science, where rigorous coverage of at least two of the foundational subjects is provided.
Additional courses beyond the required minimum of two may be drawn from a fourth category:
4. Advanced courses in any scientific subject area which depend on (i.e., build upon while offering substantial new material), and specify as prerequisite, one or more courses from categories 1-3.
Lower-level / introductory science courses that do not specify prerequisite courses from categories 1-3 above, and do not address a majority of concepts that would be expected in any one of the foundational subjects, will be considered for certification in the “g” elective area. Examples of courses that would normally fall into this category include environmental science, physical science, earth science, and Integrated Science 1.
As can be seen in the highlighted segments, there is a possibility of an Earth Science course obtaining “d” lab status if the course is demonstrated to include coverage of chemistry and physics. In practice, few Earth Science courses that did contain adequate coverage of chemistry and physics were accepted.
Most Earth Science courses in California are not college preparatory courses. They are usually offered to students who are in 9th grade and are not strong in science. The University of California had good reason to doubt the level of rigor of these courses for college preparation. Another reason for rejecting Earth Science is the fear that students who took Earth Science would not have taken High School chemistry, which would leave them ill prepared for the University of California. Unfortunately, all Earth Science courses, regardless of rigor were being rejected.
Even when a teacher wanted to create a rigorous Earth Science course, the course would not receive “d” lab status, and college counselors would warn top students to avoid it, leaving the course, once again, a course for weaker science students.
In 2010, I sent a petition to California Earth Science educators. The petition asked the UC BOARS committee to include the Earth Sciences as a possible “d” laboratory course. Despite the fact that there were 500 signatures, including the signatures of many UC faculty, the petition was rejected unanimously. However, the petition did attract attention to the problem and opened a door for more discussion. As a direct result, I formed a task force consisting of the following:
Wendy Van Norden, Harvard-Westlake School, North Hollywood, CA. ,
Tom Traeger, La Canada High School, La Canada, CA,
Ray Ingersoll, Earth and Space Sciences, UCLA,
Bruce Luyendyk, Earth Science, UCSB,
Eldridge Moores, Geology, UC Davis
The task force decided to present to the University of California with an Earth Science curriculum that was unequivocally rigorous, and would be accepted as a “d” laboratory course and as an “honors” course. The UC definition of an honors course can be found as follows:
HONORS LABORATORY SCIENCE GUIDANCE
- Laboratory Science Honors courses are expected to provide both breadth and depth of exploration in the subject area, developing writing, research, and analytical skills. Specific detailed evidence must be included in the course outline.
- The courses must offer content and/or experience that are demonstrably more challenging than what is offered through the regular college preparatory courses in the same field.
- Factors considered for UC approved honors courses that satisfy the "d" requirement include but are not limited to the assignment and evaluation of one long or numerous short, challenging, and properly-annotated research papers and a comprehensive final examination. Specific details of each of these assignments are required.
- The use of college-level textbooks is encouraged.
- Regular college preparatory courses in the subject areas should be offered. If regular non-honors courses are offered, a strong justification for the lack of a regular course is required.
- In addition to AP and IB higher level courses, high schools may certify as honors level courses not more than one unit for each Laboratory Science Discipline.
- A single, written, comprehensive, full year final exam must be administered that encompasses all the material that has been covered for the entire year.
Having an honors Earth Science course accepted by the UC was not unprecedented. In 2005, I worked with Ray Ingersoll of UCLA. We obtained an NSF grant to create an Honors Geology course that would be a dual credit course based upon the UCLA ESS1F course, and taught at Harvard-Westlake School. Part of that grant was the provision that we promote the resulting course and create an Earth Science version of that course. The website for Honors Geology can be found at http://www.hwscience.com/Geology/Honors/index.html . I have been teaching Honors Geology successfully since 2006 and my students have the option of receiving 5 credit units on a UCLA transcript. The adaptation of the Honors Geology course into an Honors Earth Science course was done by Dr. Blaise Eitner, of Harvard-Westlake School. The Honors Earth Science curriculum can be found at http://www.hwscience.com/Geology/Honors/Honors%20%20Earth%20Science.html
The task committee decided to take the adapted Harvard-Westlake course and to include the prerequisites of algebra, biology and chemistry. We also decided to make it an “honors” course, since the “honors” designation results in the same grade point average increase that is given to an AP course. As a result, the “honors” designation is attractive to top science students who are applying to colleges. The course was submitted to the BOARS committee of UC, and it was “unanimously endorsed it as an exemplary area ‘d’ course that we would like to see replicated across the state.”
The Honors Earth Science course was submitted online by Harvard-Westlake School and was accepted as both a “d” laboratory course and as an honors course. The course can be found listed at https://doorways.ucop.edu/list/app/home?execution=e1s4
A number of teachers in California have already started to work towards bringing Honors Earth Science or Honors Geology into their schools. Many of them are working with local colleges to make the course dual credit. This website was created in order to help teachers adopt these courses, and to share advice and encouragement among all educators interested in bringing the Earth Sciences into High Schools.