Professional Development Program for High School Teachers with Global Systems Science

The first Global Systems Science (GSS) Director, Cary Sneider, wrote material for a landmark book about professional development by Susan Loucks-Horsley, Peter W. Hewson, Nancy Love, and Katherine E. Stiles.  We reproduce here the specific excerpt in which Sneider describes GSS for its qualities as an exemplary professional development project of the 1990s.

Sneider, C. Global Systems Science: A Professional Development Program for High School Teachers, in Loucks-Horsley et al. Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, 3rd Ed., pp. 341-346 (Resource D) [1998 edition, pages 289–294].  Copyright © 2010 by Corwin. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Inc.

Cary I. Sneider
Lawrence Hall of Science,
University of California, Berkeley


Diane, I understand that you’re excited about this new integrated program called Global Systems Science, but I’m concerned that some of our parents will worry that their children will do poorly on standardized tests if it replaces the usual science curriculum. 


Then it’s about time we educate some of our parents about the need for science literacy concerning environmental issues. National Science Education Standards and our State Scinece Framework say we should spend less time teaching science vocabulary, and more time helping our students rlate science to the real world.


I’m not convinced that students who take integrated science will miss out on chemistry, physics, and biology. We plan to present the same concepts we taught before, but in a meaningful context. Students will still have labs but they’ll also debate the social implications of science and technology.


Now I didn’t say I was against it, but I’ll be the one to take the heat if our community is not convinced it’s a good idea. Are you willing to present your ideas at the Parent Teacher’s Association next Thursday evening?

The previous conversation did not take place in a real principal’s office. Zooming the “camera lens” back from the small group seated around the table, one can see at least 20 other teachers listening intently as their colleagues role play scenes that might actually occur when they return from the 1995 Summer Institute in Global Systems Science (GSS). Previously during the institute, the participants met with colleagues from throughout the nation and compared notes with other science and mathematics teachers who filed tested the student guides and laboratory activities. Later, they helped to create new activities and assessment instruments that would eventually be used in hundreds of other classrooms. 

As co-developers of this new science program, the 125 teachers who participated in the GSS programs between 1993 and 1995 increased their understanding of how studies of our planet are actually conducted and how these insights can best be communicated to diverse groups fo students. They also returned to their school districts with a mission to change the current emphasis of high school science departments from preparing a small segment of the population for college to providing all of the nation’s students with the skills that they will need to thrive in the modern world. The GSS program is one vehicle for accomplishing that, and the GSS professional development strategy, in which teachers learn to develop, implement, and disseminate new instructional materials, is one way to prepare them to change the course of science eduction as the nation enters the 21st century.

Although the professional development aspects of the GSS program took place in the 1990s, its genesis can be traced to the context of the 1980s, when the national agenda began to focus on global change and science education reform.

The Context of Global Environmental Change

The worldwide climatic disturbance of 1988 (no less than an epidemic of droughts, famines, severe storms, and forest fires) focused attention on the danger of global warming—the theory that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, is warming the entire globe. The potential for the industrial revolution to cause global warming had been predicted more than 100 years ago, but it was not until 1988 that the prospect was finally taken seriously, although scientists were by no means in complete agreement about whether global warming was under way and, if so, what it would mean for the future.

The prospect of global climate change was not the only environmental problem on the horizon at the end of the 1980s. The ever-increasing use of the world’s resources to provide energy, food, and housing for a rapidly increasing human population was clearly changing natural environments, resulting in a loss of biodiversity. Also, new developments in technology were found to be influencing the global environment in unexpected ways such as depletion of ozone gas in the stratosphere, exposing all life on the planet to higher levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Although men and women of every age probably consider themselves to exist at a unique time in history, during our lifetimes we are witness to the transformation of millions of square miles of natural habitats into farms, cities, industrial parks, and malls. The world’s growing population and its tendency to become even more urbanized and industrialized is affecting the environment on a global scale. Although these changes have been under way for decades, it has only been at the end of the 20th century that a large number of people have become aware of the scope of these changes and their implications for future generations.

The Context of Science Education Reform

If the 1980s were characterized as the decade of “crisis” in science education, then the 1990s may well be characterized as the decade of “change.” Project 2061 from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993), the Scope and Sequence Project from the National Science Teachers Association (1993), and the National Science Education Standards, created by the National Research Council (1996), are challenging the status quo. Although each of these projects deals with a different aspect of the science education system, they all project a similar image of the ideal science classroom. All three identify similar lists of the most important scientific concepts, theories, and attitudes that should from the core of the school science curriculum. All three emphasize the need to teach fewer topics in greater depth and to teach not only what scientists have learned about the world but also how they have learned it. All three support an inquiry-based approach, recognizing that students bring their own ideas to the classroom, and that students construct new meaning from these prior ideas. Also, all three projects suggest that high school science courses might be more useful and appealing to students if they focus on interdisciplinary issues relevant to the modern world rather than on the traditional disciplines.

Responding to the call for change, many administrators directed teachers to spend the summer “writing a new course” that integrates the sciences and meets other criteria laid out by the reform documents. Global change has been a popular subject for these courses because relevant topics appear in the news almost every day. Environmental protection is of concern to high school students, and the subject lends itself to an inquiry-based approach in which depth is emphasized over breadth. Although many creative teachers have developed excellent activities and assembled useful reading materials, most of these efforts have been conducted in isolation. The problem with developing instructional materials in isolation is that the same work must be repeated by many individuals, the opportunities for testing activities with students are limited, and the potential benefit of teachers working together to share their knowledge and build on each other’s ideas and strengths is entirely lost.

Development of the GSS Program

Development of the GSS materials started in 1990, when the Lawrence Hall of Science was awarded grants from the National Institute for Global Environmental Change, with funds from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. The product of the 6-year effort is an interdisciplinary course for high school students that emphasizes how scientists from a wide variety of fields work together to understand significant problems of global impact. Global ideas of science are stressed such as the concept of an interacting system, the co-evolution of the atmosphere and life, the goal of a sustainable world, and the important role that individuals play in both influencing and protecting the vulnerable global environment.

The GSS course materials involve students actively in learning. Students perform experiments in the classroom and at home. They read and discuss background materials. The “meet” a wide variety of men and women wha are working to understand global environmental change. They work together to dramatize their ideas for working toward solutions to worldwide environmental problems. They are challenged to make intelligent, informed decisions and to take personal actions, such as conserving energy, recycling, and preparing for their roles as voting citizens in a modern industrialized society.

The GSS Professional Development Program

The goal of the GSS professional development program was not just to implement a new course of integrated studies but also to enable teachers to actively carry out the new educational reforms. The key strategy that was selected to achieve this goal was teacher as curriculum developer. According to nearly all the teachers who attended the institutes, the experience of working intensively with colleagues for 3 weeks to discuss what to teach and how to teach, within a framework of guiding principles, was a valuable educational experience in itself. In addition, their creative work in helping to shape and improve the program increased their commitment and their understanding of the principles on which it is based. In the GSS program, this strategy played out in five distinct phases, which are discussed in the following sections.

Phase I: Pilot Testing

Unlike many professional development programs that begin with an institute or a workshop, this strategy begins by asking the teachers to help pilot test new course materials. During the 4- to 6-week period of pilot testing, the teachers do what they usually do—teach science; they substitute, however, a new unit of instructional materials in place of what they normally teach at this time of year. The materials themselves are quite different from the usual textbook, and the accompanying teacher’s guide offers suggestion for teaching methods and supplementary activities. During this phase of the program, teachers become familiar with and develop opinions about the new approach.

Phase II: Summer Institute

Having pilot tested the GSS materials, teachers arrive at the summer institute with a common experience. During the first week, they share their insights about the content and process of teaching the new materials and provide critical feedback to the GSS staff. In the second and thrid weeks of the institute, the teachers focus their creative energies on making the course better by inventing new activities and assessment tasks. They present these to their colleagues and receive affirmation of their efforts and construction feedback. They also visit laboratories and meet scientists involved in GSS research. Finally they learn how the GSS program fits into the context of science education reform, and they participate in activities such as the role-play session described at the beginning of the chapter.

Phase III: Assessment of Impact on Students

For teachers to commit to an innovative approach, they need to be convinced that id is making a positive contribution to their students’ learning. The teacher’s guide provides several ideas for testing student understanding before and after teaching a unit so that it is possible for teachers to see what their students have learned; the guide also provides ideas for maintaining portfolios of student work. Many of the teachers also provide student test data to the GSS staff in Berkeley for analysis and publication of comprehensive evaluation studies. 

Phase IV: Networking

Experiences in working with other teachers to develop innovative approaches often lead to a desire for continued contact with the growing community of teachers who share an interesst in the program both to find out about new activities developed by others and to share their own innovations. Electronic bulletin boards, newsletters, and reunions at teachers’ conferences are ways that are currently being used to support the network of teachers using the GSS materials.

Phase V: Dissemination

It is hoped that the teacher-as-curriculum developer strategy will be maintained as new teachers learn about the program and adapt it for use by their own students.

The strategy of teacher as curriculum developer is by no means a new approach to professional development. Federally funded curriculum development projects have traditionally involved teachers both in the early brainstorm phases of materials development and in trial testing experimental activities.  Teachers have contributed very important ideas to many of the science programs used in today’s schools, and some sets of classroom activities have been entirely developed by teachers. The focus of thses programs, however, has generally been on the products of the instructional materials that were developed rather than on the value of the teachers who helped to develop them. Recognizing that teacher as curriculum developer is a strategy for professional development should make it easier to export it to new situations. This strategy is especially effective for experienced teachers who are being asked to expand their capabilities and adopt new approaches and perspectives.

More excerpts from Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics:

Chapter 7, The Design Process in Action, subheading: 
“Knowledge and Beliefs About Teachers” 
(1998 edition, page 235)

A strategy that relies on teachers to develop curriculum must be rooted in respect for teachers’ capabilities; that is an explicit belief of the Global Systems Science (GSS). GSS brings teachers together to co-develop curriculum with the staff of the Lawrence Hall of Science. Teachers field test curriculum units even before convening, and the come to a summer institute to share their experiences and feedback on the curriculum. Then they create new activities and assessment instruments. Developer Cary Sneider commented, “We have a strong belief in the importance of trusting teachers and respecting their craft knowledge. When we do that, we get the best product and the best performance from the teachers.”

Chapter 7, subheading: 
“Knowledge of the Change Process” 
(1998 edition, page 237).

Global Systems Science, however, stood on its head the conventional wisdom about that sequence of learning experiences. Participants’ introduction to the program was not in a workshop but in their own classrooms. Before ever coming to the summer curriculum development institute, teachers received materials and taught units to their students. Then they gathered at Lawrence Hall of Science for a summer institute. The first phase of the institute was not knowledge building, as one might expect, but reflection on participants’ experience teaching the program. Cary Sneider explained:

We focused on experienced teachers and invited them to be creative, teach the material first, then come back and talk about it. First they reflected with other teachers and gave us feedback on the units. Then, after that, they were hungry for new knowledge. That’s when they were most interested in seeing what earth scientists were doing and in gathering more information. Later, teachers were given the opportunity to plan for how they would adapt materials for use in their classroom when they used them again.

While staying true to the principle that professional development is “developmental,” Global Systems Science’s design capitalized on the questions and concerns teachers would bring to the workshop after experiencing a change in their classroom. The change literature, discussed in chapter 3, informs us that learners move through a sequence of developmental stages in their feelings and actions as they engage new approaches. This is predictable. This also made the designers sensitive to teachers’ needs and questions as they learned. Then, based on the designers’ experiences, they found that precisely what kinds of support teachers needed at each stage varied greatly depending on experience level and the nature of the professional development program itself.

Their knowledge about change influence their initial designs as much as it served another equally important purpose during implementation: It helped designers understand, cope with, and navigate through the resistance to change and the chaos they encountered as the change process unfolded.

Chapter 7, subheading: 
“Experience as a Source of Knowledge” 
(1998 edition, page 239).

Global Systems Science developers’ experience as teachers trying to develop interdisciplinary curriculum was the impetus for the design for GSS according to Cary Sneider (1995). He stated,

Each of us on the staff of the GSS project had considered ourselves “innovative” teachers in the past, and we had all spent many years developing hands-on activities in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology. But we reeled from the disorientation of our first experiences in interdisciplinary teaching. Our need to prepare new lessons would take us to unfamiliar territories in libraries and bookstores. We had to be ready to switch from physics to biology as we went from one chapter to the next, or from science to economics and politics, so that we could follow up the implications of an issue instead of going on to  “cover” the next science topic…. If that was challenging for us in the supportive environment of a science center like the Lawrence Hall of Science, we realized it would be even more difficult for many teachers in the context of local and state school systems where the resistance to change is likely to be far greater.” (p. 5)

This experience informed GSS designers about what knowledge and skills teachers would need to implement an interdisciplinary program in their own classrooms. It also led to their choice of curriculum development as a professional development strategy. Sneider stated, “We also hoped that involving teachers as co-developers would engage their commitment to the new program, and help them acquire a deep understanding of the principles on which it is based.”

Just as understanding the underlying principles of GSS was important to participating teachers, so too was understanding the underlying principles of mathematics and science teaching and learning and professional development important to each of the professional development designers. They came to their ’artist’s palette’ with knowledge of these principles as well as their own rich experiences as learners and professional developers. These gave rise to a set of beliefs that guided the moves and choices they made. Staying true to these beliefs, however, turned out to be more of a challenge than designers anticipated.

Chapter 7, subheading: 
“Help Participants Consider Their Own Context as They Implement Changes” 
(1998 edition, page 246).

Any multischool or multidistrict effort can appreciate the design problem Global Systems Science faced. Participants in their national curriculum development institute came from all over the country. GSS literally had to consider as many different contexts as participants. How could GSS make the program as relevant as possible to a variety of contexts and help participants successfully implement the program? As Sneider (1995 p. 1) demonstrate[d] in the [Resource D] example, designers had some creative answers to that question….

…It was a role play from the GSS summer institute, where teachers thought about what might actually happen when they went back to their school districts to implement the GSS curriculum. At the GSS summer institute, participants did not just lean about the curriculum. They studied principles of change and thought about how the principles would apply to their own particular school context. 

As director Cary Sneider explains, the following was one of several ways that GSS honored participants’ different contexts at the national institute:

Because we had as many contexts as school districts, we had to look at commonalities. We discovered there were four different ways in which GSS was fitting into the schools. The implementation strategy depended on which one was a play. For some schools, the first year of science was wide open and GSS easily slid in. Other schools were starting it as an experimental program with the expectation that students would like it. Students demanding the program would bring about the change. In other districts, there was enough top-down pressure to have the nontrack science, and they needed a program like GSS. At the other extreme, the teachers taught in a traditional school and they would sneak GSS into a traditional course. We addressed each of these realities at the institute.

Most important, participants came to the summer institute having already implemented units from the curriculum in their own classrooms. Discussions about GSS did not happen in a vacuum but rather were grounded in teachers’ experiences. Participants gave feedback to the developers and designed their own activities and assessments based on what they knew form their experience would work best with their own students. In these ways, GSS was able to tailor its program to a diverse national audience.

Chapter 7, subheading: “The Professional Development Design Process—Set Goals” 
(1998 edition, page 248)

…Cary Sneider explained that “You’ve got to start out with some goals. But, goals evolve. The ones you start out with aren’t the ones you end up with.”

This material is the exclusive property of the Corwin Press and is protected by copyright and other intellectual property laws. User may not modify, publish, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create derivative works (including course packs) from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit any of the content of the file(s) in whole or in part. Permission may be sought for further use from SAGE Publications, Inc., attn. Rights Department, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360, Email: By accessing the file(s), the User acknowledges and agrees to these terms.