Month: July 2019

Science, simplified

Early on in my teaching career I would get caught up in the intricate details and vocabulary involved with science. Let’s be honest, middle school science is like a 2nd language to everyone with all of its Latin-based terms and high-level vocabulary. In many cases, this attention to words is warranted, particularly when it comes to words that relay procedure, but in some cases I would argue that the vocabulary can be left out. Here’s why…

Teach to think like a scientist…

There was a paradigm shift that occurred when we moved from the previous science standards to today’s Next Generation Science Standards.  As I’ve talked about before, we’ve moved away from the facts and memorization of all of humanities greatest science discoveries and moved towards teaching the skill-set required to think like a scientist; the ability to think critically and discuss collaboratively. A part of this shift means letting go of long lists of vocabulary and definitions to memorize. I know it might seem as though I am arguing to get rid of something crucial to our studies, certainly some vocabulary knowledge is needed, but should vocabulary be more important than understanding how something works or why something happens? Should it be more important than the scientific process of figuring out phenomena?

Let me use my middle school mitosis lesson as an example. When I first started teaching, I was incredibly concerned that students not only know the name of each stage of mitosis, but that they also knew what happened at each stage with specifics (I mean, honestly, was it so important that my middle schoolers knew what centrioles and spindle fibers were??). We would get so caught up in the vocabulary that the actual purpose of mitosis, the reason why its so important, would get lost in a jumble of complicated words. All my middle school students really needed to know was that one cell becomes two cells that are exactly the same. That’s it! That’s all there is… mitosis at its most basic.

Too much of a good thing…

The epiphany that perhaps I was giving my 13-year-old kiddos just a little too much “science” came from my principal. After observing my mitosis lesson, she asked one simple question that ultimately changed much of how I approached middle school science. She asked, “how important is it that they know all those words?” Of course, there is some vocabulary they simply need, and we have to spend time on, but I no longer believe it should take the lead on the lesson. In fact, one of the principles behind the NGSS is that students make sense of their own understanding of the science and communicate it in ways that are meaningful to them. This suggests that students need a multitude of hands-on experiences with the science so that they can truly understand, in-depth, what is happening. Obviously, students can’t conduct some experiment that “causes” mitosis, but there are ways in which students can observe, model and predict the outcome of the process without getting lost in the vocabulary. Getting lost in the vocabulary is exactly what I saw happening to my students, so I moved away from the vocabulary-dense lessons of my past and spent more time offering different activities that all drove home the same objective – the purpose of mitosis.

Remember, they’ll see it again…

I won’t lie, at first it worried me that I was presenting mitosis without all the stages. I had to go back and check and recheck the standard. I had to remind myself that the objective was for students to understand the purpose of mitosis (and later meiosis). And I had to remind myself that they would see this again in high school biology, when the focus, the standards, and the objectives would make it more appropriate for them to know all that vocabulary. In middle school, we are laying the foundation of science. We are building the wonder and excitement and curiosity that leads to creative thinking, problem solving, and thinking like a scientist.

Check out my activity-based mitosis lesson here!

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Understanding the NGSS – Themes

I love themes. I love classroom décor themes, birthday themes, even literary themes! And I especially love organizing my lessons by themes. Themes tie everything together, creating a unified feeling. I have long argued that thematic, unified teaching is a strong approach to meaningful learning. Prior to the NGSS, I did my best to organize the science standards into themes, and I did ok with it, but the NGSS was made for theme-based curriculum planning, and I love it!

In today’s post, we will take a look at the various themes that run throughout the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards).  We will look at the NGSS in two sections, K-5 (elementary) and 6-8 (middle school). The NGSS at the elementary and middle school levels was truly designed to move students through various core ideas with increasing depth. The core ideas revolve around the three core science disciplines: Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth Science. The skills and knowledge acquired build on each other, year after year.

Let’s take a look at the chart below to begin seeing the themes and how they build through the years.

Themes organized around the NGSS for K-5.

You might notice one big difference with the NGSS in that grade levels now get a “taste” of each of the 3 disciplines each year. With previous science standards, grade levels generally concentrated on one discipline (for example, Earth Science). This is most prominent at the middle school level as seen in this chart below.

Themes organized around the NGSS for 6-8.

While it is still possible to take a discipline approach to the NGSS (NGSS organized by discipline for middle school can be found here), I would argue that this takes away from the benefits of thematic teaching. Let’s take a look at the middle school thematic approach a little more carefully. Notice that with this approach 6th grade takes on an overall theme of development. How does life develop? How is energy created? How do weather patterns develop? 6th grade students are given a foundation in each of the disciplines and the disciplines feed into each other. Understanding currents and energy leads to an understanding of convection and conduction which leads to an understanding of weather and climate.

In 7th grade, this thematic unification is even more prominent. Students begin by learning the very basics of atoms and chemistry. They then use this knowledge to build onto their 6th grade understanding of cells, looking more deeply into the cell processes of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. This continues into an understanding of the bio-chemical cycles on the earth or how different essential elements such as carbon and oxygen cycle through the Earth. Physical, Life, and Earth science blend together creating a year-long science study about change.

In 8th grade, students take their knowledge one step further, exploring what happens when they challenge their understanding of the science principles. They play around with the idea of force and motion then explore the differences between Earth-bound rules and space. They explore energy and move beyond the Earth and even the solar system to discover the mysteries of the universe. Finally, they look inward, asking questions about genetic mutations and modifications, resource scarcity, and the human impacts on our world.

Teaching thematically gives students the opportunity to see their world as it is. Not broken into pieces, segmented and disjointed, but unified, building upon other ideas and skills, and creating a bigger picture of how things work. Remember that the idea behind the NGSS is to teach students how to think like scientists, not to teach them the history of science.

In my current placement at a science-based elementary (K-6) school, we have been working on developing monthly STEM days. One of my goals this year is to highlight monthly science themes that are promoted school-wide. For example, September’s theme could be “Growing Happy Plants.” You can see on the K-5 chart above how each grade level could participate in this theme based on their set of NGSS and level of understanding. Where Kindergarten students may simply grow plants for observation and exploration, 3rd grade students might track the entire life cycle of a plant, and 5th grade students might look more carefully at what plants need beyond sun and water. The possibilities when themes are involved are endless… and exciting!

Looking for some awesome middle school science lessons based on the NGSS? Check out these fantastic resources here.

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