Tag: middle school science

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!

{ Add a Comment }

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.

{ Add a Comment }

Unlocking the NGSS Series – Intro

The best way to describe the Next Generation Science Standards is like this:  We used to teach students the history of science (facts, dates, people), now we teach students how to think like scientists.  In my mind, this is an amazing and positive shift.  Whether we become scientists or not, we all interact with our physical world is some way.  Observation and critical thinking is key to these interactions.  So, it may not be necessary to know the intricate workings of the ribosomes and endoplasmic reticulum (although who can deny what fun words those are!) but it is arguably helpful to understand what nutrients our cells need and what happens when they don’t get them.  This is the gift our new standards have given us, an opportunity for our students to ask probing questions while observing every day phenomena. 

I’m sure many of us, myself included, can remember spending science class reading about other people’s discoveries and memorizing long lists of Latin-based words or laws about the physical world, particularly in middle school.  If we were lucky, we had the pleasure of a class with labs which at least allowed us to re-discover those discoveries we read about.  If this is all we ever did though, how would we ever discover anything new?  To examine phenomena, ask questions, and test theories is its own special type of critical thinking, one that requires instruction.  The Next Generation Science Standards is designed to steer instruction in this direction, but the fact of the matter is, it can be difficult to teach (and assess) “thinking like a scientist.”  The setup of the written standards is difficult to navigate as well, leaving many teachers unsure about what to teach.

Over the next blog posts, I will be exploring the Next Generation Science Standards for grades K-8 and sharing a few tips I’ve found helpful, both on how to navigate the new standards as well as how to implement them in the classroom.  I will be using and referring to the standards posted on the Next Gen website (http://www.nextgenscience.org/) (although I like the navigation and layout of the California site (https://www.cde.ca.gov/pd/ca/sc/ngssstandards.asp) a bit better).  Lastly, I will try to share as many fabulous and fantastic resources as I can… starting with this one here.

Happy Teaching!

{ 1 Comment }

The Flipped Lab

Not too long ago a concept called “The Flipped Classroom” entered into the education jargon. The idea was to have students complete the direct learning activities at home (lectures, reading) and complete the student-led activities in the classroom (projects, labs, exploration activities). So much of this concept appealed to me when I was first introduced. I am a big proponent of changing our education delivery. What with google and other resources right at our fingertips, information is readily available. Learning to discern, comprehend, and analyze information is really the new frontier of today’s classroom.

The problem for me, however, came in the form of logistics. I have, for most of my career, worked in settings where a student’s access to online resources could be limited at best, and this, it turns out, is a fundamental component of the flipped classroom. Everything from hardware to connectivity meant at least half my students would not be able to access the at home segments of their education. Still, I wanted to explore this idea of student-centered instruction more and do it in a way that ensured everyone had access. That’s when I discovered an idea I came to call “the flipped lab.”

The concept grew out of an ELD/ STEM initiative I worked on. The program aimed to design highly effective STEM lessons that met ELD standards and sought to promote language development through science. One of the guiding principles of the program was that students needed opportunities to experiment with phenomenon before being provided with direct instruction. And this didn’t just mean seeing a demonstration or putting their hands on the equipment for a few minutes. It meant really engaging with the science, on their own, then discussing their observations and thoughts with each other and generating their own questions. Only after they had really delved into a phenomenon would they then be presented with information. To me, this was like becoming Newton or Copernicus, Mendel or Pasteur. Instead of reading about what great minds before them had discovered, they discovered it for themselves then turned to the experts to seek answers to their questions.

My first revelation on how to make this happen came when I was teaching about the xylem and phloem in plants. Normally my lessons would go something like this: Lecture on the xylem and phloem, view artistic renderings of the xylem and phloem online or in the textbook, create our own diagrams about the xylem and phloem, then conduct a (common) lab where we stick carnations into colored water and watch as the white flowers turn a bright red at the edges and finally dissect the stems to observe actual xylem and phloem. In all honesty, by the time we got to the last part (the most exciting part!) most of them were so lost and confused, the phenomenon had little effect! That’s when I decided to flip the lab.

The next time I taught this lesson, I started with the carnations. No explanation, no reasoning, just a simple “Let’s observe and see what happens.” Within a day the color began to creep up the stalk and into the white petals. Small streaks of red made their way across and pooled at the edges. The students were fascinated! How had this happened? Could they cut the flowers open and look at the inside? Could they view it under the microscope? Why was it only moving up parts of the stalk while other parts seemed unaffected? They discussed ideas, thoughts and theories with each other, each bringing to the table their unique language, background, and experience. Soon we had a collection of theories and a ton of questions… and a reason now to move with engagement to the books, diagrams, and online resources.

In many ways, a “flipped lab” is the underbelly of the Next Generation Science Standards. As humans, we are natural observers and questioners of the world around us… natural scientists. The science classroom should be a place where we can celebrate this innate curiosity within us!

Looking for lessons to help flip your labs? Check out these great resources:

Student-led exploration of plant and animals cells

Exploration of Newton’s Laws through race cars

An introduction to cells and the basic needs of all living things

{ Add a Comment }

Making Microscopes

Did you know that you can turn your smartphone or tablet into a Microscope? Here’s How…

Light allows us to see objects. It reflects off an object and projects an image onto the retina of our eyes, which our brain then interprets. But, if we bend the light, we can change how the object projects. We can make the object bigger or smaller, or even distort the image completely. By using a lens (a curved piece of transparent material, usually plastic or glass), we can manipulate the light to make an object appear closer or larger.
In this activity, we will combine the camera lens already found in a smartphone or tablet, with a second lens to make a microscope (a tool to see (scope) small (micro) things).

Materials:
*Inexpensive Laser Pointer *bobby pin
*super glue *tweezers or small screwdriver
*wire cutters (or other scissors strong
enough to cut through metal)
*masking tape
*tablet or smart phone

Directions:
Disassemble the laser pointer until you are left with the light
and circuit unit. The small, silver barrel attached to the unit
contains the lens.

Break off the silver tube, setting all other pieces aside.

Using the tweezers or small screw driver, carefully remove the ring that holds the lens in place. The lens should fall out after the ring is removed.
If you are unable to remove the ring, complete the optional step below.

(OPTIONAL – only needed if step 3 was unsuccessful) Using the wire cutters, carefully cut notches into the sides of the top, loosening the hold on the lens (use caution and adult supervision here… alternatively, students can attempt to work the lens loose with the bobby pin and tweezers. It’s important not to scratch the lens, however.)

Turn the top upside down on a firm surface and gently bang the top against the surface until the lens comes loose. You can also attempt to work the lens loose with the bobby pin or tweezers. Be sure not to scratch the lens, however.

Once you have the lens, set it off to the side while you prepare the bobby pin.

Open the bobby pin slightly so that the opening is a bit wider than usual. (You want the lens to fit snugly in-between the prongs, without snapping out). Carefully place a small drop of super glue on both sides of the largest notch in the bobby pin.

Using the tweezers, carefully place the lens into the large notch of the bobby pin, being careful not to get glue on the lens. Allow the glue to dry.

Once the glue is dry, place the lens directly over the camera lens on your tablet or smartphone. Attach masking tape to hold the bobby pin in place. Your makeshift-microscope is now ready to use!

Turn on your device and access the camera function.

You will need to adjust the magnification and blurriness of objects in two ways, first by using the zoom-in function of your device’s camera and second by adjusting how far away you hold the device from the object you are attempting to view. (This is similar to using the focus knob on a traditional microscope).

Use your makeshift-microscope to explore the microscopic world around you! When you are ready to look at specimens, use a specimen slide just as you would with a traditional microscope.

Watch the process here!

{ Add a Comment }