Tag: science classroom

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!

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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

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The Metric System… A Love Story

The other day I was having a conversation with my son about the metric system.  It started innocently enough.  He had asked what a gram was and I had obnoxiously and sarcastically replied “1/1000 of a kilogram.”  After rolling his eyes and telling me in an exasperated voice that was NOT what he meant, he then wondered how I’d know it was 1/1000.  Thus, a conversation on the metric system.  My mom, who was listening in at the time, chimed in with a helpful “I don’t know why you bother.  No one uses the metric system anyway.”  As shocked as I was, I was even more dismayed to note that this was the second time in as many days that I’d heard this sentiment.  Yes, I suppose our everyday dealings with measurements requires us to more routinely know the customary system than the metric system.  But who among us can deny the beauty and pure elegance that is the base-ten foundation of the metric system?  A simple glide of a decimal point this way or that and voila!  The value of the number has instantly changed!  None of this multiplying by 3 or dividing by 12.  No!  Just a flip of the little decimal and suddenly my liters are deciliters… my kilometers are hectometers… my…

Okay, maybe I find the metric system slightly more compelling then most but truly, it is a pretty nifty way to convert measurements, once you know what you’re doing.  Plus, it’s the accepted system of measurements for all things science, so naturally, I’m in (you had me at science… *sigh*).

Teaching 8th grade science where we deal with a lot of physics (and a lot of measurement!), I was always shocked to find that the metric system was relatively new for most students even though it is addressed in the (California) math standards during earlier years.  Though I’ve known some teachers to push forward with their speed and acceleration calculations using the customary system, I found it better in the long run to spend 2 weeks at the start of the year immersed in a unit on the metric system (despite constant moans from my students that they thought they were in science, not math… ugh!).  Knowing the metric system and using it throughout a course on physics (and even other science disciplines) allows students to have a more concrete understanding of the physical principles they are bound to encounter.  After all, if I’ve spent my time recording data in inches and feet, how will I deal with that pesky 9.8 m/s2 as my object comes tumbling towards Earth?

Certainly, there is a benefit to addressing both the metric system and the customary system in the science classroom.  After all, when I calculate the velocity of the Ferrari speeding down the American highway, it’s not likely the patrolman clocked it in meters per second.  Knowing how to use both systems ensures a student’s understanding of the concept.  But, let’s not ignore the metric system, at the middle or even the elementary school level.  There is something quite magical about a system of measurement that can change with the flick of a decimal point.

 

Want to try a metric unit in your classroom?  Check out my unit on the metric system here.

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