Tag: 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!

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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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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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A Book that is Out of This World!

In my current position, I teach 5th grade at a school where the focus is to drive the curriculum through the lens of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Honestly, it’s a dream job and I work with a great team (taking a moment to count my blessings…). One of our greatest challenges, however, (and our ultimate goal) is to develop thematic units that are based on the NGSS and adequately cover all other standards in a relatable way.  Obviously, this won’t always happen, but we’ve made a good go at it none-the-less. One of the things that bothered me when I joined the team, however, was the fictional literature tie-ins that were being utilized. At the time, we had one fantastic novel that synced beautifully with our curriculum (Flush by Carl Hiaasen) and another that only sort of fit (Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell). I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the novel, but it was a stretch to say it tied in to any of our 5th grade science curriculum.

Well, over Thanksgiving break I was doing my usual wonder through the library (the one where I check out way too many books… my eyes are bigger than my brain, and my break, apparently).  I was in the children’s section, hoping to spot some new literature that might interested my students who don’t particularly like reading, when all the sudden the book Space Case by Stuart Gibbs caught my eye. I had no idea what I might be in for but I decided to go ahead and judge the book by it’s cover… I nabbed it and added it to my extensive pile.

It took me less than a day to read (which says more about the book than my reading speed).

Space Case is a fast-paced mystery about 12-year old Dashiell Gibson and his life as one of the first humans to live on the moon.  In this futuristic novel, NASA has developed an outpost on the moon, host to scientists and their families. While the prospect of being amongst the first humans to live on the moon may seem intriguing, Dashiell informs us that it most definitely is not all it’s cracked up to be… until the first ever murder on the moon occurs and Dashiell finds himself smack in the middle of the investigation.

Dashiell’s 12-year-old perspective of life on the moon is both humorous and honest.  Gibbs did a fantastic job weaving in the science we might not think about (such as visiting the toilet in a low gravity environment) with the raw honesty of a child narrator.  Additionally, the plot carries twists and intrigue suitable for young readers, giving them an opportunity to use deductive reasoning skills as they attempt to solve the mystery of the murder alongside Dashiell.

Not only is this a great literary piece for young readers, it also captures quite nicely several of the NGSS objectives we focus on in 5th grade, specifically the effects of gravitational force as well as the effects of Earth’s atmosphere.  While reading this book, we have the opportunity to discuss the reasons why gravity would be different on different celestial bodies and how different levels of gravitational force might affect us humans.  The book also touches on the effects of living without an atmosphere, leading us back to Earth’s own atmosphere and what significance it has on our lives. We can also delve into topics such as what resources are required to support life and what would be required to make another planet our home.

Each year, as part of our solar system unit, I ask my students to write a fictional narrative imagining that they have been chosen to colonize another planet. In the writing piece they reflect on the science we have learned while creatively developing a short story. Stuart Gibbs’s novel, Space Case, is a wonderful literary model of that assignment.  I highly recommend this novel as a literature tie-in for anyone teaching about the solar system.

Book Stats:

Pages – 337

Lexile – 750L

Accelerated Reader Grade level – 5.3

Grade Level interest – 4-8

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I See Race Cars…

I have a confession. I collect bottle caps.  Small, large, from all sorts of bottles, everything from Gatorade to milk. In the summer, when my collection reaches mammoth proportions and I can be seen begging bottle caps off strangers and relatives alike, this obsession seems undecidedly bad.  But in the winter, when the first race of the season is underway, and my collection has been put to good use, it’s easy to see this was never an obsession at all.  Because in that moment it’s finally clear, I never saw bottle caps, I saw race cars!

There is growing research to support the use of hands-on, inquiry lessons in the science classroom (Kauble & Wise, 2015).  In fact, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) adapted by most states puts a great deal of focus and emphasis on collaboration and student-led discovery.  But how does all this research and theory translate to the day-to-day of the classroom?

When I first started building race cars with my 8th grade students, pre-NGSS, I used it as a culminating activity. It was an active, engaging way for students to summarize and evaluate 4 weeks’ worth of Newton’s Law knowledge about how things move on Earth.  Powered by balloons, students had to engineer a car that could move fastest and furthest down the raceway.  Each of Newton’s three laws must be put into action for students to experience success and though the task sounded easy to most students at the beginning, a lot of hard work and critical thinking is needed in the end.  Race day was always a well-remembered highlight of the year and the students walked away with a much better understanding of motion after experiencing the hands-on engineering project.

But two years ago, when I started to evaluate my teaching in light of the new standards, I started to wonder… what if I didn’t teach Newton’s Laws?  What if students built the cars first?  Would they make connections and ask questions that would lead to a self-discovery of the laws of motions?  Or would my classroom devolve into a not-so-glorious mess of recycled boxes, glue, and, yes, bottle caps?  I decided to take my chances… we would build without knowledge of Newton or his laws.

When I first posed the question (Who can build the fastest race car made only from recycled materials and powered only by balloon?) there was a lot of excitement in the room.  But after the first build session, excitement turned to frustration… quickly.  A pack of frustrated middle schoolers can be a little scary, so it was important to channel this energy, thus the debriefing, an important strategy I discovered as I was making my transition to student-led inquiry.  I learned that it’s important to take time (10-15 minutes) to stop and generate questions when using this style of teaching.  Why are you frustrated? (The wheels don’t turn; the car won’t move.)  Responses from that first question turned into new questions.  (Why don’t the wheels turn?  Why is it important for the wheels to turn? (Newton’s Law #1!) How do wheels turn on actual cars?) And these questions became topics for research.  At this point, building stopped and research began but more importantly an atmospheric shift occurred in my classroom.  Suddenly the classroom atmosphere had shifted from ‘I want my students to know why’ to ‘my students want to know why.’  There was deliberate purpose behind their search for knowledge.  They had a mission to accomplish!

So, how did my quasi-experiment on the use of student-led science projects fair?  Well, as I would tell my students, more data and research would be needed to fully gage the impact of this method (they would roll their eyes too, don’t worry) but here is a bit of qualitative data I found… my students were far more engaged and present in the lessons.  The truth is, there is still direct instruction needed here.  The difference is instead of me saying “today we will learn about Newton’s second law of motion which involves the math formula force = mass x acceleration” the students are asking “why does my car stop moving when I add decorations?” and I am responding with a lesson. Additionally, students are assigning themselves homework, a phenomenon I find hilarious!  I am not a big advocate of homework and I don’t often assign it but in this situation, I found that most students would go home and do something related to their project.  Whether it was asking someone for advice, taking to the internet, or reading a book, the majority of students were considering the science well outside of the classroom.  And finally, the students were turning to each other for help and advice (collaboration anyone?).  Discussions about why wheels that turn are better than wheels that don’t turn supported by information from Newton’s laws and a few tests we did on friction were happening all around me.  It was enough to bring this curriculum nerd to tears.

So, the next time you see a bottlecap, or an old box, or even a scrap of paper, ask yourself what possibilities it might hold.  What could a little science, a little engineering and lot of middle school creativity bring to life from that simple recyclable?

Check out the complete balloon powered race car lesson here!

Reference:

Kauble, A., & Wise, D. (2015). Leading Instructional Practices in a Performance-Based System. Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research, 2(2), 88-104.

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