Thursday, January 26, 2017

NGSS: Preparing Students for Life

“It is my job to prepare students for college science.”  Heck, I know I have said this before, a lot.  We are told to adequately prepare our students for college and/or career.  But does this mean that it is our job to prepare them for college science?

I have begun to wonder, how many of the students that are in the high school classroom will end up completing a college major in a STEM field.  Because if it is my job to prepare students for college science, tons of students MUST be studying science in college.  Right?

I turned to the internet and after a lot of hunting found some interesting statistics.  I had to take some liberties at calculating data (hard to find exactly what I wanted) but I linked in my sources.  What I discovered was SO EYE OPENING that I had to write this up.  If we teachers are preparing students for college science then we are NOT doing what is best for ALL students.  Let me explain with some data.

In 2016, 3.5 million students graduated high school in the US.  Approximately 69% of graduates went off to college (2.4 million).  The percentage was from 2015, but I assume it would be similar for 2016.  It’s awesome to know that such a large percentage of our students are pursuing education beyond their formative years. 

About 1/3 of students in college choose a STEM major.  However, only 18% of all degrees earned in college are non-psychology STEM related.  Which means, of the 2.4 million students who go to college, only 432,000 students will graduate with a science/engineering degree.

If you look at the breakdown of the scientific pathways (which has changed over the years) then you find the data for those who acquire a science and/or engineering degree is as follows:

 7% biology/biomed (168,000)

6% Engineering (144,000)

 6% Math/Physical Science/Computer Science (144,000)

There is a chance that I am misinterpreting the data.  But, assuming I am correct, then I am going to take some more liberties and show you what this means for the high school science classroom.

Let’s assume you have 36 students in a science class.  24 will go to college.  Four out of those 24 kids will complete a major in science, engineering or math.  This means that 4 out of 36 students will pursue and complete a STEM degree.  That's only 11%!  Only 11% of all students!!!!!!!!!!  

Out of 36 kids in a class, only 4 will go off and study and complete a STEM degree?!  WTF?!?!?!?!?!?!   WOW!  In truth, there is a very good chance that your class (whether it is biology, chemistry, oceanography, physics, etc) is the VERY LAST TIME a student will have the opportunity to learn about that topic in a formal setting.  WOW! WOW!  WOW!  If we are teaching our classes with the mindset that it is our job to prepare them for college science, then we are neglecting about 89% of our student population!  ACK!  This is NOT equity!

As teachers, we need to ask ourselves, what do we hope the students take away from our science class? Are the steps of photosynthesis really that critical?  Is the ability for a student to recite the periodic table a life skill?  Is memorizing the equations to solve for kinematics an absolute necessity?

Should we focus our energy on getting students to do the following: 
  • ask good questions
  • design and perform an experiment (useful in everyday life)
  • collect and analyze data
  • have an opinion but support it
  • acquire information and share it
  • explain why things work and if it breaks figure out how to fix it
  • use basic math skills
  • use and interpret drawings/maps/diagrams

Oh wait…these are the science and engineering practices.

I’m not saying that the content of science isn’t important.  I LOVE myself some cellular respiration and it is important for students to know why they need oxygen!  But they don't need to know the molecular steps involved.  They don't need to know the names of the enzymes that are a part of the electron transport chain.  That is something they can look up and if they choose to study molecular biology, then they will learn those names.  We need to realize that teaching students to memorize content does not mean they understand concepts.

Students have the ability to look up ANYTHING we ask them.  They can literally find answers to almost any question we could propose.  So shoveling information into them in a form of a lecture day in and day out isn’t necessarily the best use of time.  However, showing them how to find good answers, how to use those answers, and how to determine if those answers are valid….well, now that is a useful skill.  

I was recently told the following.  “It sounds like NGSS will water down the sciences.”

I will respectfully disagree.  I believe that NGSS will provide our students with a skill set to do ANYTHING they want to do with their life.  Science isn’t just content.  It is embedded with invaluable skills.  If we teachers do our jobs well, then we will year after year utilize our content area expertise to embed these lifelong skills (science and engineering practices) into the future of our nation.  I would rather have a nation full of science-minded and skilled members that never went to college, than a nation full of college graduates who have no skills.

So I will change my approach.  It is NOT my job to prepare them for science in college.  It is my job to prepare them with skills for LIFE through the lens of science!

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Brain Science Behind NGSS

Most teachers have taken courses to understand HOW students learn.  These courses are usually built into a credentialing program.  Personally, I find the biochemistry and brain physiology of how students learn MIND blowing.  I am such a science dork.

I decided to see if the NGSS approach to learning science is better than traditional science classes by looking at how learning through an NGSS lens activates the brain. (Just as an fyi, this is my interpretation of the data I have collected from the countless hours of research I have done on brain chemistry and learning.  If it makes you feel any better, my graduate research did involve the brain.)
The brain is a fascinating, complex organ.  It is the organ that allows us to feel, respond, react, learn, remember, enjoy...basically, it is the cool squishy organ that makes us who we are.  Each area of the brain is responsible for different functions and researchers have studied in-depth which areas are responsible and activated during various processes/activities.

In regards to learning, the more areas in the brain that are activated and making connections, the better for learners.  Below, I am going to identify how different teaching styles can activate the brain.  If you really want to geek out on this topic, go here .  That specific article does a great job of looking at overall brain function and learning at all ages.


When students listen to a teacher talk this area of the brain is activated, assuming they are listening.  If students are taking notes while listening, a few other areas of the brain will be highlighted as well, but essentially, if the teacher is just talking, the student brain isn't doing too much.
Examples:  listening to teacher or presenter


When a teacher talks and shows visuals (powerpoint, pictures, etc) then the brain becomes even more active.  The ol' occipital lobe starts to come into play.  This is traditionally what many teachers provide for students during lecture.  The students get the information through a lecture and write it down. The more colors and visual representations, the better.
Examples: listening to teacher with powerpoint or whiteboard, watching a video


If a teacher designs a learning experience so that students are challenged to THINK about the content, then another area of the brain is highlighted.  When information is given to kids and they aren't allowed to practice applying that information, then the information doesn't have much value to the kids because the brain never connects to it.  To really make this activation powerful, teachers should offer questions that are more advanced.  Teachers should use the amazing DOK chart to form their questions.  I keep this handy dandy chart close by at all times.  Leading content with phenomena where students try to explain what is happening is a FANTASTIC idea.  When in doubt, a teacher can simply ask "Why is this happening?"
Examples:  practice problems, worksheets, graphic organizers, lectures with engaging questions, etc.


Now we are starting get somewhere.  Lots of teachers like a quiet classroom.  But a quiet classroom prevents the opportunity for students to SPEAK!  When students are challenged to think and collaborate with their peers through conversation, the brain really starts to light up. Getting them to speak is not only great practice in the conversation of science but it also allows them the opportunity to increase retention of the content.  The brain really starts to create more and more connections, which is absolutely necessary for learning and comprehension.  STEM teaching tools has an excellent resource to increase student discourse in the classroom.
Examples:  working collaboratively on practice, think-pair-share, repeat after me, asking questions, etc.


Some will attempt to argue with me that having kids do a worksheet or practice problems is having them "DO" science.  And, on some very rudimentary level I might agree.  But if you really want to see the brain come alive, have the kids MOVE!  I mean really move.  Why do they have to sit for the entire class period?  Get them on their feet.  Check out this short article about what 20 minutes of exercise did to the brain.   Kids should be moving to increase attention and alertness.  If you don't believe me, read this really good article here.
Examples:  interactive lectures (the blog on this coming soon), labs, projects, hands-on inquiry activities


NGSS requires that students think, know and do science all of the time.  And this 3-dimensional combination requires the ENTIRE brain to get involved.  If we want to get that entire brain involved, then we as teachers need to design learning activities that offer this experience.  This includes daily warm-ups, lectures, practice, labs, projects...ALL OF IT!  We have to seriously consider HOW we are delivering the material to students, WHAT we want them to do with that content, WHY we want them to do that, and HOW we are going to assess that they are doing it.

This is part of what makes NGSS such a challenge for teachers.  And yes, it is a challenge.  We need to transform our classrooms into an experience so that students can be an active participants.  They need to do the phenomena, design the experiments, create their projects, talk, etc.  If we simply go back to ours classrooms and give a 50 minute lecture where the students sit and get, then we are failing our students and we should be ashamed of ourselves.

You didn't learn how to ride a bike by reading about it and watching got on the bike and fell, then fell some more, then fell a few more times until you finally got it....but you GOT ON THE BIKE!  You had to DO that in order to learn how to ride the bicycle.  Science is no different.  NGSS is simply giving us the opportunity for this type of learning.  We need students thinking science, hearing science, speaking science, seeing science, DOING science.  We need it ALL!

In a nut shell, if done correctly, an NGSS science classroom will cause the learner to activate a lot of their brain, which is what we want!

We are really left with this one question:  Are you willing to accept the NGSS challenge for your classroom in order to activate the best learning experience for students?

I am.

Note:  You should see what MUSIC does to the brain.  There is a reason I always play music at the beginning of class and while they are doing labs/activities.  HOLY COW!!!!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The NGSS Treatment and Side Effects

In regards to medicine, a treatment is the care that is provided to a patient in response to injury or illness.   If we look at NGSS as a new and exciting treatment to help mend the fact that our country is falling behind in the sciences, then the NGSS TREATMENT should produce results that improve science education for all kids.

I have been neck deep in NGSS for a few years now, and this year we have been doing our new NGSS Physics course in the district.  You can read about my first semester experience HERE.  But, let's see if the treatment worked.

As educators we often times complain that kids aren't paying attention or doing the work.  I began to look at why they weren't paying attention and why they weren't doing the work.  I then chose to focus MORE on kids doing and less on me doing.  My lessons were redesigned to have students be ACTIVE learners.  My lectures were extremely interactive and I had students working together in collaborative groups a lot.  I really made sure that the work I gave students was valuable to their learning and something they would be interested in.  We did lots of labs, lots of projects, lots of student-centered learning.  Student participation went up.  I had most of the students, most of the time, working together.  WIN!

I was cautious if redesigning my classroom would actually help kids understand and do science better.  We rewrote our summative assessments.  They required students to explain themselves (like free response questions on an AP test).  The projects are content rich but allowed student creativity. Students were writing, drawing, talking, calculating, experimenting, graphing all the time.

No one failed last semester.  No one.  Student learning EXPLODED!

These are some of the phrases I have heard from my students this year:

  • Oh, this is cool!
  • I really get this. 
  • I like being creative.
  • I couldn't have passed this test if I didn't really know it, and I know it.
  • That test was easy.
  • I love this project.
  • This class is a lot fun.
  • I look forward to physics every day!

Another cool thing...I had students bring in their friends from other classes to show them their projects.  I had teachers and parents telling me that kids were talking about content from my class at home, at lunch, in their classroom.  THIS IS POWERFUL LEARNING!

The treatment worked.

Side effects are the secondary effects of a drug or treatment.   Some side effects are good and some are not so good. And when you begin to learn about and implement the NGSS Treatment, there are definitely some good and bad side effects teachers should know about BEFORE they start this treatment.  I should know...I experienced them myself.

In order to successfully integrate NGSS into the classroom, I had to collaborate with my peers.  This can be hard if coworkers don't want to collaborate or if you are the only one teaching a specific course.  But, conversations with coworkers and like-minded people are a MUST.  Whether you wanna play nice in the sandbox or not is up to you, but there is WAAAAAAAAAAAAY too much to get done for one person to go at it alone.  I would strongly encourage getting plugged in to social media as well:

NGSS isn't some sort of curriculum that comes in a box that you just unwrap and deliver.  We had to write tons of new performance tasks to make sure that learning hit the 3 dimensions (CCC, DCI, SEP).  We had to determine the true scope and sequence of our courses.  If this is not something you like doing, then team up with someone who does like it, because you are not going to find NGSS in a textbook with a box of ready-to-go resources.  And if you really think about it, science and engineering don't work like that in the real world either.

I have attended countless trainings and conferences trying to wrap my head around NGSS and to understand how it will transform the classroom.  I have scoured the internet high and low for resources.  Some stuff out there is fantastic, some okay, and some is downright useless.  There are lots of people claiming to have content that is NGSS aligned or tools that will help with NGSS. Unfortunately, many of these people haven't actually USED their tools in the classroom.  I don't know about you, but I've got a problem with this.  ALSO, some tools are GREAT for elementary but not secondary and vice-versa.  Be aware of this, because you can and will get bogged down on resources that won't be useful or told to use something that doesn't really work.  Because NGSS is still so new, we ended up creating a ton of our OWN resources, like lesson plan templates, unit plan templates, experimental design layouts, engineering design layouts, rubrics, summative assessments, performance tasks, etc.

I've got to give a mad shout out to Philip Bell and his team at STEM Teaching Tools.  In my opinion, they have some of the most VALUABLE resources for NGSS.  If you haven't bookmarked their page, then do it NOW!

I will again stress the value of getting connected on social media.  SOOOOOOO many good resources being shared!!!!

It took me about two years to really understand NGSS.  Now, I get it....well, most of it.  But for those two years, I was overwhelmed and very frustrated.  I was upset that we had to change.  I was upset that someone was going to try to tell me that the teaching I had done wasn't "good enough."  I was upset that I had to start teaching engineering.  WHAT THE HECK?  (I wrote an entire blog on that one)

I had to remember that science hasn't changed, just the approach to delivering the experience of science is being transformed.  Notice I didn't say "delivering the content of science." As a teacher we have to remember that science is much more than content.  Science is like a playing a sport or cooking.  Athletes learn the rules about a sport but they also play it.  Chefs read recipes and learn how to cook then they actually cook. Science is no different, there are rules and content (DCI) but you also have to do (SEP) science.  For too long, I think education has focused on the content of science. Now the focus is on the content AND the practice of science.

To prevent from being TOO overwhelmed I took a step back and realized that I needed to keep it simple.  Don't get too caught up in in all the language of NGSS.  Any good lesson has a learning objective.  A GOOD learning objective will follow this simple formula:

Students will be able to DO SOMETHING with CONTENT

Learning Objective = Students doing something + Content 

Below I have identified two basic learning objectives I have used over the years in my classes.  And here is the crazy part:  they already have the 3 dimensions within them.  (SEP, CCC, DCI)

  • Students will be able to make a graph that shows how distance and time are related when a ball rolls down a ramp.
  • Students will be able to read and annotate an article about DNA then explain what could happen to an organism if its DNA became damaged.

Once you have the scope and sequence of your course, just start with good daily learning objectives to make sure there is content and the kids doing something with that content.  The crosscutting concepts are likely already embedded in the learning and you just never explicitly identified it in a lesson.  If you are lecturing for 50 minutes and the kids are taking notes, that is NOT having the kids DO something with the content.  That is simply having kids write content down.  To help with this I would STRONGLY consider using this POWERFUL tool from STEM Teaching Tools.  I will be writing a blog (soon) on how to make lectures MORE interactive.  Because let's be honest, kids still need to learn how to listen to a lecture and take notes.

When I first started digging through NGSS, I quickly realized that there were huge gaps of information missing that would be needed for a kid to learn a PE.   NGSS doesn't explicitly call out all the content kids need to know!  Then I was reminded that the performance expectations are what kids are to know by the END of instruction.  It was my job to identify everything needed to get them there.  This required that I not only know my subject matter, but that I also have a deep understanding of learning theory.  I did countless hours of research and reflection.  I had amazing conversations with coworkers, science teachers from afar, researchers, engineers, etc.  It was the first time in a long time that I truly felt like a professional.  Plus, organizations like NSTA are doing fantastic job of giving a voice to teachers.

I realized that about halfway through this process that I was starting to feel guilty for the sins of my teaching past.  When I was a new teacher, I did not have a mentor and NGSS had not been created.  I was handed a textbook, a syllabus and told "go teach."  So, I did what I could. I gave readings from the textbook, vocabulary quizzes, cookie cutter labs, and on occasion a very simple project.  Those poor kids.  (Forgive me previous students!)  It wasn't that I didn't care or didn't try.  I did the best I could! I taught them the way my former teachers had taught me.  Read the book, answer the questions, do a lab, take a test...NEXT CHAPTER.  I taught content, but not the true nature of science.  I have vowed to never go back to that style of teaching ever again.  But, I did feel guilty for awhile.  That guilt MADE me want to become a better teacher.

As a life long learner, my biggest growth has occurred over the past few years because of NGSS. NGSS really forced me to dissect content and pedagogy.  This process has made me a better teacher and a lot smarter.  I have learned things about science, engineering, education and teaching that I never knew before!  I have become MUCH more reflective about my body of work.  I have become vulnerable to the process of not knowing something and willing to try something new.  My own learning has exploded and this makes me excited!

On occasion the students get frustrated.  They get frustrated because I am offering them the opportunity to DISCOVER an answer, and not just giving it to them.  Lots of kids are used to just finding the answer in the text.  But sometimes, and usually in science, the answer isn't always straight forward.  Heck, there could be more than one correct answer.  Be prepared for frustrated students as they LEARN how to think, process, analyze, question, design, basically think like a scientist/engineer.

In truth, we won't see the big results for years to come. But in my opinion, heck YES it works.  It works for the students AND the teachers.  And even though there are side effects, the good outweigh the bad.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

First Semester Reflection of our NGSS Physics Class

Last year, a small group of teachers (including me) wrote the NGSS Physics course that was put into effect this year.  We put together the scope and sequence, identified learning objectives, essential questions and key assignments.  The new NGSS Physics course was designed to be very conceptual but still had math components (specifically algebra).

As the first semester comes to an end, I wanted to take some time to reflect on what I have seen to be the biggest changes I have experienced with NGSS.

1.  We did not have time to write and find all the resources for the key assignments last year, nor did we write any of the summative assessments.  That meant we HAD to write them as we were going through the school year.  This was tough, considering once the school year starts it is hard enough to run a class much less develop and put into play a new course.  We had the big idea of each unit, but not the detailed unit plans/day-to-day lessons.  We had to create that along the way.  Tough.  NOTE TO ALL OTHERS:  MAKE SURE all key assignments and assessments are written BEFORE the school year starts…or at least the first few units are ready to roll.  

2. Having a team of teachers that is willing to work together and communicate frequently is an absolute MUST!  NGSS is tricky enough as it is…but to do it alone would be REALLY hard.  My district does not have a lot of physics teachers:  4 total.  I was lucky enough to have a teacher at my site who taught two sections of physics but in order for a solid collaborative environment I had to work with people from other school sites as well (more minds, better ideas).  We set up a shared file in One Drive where we put resources.  We actively emailed, talked on the phone and worked as a team in our approach.  We were not lock step, but we all worked together to make the course a success, providing feedback and input as we went along.  I can’t thank my amazing coworkers enough for being a part of this process with me.  Tonya, girl, you are a rockstar.  For a first year teacher you were A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. and could run laps around tenth year teachers!!!!  Brenda…you are my hero (@bmminj).  Your passion as a teacher and creative ideas are out of this world!  I have also joined a few NGSS facebook groups and routinely track twitter for NGSS news/ideas.

3.  The pace of the first semester was just right but after discussion, we are going to break up the Kinematics and Forces unit into two separate units for next year.  As of right now, this will be the new layout for the PHYSICS course.

4.  I really focused on HOW I delivered the content.  I still had lectures, but I focused on asking more questions, involving the students during the lecture, identifying cool phenomena to make the content more tangible.  I noticed that lecturing decreased, but the content got richer.  This took time and effort because finding GOOD questions to guide conversations can be challenging.

5.  I had students whiteboarding A LOT!    My focus on these boards was having them create models:  graphs, math, equations, drawings, verbal explanations.  Get whiteboards in your class!  SOOOOO worth it.

6.  My daily learning objectives focused on science and engineering practices.  I focused on what I wanted the students to able to "do" and "know" by the end of the day.  In the past my daily objectives would be more focused on content.  But in truth, the idea of the SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To) lends itself to the science and engineering practices.  Keeping a list of those hand at all times is a must.

7.  My students did a total of 13 labs during the first semester.  My primary focus with the labs was to have students design their own experiments.  I wanted them to clearly identify variables and produce solid graphs of data.  I need to focus more on writing solid conclusions (which, in truth, is the claim/evidence/reasoning component of the lab report).

8.  To increase writing in the class, students were required to do lab write-ups for all labs as well as do weekly blogs on a digital portfolio.  All labs were maintained in a lab notebook.  I have created a really awesome system to grade these so I wasn’t grading labs all the time.  The digital portfolio worked, kinda.  I had a nice layout, but not all kids got into it.  I really need to rethink what the purpose of the portfolio is and does its existence support the purpose.  

9.  I need to get more reading happening in the class.  Must find a way to incorporate that effectively.

10.  We did two big projects (performance tasks).  One of those projects became the final exam for the class.  The projects were a great way to incorporate engineering into the class.  The projects allowed students to have freedom of creativity and choice.  I got great feedback from the students.  I would say 90% really enjoyed the tasks and learned a lot from their research.  WIN!

11.  I noticed that many of my students started showing mastery of the content toward the end of the first semester.  This course was designed to keep revisiting previous concepts through projects/labs.  It was so reassuring as a teacher to see kids have that huge AHA moment.  I love it when a plan comes together. 

12.  We wrote a completely different style of summative test for each unit.  There were a handful of multiple choice questions, but most of the test was very FRQ (free response questions) in nature.  After the tests my students agreed that the tests were fair and there was no way to do well unless you actually “got it”.  In other words, you couldn’t guess your way to an A.  I was blown away to see that my test averages were usually quite high (close to 80%).  In truth, my students seem to have a richer understanding of the content this year than other years.  These tests did take longer to grade and require a sort of rubric.

13.  I spent a lot of time asking myself how I should grade in the class.  I made summative assignments 80% (tests, lab notebook checks, projects) of the grade and formative assignments 20% (homework, classwork, pop quizzes, etc).  I hate the grading systems we have because they do not truly allow a teacher the ability to track mastery of content.    I don't know if this is the best way to assess the students, but I have to start somewhere.  At the end of the day if a kid can show me they know it, then that is what matters….not a missing homework assignment.  I had to be willing to look past a few assignments and really identify what does it mean for a kid to show me they GOT it.  Which means, I get to go through every single kid one at a time to analyze if they finally showed me mastery of content.

14.  Most of my coworkers have NO IDEA what NGSS is or that science classrooms are undergoing a huge transition. This is a shame because this transition effects everyone.  I need to offer to share what is happening at a staff meeting and just chat with the administration so they know what is about to happen.

Overall, semester one of NGSS Physics has been awesome.  The kids were smiling, learning, talking physics, doing physics, experiencing physics.  They were coming into class and sharing how physics was occurring in their everyday life.  Kids were going home and talking about science and having their parents get involved in their learning.  They were bringing their friends into the class to show them their projects.  These kids were taking ownership in their learning.

It was A LOT of work on my part but I know that all of my hard work will pay off…the community should reap the rewards of students who can jump into society as effective global thinkers, learners and doers.  I had to give up control and try new things.  I had to become vulnerable and willing to transform.

My biggest take-away as a teacher is that an NGSS Science class is not a handful of worksheets, readings from a text, cookie-cutter labs, and a multiple choice test.  NGSS is a hands-on, all-in experience that has students and teachers diving into the deep end of science together in search of an adventure that doesn't necessarily have a right answer.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Scientist Maker or Scientist Breaker

When I attended the NSTA conference in Nashville, I scored an awesome t-shirt that said the following:


This phrase made me SO happy!  I took pride in wearing my scientist maker shirt, because as a science enthusiast and science teacher, I would like to think that I am a scientist maker. But then it hit me, if I could be a scientist maker then there was a possibility that I could also be a scientist breaker.


I wondered, which of these am I?  Do kids that take my class really enjoy science?  Do I create a spark within them that makes them passionate about the world around them?  Do any of them want to become scientists? Or am I pouring water on that flame of learning?  Am I turning them off to the awesomeness of science?  Did I prevent any of them from wanting to pursue a science/engineering degree?

I can't help but wonder, what are the characteristics of a scientist maker and breaker?  I put together a table.

Scientist Maker
Scientist Breaker
  • Let kids explore and learn by doing
  • Let kids design their own experiments
  • Give freedom with projects
  • Allow students to challenge concepts
  • Read real world research and argue its validity
  • Explore WHY something happens
  • Make science videos
  • Learn about concepts
  • Concept rich content
  • Assessments focused on application of science

  • Have kids take notes and listen
  • Have kids do recipe experiments
  • Do very few projects
  • Does not allow students to challenge concepts
  • Read the textbook and do a worksheet
  • Be told WHY something happens
  • Watch science videos
  • Learn about chapters
  • Vocabulary rich content
  • Assessment focused on what students know

I am sure there are many more than this, but what it boils down to is the following:
  • Scientist Makers want students to DO and KNOW science
  • Scientist Breakers want students to KNOW
I enjoy meeting and talking to people in industry.  I often times ask them, "What made you want to become a _____________________?"  You would be shocked to know how many of them state that some school teacher excited them about the topic so they decided to become a historian, engineer, doctor, nurse, etc.  I know I ended up studying science because I had two amazing science teachers that really challenged my thinking and let my play with science concepts.  If you are a science teacher, what made you want to do that? Was it another teacher?  If you had not had that teacher, do you think you still would have become a science teacher?

Let's be honest, when kids take our class they will either find the topic interesting or not.  If we don't do our job well, we could steer the next Tesla, Hawking or Einstein away from science.  We could prevent a child from seeing their full potential as a researcher or engineer because we are more focused on teaching content than giving them a scientific experience.  Why are we so hung up on giving a test to see if they can identify the steps of mitosis?!  WHO CARES if they can identify the steps of mitosis!!!!  Isn't it more important that all kids understand that cancer occurs because the cell cycle gets screwed up?!  Isn't it more important that kids understand the faster you are going in your car, the longer it is going to take to stop so stop going so fast?!  Why are we teachers so caught up with the trees, that we forget about the damn FOREST?!

I ask you, fellow science teachers:  are you a scientist maker or are you a scientist breaker?  This is a HUGE question!!!!!!

We literally have the control to mold the most precious commodity our world has:  our children.  We control the learning experience our children receive.  It is our duty, our responsibility, our calling to become scientist makers.  If you are not willing to do this, then SCIENCE TEACHER, it is time you retire or quit.  It is not your job to prepare these kids to take college biology, college chemistry or college physics.  It is your job to let them experience science so they can decide if they want to take college biology, college chemistry or college physics.  You are NOT the gatekeeper!

So, looks like NGSS and NSTA wants us teachers to be Scientist Makers.  I will happily accept that challenge! 

NSTA...we are going to need more #ScientistMaker shirts, please.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Engineering in the NGSS Science Classroom...Say what?

The Next Generation Science Standards requires that teachers incorporate aspects of engineering into their science classroom.  The first time that I heard this I actually got offended. I could not see the difference between science and engineering.  In my mind, the two were NOT separate entities so for NGSS to separate them really bothered me. 

I went home and told my husband, a brilliant aerospace engineer, that NGSS was trying to tell teachers that scientists and engineers are different.  I knew he would have my back.  He did not.  He said, “Scientists and engineers ARE different.”  Ummmmm….What?!  Uh oh.

Let's be honest.  Most science teachers are not trained scientists.  Some are, like me, but most are not.  However, most science teachers do have a background in science.  WOOHOO!  Win.  Let's flip this coin and look at the engineering side. Barely ANY science teachers are engineers, much less have any sort of engineering training or background. This is a problem!  NGSS is requiring us teachers to incorporate engineering into the science classroom, and I'm gonna argue that 98% (I completely made this number up) of all science teachers don't really have a clue as to what engineering really is about.   This is a HUGE problem!   We had better figure this out FAST!

I decided to do some research.  I first began by determining the differences between scientists and engineers.  In the table below I have generated some of the major characteristics problem solving approaches of the two.

Focus on Unknown
Create theories
Ask questions then find answers
Find the laws of nature
Tell engineers what to make

Focus on known
Implement theories
Use answers to make inventions
Use the laws of nature
Tell scientists the constraints to product      ideas

As a former research scientist turned educator I quickly realized that the one thing that engineers and scientists do the same is experiment.  WOOHOO!  Awesome.  I know the scientific method.  I have used it for most of my life.  So engineers obviously use the scientific method, but I wondered do engineers have their own type of method?  Was I missing something?

Every time I went to a science teacher conference I attended talks on engineering in the classroom and without a doubt people kept showing me this circular image (see below).  This doesn’t help me at all!  How do I approach this as a teacher?  
  • Come up with a problem. 
  • Come up with ideas. 
  • Establish a plan. 
  • Build the idea.
  • Improve upon the build
  • Come up with a problem again? 
What the heck?!?!?!?! I then began to realize that almost every talk I attended had been given by a teacher who was attempting to explain a method they really didn’t understand.  It was like they found this circular picture on the internet and were trying to convince me that engineers do this process. 

I was even more confused.

I went back to my husband and I asked him, “Scientists use the scientific method.  What the heck do engineers use?  I’m looking at this circle and it doesn’t make sense.”  He laughed and said the circular model was not accurate.

He stated that there is an engineering method.  He described what is known as the V-model of systems engineering.  I listened carefully and took notes. 

He said that engineers build their designs based off of requirements stated from the customer.  There are three major types of requirements (physical, functional, interface) that engineers work around.  Once a product is completed, engineers test it to make sure it works.  They then verify that their requirements were met and validate the purpose.  If all goes as planned, they launch the product into operation.

So now, I take the circle and analyze it as the V-model and I'm left with the following.

  • Purpose:  State the problem and/or identify the product needed
  • Requirements:  Identify the requirements of the product (physical, functional, interface)
  • Design and build product based off of requirements
  • Test product
  • Validate/verify product
    • Fix product as needed until requirements and purpose are met
After much discussion, my husband and I created a way to incorporate this V-model of systems engineering into the classroom.  I began to realize that you can take just about any project you have done in your classroom and give it an engineering twist.  I have designed a graphic organizer for teachers to HELP them create their engineering projects.   

I have been piloting this V-model process for over a year now.  After much tweaking and modification I am confident in the effectiveness of the process.  Check out THIS activity I had my physics students do.  The approach was 100% engineering.

PURPOSE: Design a parachute that will slow the descent of a container from 2 meters to a max speed of 5 m/s, prevent the item inside (a chip) from being damaged and land within the target area of 0.5 m diameter.
  • Physical
    • Can only use supplies provided (paper, plastic, string, tape, rubber bands, scissors)
    • Cannot be bigger than 1 meter in all directions
  • Functional
    • Must slow the descent of the package
    • Max velocity before it hits ground should be no more than 5 m/s
    • Must deliver the item (chip) undamaged
    • Parachute must open up on its own
    • Must land within target area of 0.5 meter diameter
  • Interface
    • Must easily attached to the box without damaging the box, easy to remove

    DESIGN/BUILD:  You will have 1 week to design and build your parachute. 
    EXPERIMENT:  You must test your parachute, provide evidence of your testing
   VALIDATION/VERIFICATION:  You will fill out the paperwork in order to validate the purpose was met and verify that your design was built to the stated requirements.  You can see the rubric below that the students used to measure the verification of their requirements.  The rest of the paperwork had students calculating, drawing, etc.

Now, you might say to me, “Hey Becky, doing engineering is super easy in Physics.  Because physics is like engineering.  I teach  Biology.  How does your method help me?” 


Let me give you a classic example of having students make an informative brochure about cells.
   PURPOSE:  The purpose of this project is to make an informative flyer about a specific type of cell found in a human body (leukocyte, hepatocyte, erythrocyte, etc).

    •  Can only use paper
    •  Cannot be larger than  8.5 x 11. 
    •  Need at least 4 images (drawing or actual pictures)
    •  Must provide information to the reader about
      •  The type of cell you are presenting
      •  Where is the cell found
      •  What the cell does for the human body
      •  Organelles in cell and their function
      •  What happens to the human body if this cell doesn’t exist and why
    •  Must be held by human hands
    •  Must be written for English readers
   DESIGN/BUILD:  Students will now be given 3 days to research and create their flyer.

   EXPERIMENTATION:  Students will test the effectiveness of their flyer.  They need to design and perform and experiment to test whether or not their flyer is informative.  Provide evidence of its effectiveness.
  VALIDATION/VERIFICATION:  Students need to explain how the purpose was met.  Students need to verify that all requirements were met.  (This can be done on worksheets and as a rubric as seen in my parachute example)

    See?!  This engineering thought process is doable for any class, even if it isn’t a science class.   You don't have to require the students to perform an experiment on their project, but if you want students to test the effectiveness of their product then you should have them experiment.  You can include paperwork that they must fill out to focus on additional questions, drawings, graphs, etc.  (see my example from the parachute)

    Now that I understand what the engineering method is and how MY BELOVED scientific method is embedded within it, I feel so much more confident and competent in my approach of delivering engineering content in my classroom.  I would love to hear from other educators about their  approach to engineering.

  Happy Sciencing.  Yes...I just made that a verb.

     SIDE NOTE:  
I presented this topic at the 2016 NSTA STEM Forum 
and with any luck I will present this at the 
Fingers crossed.