Thursday, November 26, 2015

Biology, Chemistry, Physics: Why this order?

I've often wondered why do schools in the US force students to take science in this order:  Biology, Chemistry, Physics?  I'm not a subject matter snob.  I think each of these courses are super important for students to learn, but what is the research backed rationale for this order?


  • I've been told the order is because of the alphabet:  Biology, Chemisty, Physics. If this is the case, then this is just stupid.  S.t.u.p.i.d.

  • I've been told the order is because advanced math is required for chemistry and physics.  Hmmmmm.  I teach physics and the math is manageable by kids who are taking Algebra.  Sure, it helps that kids have a richer understanding of math, but where better to appreciate and see how math can work for them than by doing Physics!?  And secondary teachers, if you are approaching chemistry or physics with math more complex than basic Algebra, why are you doing that?  Stop it.  Naughty.  Who made you the gate keeper of science?  Stop trying to make your class non-equitable.  If we make our science classes equitable, then kids will want to take science, learn science, and see how AWESOME science really is!  That doesn't mean you have to water down curriculum.  It means you are teaching CONCEPTS for application, sprinkling in math to support understanding.  Sigh.  Don't be a science a science facilitator!!!!

  • I've been told the order is because the sciences build upon each other.  Logical....but what a load of steaming poo.  I've taught biology and there is a TON of molecular concepts in there. In my freshman biology class I taught atomics structure, electronegativity, polarity, bonding, balancing equations, etc. That's chemistry and none, I mean ZERO of my students had taken chemistry. The kids ate it up and could better appreciate how the STRUCTURE of a molecule determines its FUNCTION.  They could literally see how an enzyme would stop working if denatured.  
    Image credit Michael Knowles
    So, Bio before Chem????  Um, maybe 100 years ago, prior to identification of DNA and the central dogma.    So why physics last?  I have been blessed with the opportunity to teach physics and I can comfortably state that physics is the foundation by which all science builds, so....yeh, the logic here is flawed.  Physics is the Lego pieces by which we need to understand all science.  I would comfortably invite the debate on this topic.

All 3 ideas listed above could be the reason the order is B-C-P, but I wanted to know WHY!?!?!?!  So, I turned to the ol' internet and did some research.  Apparently back in the 1890s a group of men was formed: The Committee of Ten.  These guys were educators that were tasked to recommend the curriculum for American high school education.  Heck, prior to the 1890s, science was NOT routinely taught in schools at all.  Essentially the Committee of Ten released a report and in it they suggested the three sciences, but believe it or not, they encouraged that physics be taught before chemistry!  But let's go ahead an agree, that maybe something that is over 100 years old could be revisited, at least for the sake of making sure that it is still relevant.  Read this article here by Keith Sheppard and Dennis Robbins.  Great article, guys, freakin' awesome.

Let's see where American education has gotten us.  Take a look at some data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Image credit:  National Center for Education Statistics

It is appalling that one of the most useful science classes (physics) is only taken by approximately 36% of all high school students.  That is NOT ok....and science peeps, if we truly love science and want our students to appreciate it, then we need respect all the sciences for what they can offer and either change the order or require all 3:  Bio, Chem and Physics.  I know, I know...but there are no physics teachers out there.  I hear ya...but I'm a bio nerd turned physics teacher and I'm loving me some physics now.

One could easily argue that with the advances in the biological sciences, the order that the sciences should be taught is  Physics-Chemistry-Biology.  Just sayin'.  And for all of you Physics teachers that are poo-pooing the idea of Physics first because you are math snobs, read this article then comment or email me.  I would love to hear your perspective as to why only kids in Calculus can take and appreciate physics.

Imagine the explosion that could occur in the life sciences if all kids had to take Physics and Chemistry first!  Holy Cow!  Diseases you had better run and hide, because American students are about to kick some biological baddies asses!

But, let's look at some more info to see if you think we need to be shaking some stuff up.  The US is not #1 in science and technology.  Japan has that spot.  And according to Bloomberg, the US is #6 on the list of most innovative countries.  #6!!!!  ACK!  We were beat out by Israel, Finland, German, Japan and South Korea.  South Korea?!  I now have my sad/angry face on.

Science teachers...we know this is a problem.  Stop allowing the counseling department and district offices decide what is best for kids.  WE ARE THE EXPERTS!  We need to put our voices out there, with the research to back up WHY B-C-P is NOT what is best for kids....because, it simply is not.

Monday, November 23, 2015

I Already do NGSS...No You Don't

Two years ago I got introduced to NGSS.  At the time, I glanced over the material and thought to myself, "Yeh, I already do most of this."  I do inquiry style labs, projects to drive instruction, a variety of assessments, application based learning, etc. But the more I studied NGSS and dissected the content, the more I realized that well, I do some of it, but I've got room for improvement.

I started tweaking my lessons, aligning them more toward 3D learning.  I created a lesson plan template to ensure that I was adequately addressing NGSS.  I discovered that most of my old lessons were fine, but required modifications, a bit more focus.  I changed my powerpoints.  Lectures, in my opinion, are still needed. I made sure that mine were  more interactive, interwining crosscutting concepts and science/engineering practices.  Instead of just giving students information, I would have them ask questions, answer questions, draw pictures, interpret data, derive equations, etc.  I did have to go learn and appreciate the engineering method, which is something I had not known about before.  And now have a method for incorporating engineering methodology (will share this in a later blog).  I revamped my summative assessments, not going completely away from multiple choice, but starting to incorporate more FRQs (free response questions).  My projects became more focused as I aligned what I wanted to see the kids do and know.  But this is an ongoing this day I still tweak/change.

When I hear teachers say, "I already do NGSS" I know for a fact that they really haven't spent enough focused time looking and truly understanding what NGSS is all about.  I am a great teacher.  I work very hard to deliver student-centered learning.  Even I thought I was already doing NGSS.  How wrong I was.  And quite frankly, if we were already doing NGSS in our classrooms, our nation would be THE world leader in innovative science and our students would graduate with a application based appreciation of science and how it can be used. This is not the case.

To those teachers that claim they are already doing NGSS, fill out the NGSS designed EQuiP Rubric. I personally find the EQuiP Rubric to be too wordy, so I designed my own NGSS Lesson Plan Template.  Pick your favorite lesson.  Fill out this two paged template.  If you are already doing NGSS then filling this out will be a piece of cake and you have the evidence to support to your administration that you currently "do" NGSS in your classroom.

TEACHERS....This overhaul of the science classroom isn't about what we used to do, it's about what we are going to do. My fellow science peeps, let's stop talking about our old lessons and let's start creating new and exciting ones!!!!  We didn't fail our students, but we are going to make science eudcation better.  As professionals, we are always reflecting on what we have done and how we can improve.  Incorporation of NGSS is no different.  It's about damn time that science became just as important and English and Math.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

California Draft of Framework Released for Public View

On November 17th, as promised, the California Dept of Education released a draft of the science framework for public review.  WOOHOO!  You can view this draft HERE.

I literally visited their website starting at midnight and no less than ten times until it finally got uploaded around 8 am.  To say I was excited is an understatement.

I have read quite a bit of the documents, and wow, they are full of great information.  I would encourage every single teacher that is going to teach science to check this document out.  Selfishly I only focused on the High School material, since I currently teach high school science.  Here were some of my major takeaways.

  • Districts will have to strongly consider a minimum of 3 years of science during high school
  • All students must have acquired all performance expectations before graduation
  • There was no fully integrated pathway published for high school
  • Districts have freedom for how to generate courses to cover performance expectations 
  • Training up and coming science teachers is going to have to CHANGE! 
  • Credentialing of science teachers will have to be reviewed and current process CHANGED!
  • Assessments will have to seriously be revamped.
  • There is a huge lack of training resources for teachers and admin in order to prepare for NGSS.
  • Implementation is going to take TIME!
  • How a science class looks is about to change.
  • Engineering is new for basically all science teachers and is going to take time to grasp.
  • Districts will need to allocate some serious money for this process.
  • Teacher leaders will need to emerge.
  • Hands on training that involves experimentation AND engineering will be needed
  • Creative teachers are gonna have the time of their life
  • Project based learning will need to come into play
  • A lot of science teachers are going to likely retire over the next few years.
  • There will be a need to new science teachers.
  • Working with the community will make transition easier
  • Admin needs to develop a plan to transition ASAP...and then come up with a way to determine if it is working
  • There is going to be a critical need of physics teachers!
Though I am excited, there are some huge obstacles to overcome.  I am confident that my district will work with us teachers to support us.  My concern is that the necessary supports just won't exist.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

NGSS Physics is NOT a Math Class


I want to scream that so that every single high school physics teacher hears this.  sigh

I have been teaching physics for the past 5 years, but teaching for over 12.  When I was first asked to teach physics, I was a bit nervous.  No, that's not accurate.  I was incredibly nervous.  Physics is not my background, so not only did I have to get the supporting credential to teach the topic, I had to go learn it myself.  I took physics in college, but that was YEARS ago.  I had a lot of gaps to fill and a lot of challenging math to learn.  And then, two years in, I was asked to teach AP Physics.  Gulp.  I really had to work my butt off to make that happen.  But now that I get it, and appreciate it, I LOVE PHYSICS!!!  Having said that...Physics is NOT a math is a science class that uses math as a tool.  This is no different than biology or chemistry.  If Physics was supposed to be a math class it would be in the math department.

Looking at the criteria for NGSS and how to best support the performance expectations, I believe that the best approach for physics (assuming that all students will have to learn all the PEs) will be a conceptual approach.  I'm sure lots of traditional style physics teachers will disagree with me.  They will probably say I'm not a physicist so I wouldn't understand.  And they are right...I'm not a physicist. I'm a trained scientist turned teacher.  Just like some physics teachers, they might be trained physicists turned teachers.  But, let's go ahead and agree that high school physics isn't quantum physics and we won't be deriving the mathematical equations to support wormhole existence.  We are teaching ENTRY level physics so that all kids can get a glimpse of the awesomeness of physics.

Physics is more than math....much more than math.  Physics is full of incredible concepts or themes:  motion, forces, energy, thermo, etc.  These are amazing concepts that can use math (and, when speaking of physics majors and research they DO use math), but you don't HAVE to use math to explain the concepts.  You can argue that the math supports those concepts, and it does, but many kids do not have the mental capacity to truly see this at a young age.  If they CHOOSE to pursue a degree in physics they would clearly use the language of math to support phenomena, but understanding that hot drinks get cool because heat transfers and breaks create friction that generate a change in acceleration...well, those things are actually usable and applicable to ALL students, not just college bounds students.  And to assume that all fifteen year olds can master the concepts of physics by only doing math is, in my opinion, foolish.  Math should not drive the instruction, concepts should.

The best approach for NGSS Physics is a conceptual approach.  One of the best possible resources for this course will likely start with the work done by Paul G. Hewitt.  He doesn't ignore the math, but he definitely focuses on the concepts.  If we approach physics with the understanding that the concepts are most important, but that we can use math to support this, then maybe more kids will want to take physics and recognize that physics is arguably the foundation for all science...I say that as a trained research biologist.  Breaks my heart just a little to make this claim.  I LOVE YOU BIOLOGY, forgive me!

If you are a high school physics teacher and you are currently letting math drive your instruction, ask yourself why you are doing this.  Tradition?  Is there a chance that your program could expand if you laid off the math just a little bit?  Would high school level physics really collapse if you could approach the learning with algebra based math?

Listed to the right are the equations I use in my physics course.  We still do math, but it doesn't drive my instruction.  Because of this, I have grown the physics program from 3 to 6 courses in two years.  There could have been more sections offered, but I'm the only physics teacher at my school site.

Some might say that is making physics too easy.  To that I would say, why are you making physics so hard?  I believe that ALL students can learn and apply physics, not just kids in calculus.  And if we want our next generation to appreciate science, then it is our job to show them the awesomeness of science!  If we aren't doing that, then maybe we should be looking for a different career.

Here is some math models for an NGSS Physics class:

physics teacher + math only = no work

students + no concepts = no learning

math of physics + calculator = math

math + physics concepts = applied learning

math + physics concepts + NGSS = AWESOMENESS

If you truly read the standards and unpack what they are saying, then you identify that there is SOME computation, but the conceptual relationships between variables is more important than the math.  If you disagree with me, then go read the standards again.  ALL students should have access to learn the physical science standards through a phenomena based approach.   If you purposefully create mathematical barriers that prevent students from learning the science, then ultimately you are choosing to fail students.  What educator CHOOSES to fail students before they even step foot in their class?  Not me.  Not you. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Creating an NGSS Course

Our district is about to embark on the designing our first NGSS course which is set to roll out next school year: 2016-2017.  It will be a PHYSICS COURSE!  WOOHOO!  Though I am super pumped (I teach physics) I recognize that how we craft this course will set the pace and guidelines for the remaining two courses:   Biology and Chemistry.  Setting it up right the first time is CRITICAL!

I believe that EVERYONE in the science department should be a part of the process of assembling these NGSS courses.  Not because everyone is a great curriculum designer, in truth, that is not an accurate statement at all.  Not all teachers know how to craft curriculum.  But all teachers have to deliver curriculum and they need to have some buy-in on what the course content should include. My hope is that being a part of the process will  allow teachers to want to deliver this new content, plus they can see how all the pieces can fit together.  And if you are in the early stages of NGSS, you know that these pieces are quite different than what science educators are used to.

So, today I asked my coworkers to break into subject matter teams.  I gave them a set of every single performance expectation there is for high school science...all cut out into individual strips.  They were even laminated!  Ooooo....aaaaaa.  I tasked them to assemble what the perfect class would look like for their subject matter.  For example, the biology teachers created a course with all performance expectations they felt could be taught in an NGSS Biology course.  I then gave them sticky notes and told them that once they had all their performance expectations, to attempt to group them according to concepts that would be taught during a school year.

I was a bit nervous because I feared that teachers would merely take the performance expectations that state their topic:  Life Science PEs would go to Biology only.  But instead, there were awesome discussions and these teachers created integrated courses!  Go figure!  The chemistry teachers pulled a healthy amount of Life Science PEs, finding that biochemistry could run as a theme within their NGSS Chem class.  Physics identified quite a few Earth and Space Science PEs to generate a space unit when discussing gravitational forces.   (Thank you Kepler, Newton and guys rock.)  Biology identified many of the Earth and Space Science PEs to drop into a more indepth Ecology/Environmental unit.

There was an overall nice buzz in the room as teachers began to see the potential of new courses evolving.  And there was an agreement that courses could focus on more depth as opposed to breadth. Not gonna was really incredible to see how everyone was working together to do this simple activity!

I would strongly encourage all science departments to partake in an activity like this.  It was well worth the time (which ended only being about 45 minutes).

One thing is for sure....there will be no textbook that can adequately cover NGSS.  The new style science class will end up being a unique experience that simply cannot be found in the pages of a book.  I guess that is what NGSS meant by having students DO science.

NSTA 2018 - Final Reflection

I'm at the airport, waiting for my delayed airplane to get to Atlanta so that I can get back home to my amazing three kids and husband. ...