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.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

What is an NGSS Performance Task?

There has been a LOT of buzz around the term performance task.  The first time I heard this I was like, "Huh?  Is that like a science dance?"  And when people started sharing samples of performance tasks, I got confused, because these samples were extremely complex and, quite frankly, overwhelming to look at as a teacher.  I was seriously having WTF moments.

Wasn't my job to teach students about the epic-ness of science and have them show me in a variety of ways that they know and can do science?  Now they have to perform?????  What is a Performance Task!?!?!?!?!  

I did some research and discovered that performance tasks are not some magical, crazy, over complicated, weird entity within curriculum.  A performance task is simply a learning activity that has students performing or demonstrating their knowledge, understand and/or proficiency of concepts. (not my formal definition).

So all of these 20 page long performance tasks that I've been reading are, in my opinion, an excessive misinterpretation of what we want students to know and do.  I believe that some teachers are over thinking the idea of a performance task and attempting to make it some HUGE, multi step, challenging project/activity that could take months to accomplish.  And, in my  professional opinion, that is NOT what performance tasks have to be.

When you think about it, performance tasks are the things we give to students so they can learn and show us that they get it.  Listed below are some characteristics of performance tasks. (caution:  not all performance tasks need every single characteristic)
  • Formative or summative
  • A physical product
  • Could take a few minutes or a few weeks (time varies)
  • Performance of a skill
  • Provides evidence of learning
  • Offers opportunity for application of knowledge
  • Can integrate multiple topics
  • Inquiry in nature
  • Multi-faceted (can look at more than one concept at a time)
  • Can have multiple answers, multiple points of view
  • Allows creativity
     What a performance task is NOT:
  •       Multiple choice test
  •       Worksheet that comes from the book (fill in the blank)
  •       Lab in which you follow all steps one by one (cookie cutter lab)
  •       Vocabulary quizzes
  •       Projects that lack content or application of knowledge
     Let's be honest, as educators we know that there are numerous activities/worksheets we have given our students that require no thought.  The kids look for the bolded word then fill in the blank or count the number of spots and write in the crossword puzzle.  Performance tasks are pushing the students to use their content they've learned. They challenge the student's understanding.  There is no way a kid can guess their way to an A or B on this content.  They are allowed to have differing opinions.  They are allowed to be creative.

What are examples of performance tasks?  What a fantastic question!  If NGSS asks that students can THINK (crosscutting concepts), KNOW (disciplinary core idea) and DO (science and engineering practices) science, then the performance tasks that we give students should incorporate the 3 dimensions of NGSS.  Maybe not all 3 at once, but definitely at least 2 at a time.

EXAMPLES of performance tasks. (FOCUSing on the SCIENCE and ENGINEERING PRACTICES will make this easier)

  • Student designed labs/experiments
  • Inquiry style projects
  • Engineering design
  • Art (brochure, poster, model, etc)
  • Music/drama (make a commercial, song, etc)
  • Writing (claim/evidence/reasoning, lab reports, essays, etc)
  • Presentations
  • White boarding
  • Portfolio of work
  • Games
  • Socratic Discussions
  • Exit tickets
  • Graphic organizers (Venn diagrams, concepts maps, etc)
  • Well designed summative tests focused on free response (similar to AP tests)
Are you getting the point?  Performance tasks are the awesome, fun, engaging activities that get the kids thinking, allow for creative thought that focuses on conceptual understanding and application of knowledge.

Now, as a teacher, I know your next wondering.  "How do I assess a performance task?"  Another fantastic question!  My answer is RUBRICS.  If you create good rubrics that are scaffolded for content mastery, then not only do students know what is expected of them and what mastery looks like, but they can essentially peer and self assess, making your grading (as a teacher) even easier.  And seriously...we don't have give a grade on everything.  I have found that students work even harder if they don't have the fear of being wrong, if they know that their mistakes aren't punished by a grade.  That is why when my students do practice problems in physics, I make all the answers and steps available with the goal that my students will eventually be able to write their own practice problems.  Isn't that mastery of content!?

I've spent the past few years challenging myself to design better, more meaningful assignments/assessments.  I have found that my students understanding of science has exploded and my classroom has become a richer environment.  My focus has NOT been on making tests but on their ability to show me they know and can do science.  I have incorporated more projects, more student designed labs, a digital student portfolio, white boarding, etc.  My grading has gone down and their comprehension has gone up.  The students are excited about learning.  They ask great questions, come prepared, engage in excellent conversations.  Is it perfect?  No.  But my focus on developing meaningful and useful performance tasks has made me a better teacher and my classroom more equitable to students.

The real challenge, if anything, is designing creative and engaging performance tasks that allow our students to use their knowledge and show us what they know.  I am surrounded by great educators that will brainstorm with me.  I am spoiled to work with such an awesome team of science teachers.  It will take teachers working together in collaborative professional learning communities and sharing their ideas to really make science education come to life.

I find this NGSS transition in science education extremely exciting because a child's mastery of content is no longer based on a handful of test grades.  Rather, they can show us they get it with cool projects, fun labs, a portfolio of work, collaborative learning and creative application of knowledge.  Science is about studying our world, understanding our universe, asking questions, challenging what we see, striving to make it better, exploring, having fun!  

If students don't leave our class each day in awe, then we aren't teaching and assessing science correctly.

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. ...