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.

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. ...