Making Cooperative Learning Groups Work

How can I keep my students more engaged in their science cooperative learning groups?

—A., California

Group working must be intentional. Defined roles help students keep one another accountable. They have to see and care that if they do not do their parts, the group will not reach its full potential. One way I helped increase engagement was using props for the designated roles. For example, group leaders or “principal scientists” wore lab coats, which enhanced the appeal of the role. Because group leaders need to speak in positive and encouraging ways, this helped me also teach soft skills such as positive verbal communication. We practiced sentence stems to help guide the group.

Students also liked the “observer” role. This student documented how well the group worked together. We discussed what a good functioning group looked and sounded like. Along with the checklist, this person received a pair of oversized party glasses. The “safety manager” wore a hard hat and safety vest.

These props kept safety on everyone’s mind at all times. At the end of a group activity, students rated how well each task was performed, with the focus on the role, not who held the role. This helped them understand that group work is not personal. Group accountability determines the group’s success.

Posted in Ask a Mentor | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sample new science lessons from NSTA Press books

Cover of book "Instructional Sequence Matters, Grades 3-5: Explore Before Explain"

NSTA Press authors offer a rich selection of fresh lessons and strategies in their newest books, and you can download samples from each of them through the online Science Store. From Patrick Brown’s Instructional Sequence Matters, Grades 3–5: Explore Before Explain, download the lesson “A Natural Storyline for Learning About Ecosystems” to help your third-grade students develop their ideas about living things and Earth’s systems.

Cover of book "Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond"

If you’re seeking updated strategies on supporting students as they learn about natural selection and evolution, download “Science and Religion in Middle and High School Classrooms” from Joseph Shane and colleagues’ Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond. This chapter guides teachers to open up the classroom by allowing students to examine the scientific evidence for evolution and how scientists explain that evidence through carefully constructed activities that keep the focus on understanding.

To preview all the newest NSTA Press books, visit the New Releases page and click over to each book’s page to “Read Inside.”

Cover of book "Instructional Sequence Matters, Grades 3-5: Explore Before Explain"Cover of book "Making Sense of Science and Religion: Strategies for the Classroom and Beyond"Cover of book "Matter and Energy for Growth and Activity, Teacher Edition"Cover of book "Discovery Engineering in Biology: Case Studies for Grades 6-12"

Last Days to Receive Free Shipping on Your Book Orders

Between now and October 31, 2019, receive free shipping on purchases of $75 or more with promo code SHIP19 when you order through the online Science Store. Browse our Fall 2019 digital catalog to see all of NSTA Press’s resources for grades K through college, including bestselling series and children’s trade books.

Become an NSTA Book Club Member

NSTA Book Club Membership offers all the outstanding benefits of an individual, regular membership with our bestselling NSTA Press books. Members can select three books from a list of 30 NSTA Press top-sellers. These high-quality, award-winning titles span different grade levels and subject areas within science education. NSTA Book Club Membership is $130, which includes one year of NSTA membership and a savings of up to 50% off the list price of three books.

Join NSTA Press Authors for Workshops at a Fall 2019 NSTA Area Conference

Registration is open for NSTA Area Conferences this fall in Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and Seattle. Join NSTA Press authors at all three area conferences this year for workshops inspired by their books and learn more about the strategies and lessons featured in our K–12 teaching resources.

Posted in NSTA Press Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It Takes More Than Teacher Professional Development: Building Systems-Level Capacity for NGSS Implementation by Dr. Vanessa Lujan

When informal science institutions (ISIs) offer professional learning opportunities to teachers to support science in schools, they create the potential for dynamic science educators and classrooms that can support high-quality science learning for students. Our field recognizes that it is critical for teachers to participate in ongoing, integrated professional learning that builds teacher knowledge, interest, confidence, and skill for science instruction. Often these professional learning opportunities address timely, relevant topics in an engaging way to educators and draw from the expertise and research of ISIs.

Our own research at the Lawrence Hall of Science (the Hall) indicates that ISI-led professional learning opportunities are unique and attractive for teachers in distinct ways. Teachers report that they seek out ISI-led professional learning as sources for inspiration, depth of expertise, and high-quality facilitation. Informal education professional learning settings promote a sense of authenticity and can promote change in teacher instructional practice, supporting increased interest and curiosity among learners in the classroom and giving teachers insight on what Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science instruction looks like. We know high-quality professional learning for teachers is essential. We also know the system in which teachers work must also be addressed to ensure teachers have the opportunity to enact their learnings in the context of the classroom. 

Research tells us that successful NGSS implementation within school districts requires a sustained and coordinated effort, leadership at all levels, and both immediate and long-term changes over a course of multiple years. Districts and schools must have instructional leadership and infrastructure focused on science, and equitable science instruction must be an obvious and explicit priority. Rigorous standards, like the NGSS, are needed to guide a coherent system of curriculum, instruction, assessment, teacher preparation, and professional development. Instructional materials, the classroom, outdoor learning experiences, and field trips should give students opportunities to learn science by engaging in the practices of science that approximate what scientists actually do. Districts and schools must develop and align policies to support science education. External/community resources and partnerships should be strategically prioritized to achieve district science goals.

Drawing on systems-level and organizational change efforts, we created a program, BaySci, that assists districts in building system-wide capacity for supporting high-quality, equitable science education through well-designed professional learning experiences for district leaders and teachers. For more than a decade, it has remained a partnership among science education leaders, districts, schools, and teachers who are committed to improving the quantity and quality of K–12 science teaching to provide meaningful access to equitable science learning opportunities in districts and schools. BaySci is one of a handful of efforts engaging in this work through systematic district-level capacity building, working closely with district administrators/leaders, principals, and K–12 teacher leaders to implement the NGSS and progress toward achieving coherence between NGSS and the Common Core State Standards. The theory behind the BaySci effort is stated very simply:

  1. Student success and engagement in K–12 NGSS-aligned science depends upon classrooms that provide a steady and daily diet of high-quality NGSS science instruction.
  2. Good classroom instruction in every classroom in the district depends upon the presence of a solid district-wide, K–12 science program. Such a program includes good curriculum, readily available and well-designed materials, equitable secondary course sequences, and supportive professional learning activities.
  3. To establish such a program is a complex undertaking. Few districts across the United States can boast of a high-quality K–12 NGSS-aligned science program that reaches all of its students. To introduce such a program and sustain it, the attention of leaders at many levels in the district is required. A district must develop a set of capacities—each of which is necessary, but not sufficient—to create a high-quality, standards-based district-wide K–12 science program.

What does “capacity-building” look like in the context of NGSS implementation at the district and school level?

BaySci support for district capacity-building includes increasing the prominence of and priority placed on science by district administrators, principals, and teachers through the creation and sustainability of a strong and coherent vision for science education. Another support and related capacity is increasing district leadership for science among superintendents, associate superintendents, and curriculum and instruction directors. In particular, we ask these leaders to become part of the district science leadership team that will lead the development and implementation of district-level plans for science and NGSS implementation. These leaders, with their perspectives and responsibilities, are asked to bring a mindset of systematically removing barriers to science improvement and implementation in the district. We encourage our district partners to consider the composition of the district science leadership team, and include members of or advocates for the vulnerable and marginalized groups of the communities they serve who often receive little to no science and may be disenfranchised from science. As we support and plan with the team and develop designs and solutions for the district science program, we consider the needs/perspectives of those on the margins of the district science program.

More recently, with the ongoing implementation of the NGSS, our support to our K–12 district teams has focused on course access at the high school level for various identified student groups. Currently, access to high-quality, standards-based learning opportunities in secondary science courses is often inequitable. This has serious consequences, as students without access to NGSS-aligned courses are less likely to complete high school with enough knowledge and/or credits that make them “college- and career-ready.”

Our most vulnerable populations—e.g., students of color, those receiving free or reduced-price lunch (low-income), English Learners, foster youth, homeless—are the most likely to be impacted by this lack of equity. Research tells us that only 54% of high school graduates complete the science entrance requirements for state universities and colleges (Gao and Johnson 2017). African American and Latino students disproportionately attend high schools with lower completion rates (Gao 2016). Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways, in which underrepresented students are overrepresented (Wolzinger and O’Lawrence 2018), may not be aligned to NGSS, unlike other “core” science courses taken by most high school students (e.g., Biology + Earth/Space Science; Chemistry + Earth/Space Science; Physics + Earth/Space Science).

In addition, idiosyncratic course placement practices may occur. For example, counselors have been reported to advise students to select non-NGSS-aligned ninth-grade science courses, missing the opportunity for students to begin NGSS-aligned learning in high school early on. Uncovering historical and current practices related to science course access and analysis of student data is the first step in helping our districts identify the current reality of school and district practices for supporting secondary science learning opportunities for all student groups.

School systems require time and space for unpacking explicit and tacit practices that exist around student science learning trajectories in high school, the variability of which is well known but seldom discussed. Education leaders, school administrators, and researchers must examine and revise policies and practices in schools and districts so that existing inequities are better understood and can eventually be eliminated (NRC 2007). The work of district capacity-building for science through the Hall’s BaySci effort highlights the unique role and value-add that informal science institutions/science centers play within the professional learning and capacity-building landscape. Unique affordances of ISI-led partnerships with schools and districts exist for designing effective engagement of all players within the larger systems and contexts in which they reside. When ISIs develop genuine partnerships with educators, schools, and districts, we believe science education expertise, leadership, and capacity is increased.


 Gao, N. 2016. College readiness in California: A look at rigorous high school course-taking. Public Policy Institute of California.

Gao, N., and H. Johnson. 2017.  Improving college pathways in California. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Appendix D: All standards, all students: Making Next Generation Science Standards accessible to all students.  In Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wolzinger, R., and H. O’Lawrence. 2018. Student characteristics and enrollment in a CTE pathway predict transfer readiness. Pedagogical Research 3 (2): 08. 

About the Lawrence Hall of Science: At the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, we create, disseminate, and evaluate high-quality educational materials, professional development programs, and hands-on learning experiences in math and science for educational centers, districts, schools, community-based organizations, and homes. Hall staff, programs, and materials support educators and learners across the science, technology, engineering, and math  (STEM) learning continuum. Since opening in 1968, the Hall has provided quality hands-on learning experiences to more than 137 million students, educators, and families in the Bay Area and worldwide. Visit the Hall and BaySci at and

Dr. Vanessa Lujan is deputy director of the Learning and Teaching Group at the Lawrence Hall of Science, focused on supporting capacity-building among leaders and educators to provide high-quality science, math, and environmental learning experiences in both formal and informal learning environments, including K-12 schools, school districts, universities, science centers and other educational organizations and non-profits. Lujan is also program director of a California statewide initiative to help support district-wide capacity building for the implementation of high-quality STEM education and environmental literacy, titled BaySci. Lujan has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Science Education from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University.

Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Future NSTA Conferences

2019 Fall Conferences

Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

DIY Universe: Empowering OST Organizations and All Educators to Use NASA’s Universe of Learning Resources by Dr. Irene Porro

Out-of-School Time (OST) organizations play a vital role in our education system by providing youth with ways of discovering and exploring the world of STEM that complement the learning they experience during the school day. But OST programs often face hurdles in implementation, particularly when educators charged with facilitation may lack a strong background in the subject matter.

 We kept these educators foremost in our minds while designing DIY Universe, a new way of engaging with research findings and data from NASA’s Great Observatories and other major NASA astrophysics missions, developed by the Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning at Framingham State University. DIY Universe is an online program for middle and high school youth and their educators, designed for OST settings, but available to educators and parents to use in any learning environment.

The goal of DIY Universe is to give OST educators—no matter what their background in Earth and space science concepts is—a robust, yet flexible, pedagogical scaffolding that allows them to facilitate meaningful learning experiences with their youth. This approach aims to remove the barriers that often discourage OST educators from effectively implementing NASA materials and other high-quality resources, and to lower the probability of introducing misconceptions.

By using DIY Universe, youth can develop their own understanding of how our universe works, motivated by the challenge to share their own knowledge through a personalized exhibit they create. Before OST educators guide their youth through the DIY Universe program, however, they must develop some confidence with its compendium of selected NASA Universe of Learning (UoL) online reference materials. Confidence is borne of competence, and this need can be addressed with scaffolding in the form of “Road Maps” for both educators and youth.

The program is designed to offer OST educators access to NASA’s UoL materials, while providing guidance on what resources to use and how. Road Maps facilitate a structured and tailored investigation of the main themes that are the focus of NASA’s UoL: Life and Death of Stars, Origin/History of the Universe, and Other Solar Systems/Other Earths. Each Road Map follows an accessible and age-appropriate learning task sequence that leaves plenty of room for personal exploration.

DIY Universe implements aspects of all three pillars of NGSS’s three-dimensional learning model. Science and Engineering Practices, including obtaining, evaluating, and communicating data, are essential to the work that culminates with a well-designed exhibit. Crosscutting concepts such as stability and change, energy and matter, and systems and system models are explored in the context of each of the program’s main science themes, as are the Disciplinary Core Ideas, which address the content knowledge associated with physics, astronomy, and astrobiology.

“Tool Kits”—one for youth and another, more comprehensive one for educators—complement the Road Maps by providing a selection of NASA resources that introduce the specific science themes and foundational tools needed to develop the project. Once youth choose a theme, the Road Map specific to that theme guides them in the step-by-step creation of a unique and very personalized exhibit they can proudly share with family and friends.

Resources provided within DIY Universe include data and images from Chandra X-ray Observatory, Solar Dynamic Observatory, and Hubble Space Telescope, and other science resources made available through several NASA websites, including Space Place, Exoplanet Exploration, Universe Unplugged, Imagine the Universe, and ViewSpace.

OST educators gain access to other powerful STEM resources through DIY Universe as well, including the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network operated by the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), the extensive resource guide from Girls STEM Ahead, and video resources from PBS Learning Media/NOVA Labs Collection.

The McAuliffe Center will begin disseminating the program through national OST networks, statewide afterschool networks, and the national network of Challenger Learning Centers, of which the McAuliffe Center is a member. It is currently being introduced to several regular partners of the McAuliffe Center, including Massachusetts-based sites of Girls Inc. and Massachusetts Boys and Girls Clubs. Ultimately, the center will share the program through its membership in NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Museum Alliance, which will make the website available to both museums and traditional OST sites and at the NSTA Boston National Conference in April 2020.

DIY Universe was developed over two years by McAuliffe Center staff and Framingham State University interns, who researched the materials, provided feedback on the scaffolding of the activities, and designed the website and logo. The interns were supervised by project coordinator Dr. Julia Abbott, with support from McAuliffe Center Project Manager Evan Pagliuca. Dr. Irene Porro served as the director and subject-matter expert for this project. Work on the DIY Universe project is supported by NASA’s Universe of Learning, which is funded by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A.

Dr. Irene Porro is the director of the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center at Framingham State University. The center was established by McAuliffe’s alma mater to honor her commitment to future generations through teaching. Today, the center’s mission is to be a leader in developing opportunities for integrated STEM learning through the sharing of resources, building of partnerships, and advancement of best educational practices.

A native of Torino, Italy, Porro received her PhD in Space Science and Technology from the University of Padova, Italy. Before entering the field of education, she was a researcher in astrophysics at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Max Planck Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, Germany. She then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she served as director of the Education and Outreach Group of the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Future NSTA Conferences

2019 Fall Conferences

Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Partnering for Maximum Impact by Angela Damery

The Wade Institute for Science Education has long valued the power of informal institutions to create precisely the kind of student-led inquiry-based learning and real-world problem solving envisaged by the three-dimensional learning of NGSS. Through our Professional Development Institutes and Customized Professional Learning Services, The Wade Institute delivers professional development (PD) experiences that maximize the impact of the informal institutions and other STEM stakeholders within a region. In the organization’s 33-year history, we have worked with more than 150 partners and collaborators, ranging from museums, nature centers, science and technology centers, zoos, and aquaria to institutions of higher education, engineering companies, and other cultural and educational organizations. Our work is based on the strong belief that informal learning environments, and the institutions that help create them, are an important complement to the learning happening in classrooms.

Phenomena-based learning, the gold standard of NGSS, stresses the importance of engaging kids in investigating questions and problems that are relevant to their own experience in the real world. When crafting our Summer Professional Development Institutes, we work with 3–5 partners in various regions across the state to develop programming focused on locally relevant, observable phenomena. With each partner organization hosting the course for one or two days over the course of the week, teachers may find themselves visiting labs or local industries, conversing with scientists about current research, and learning sampling techniques at field sites of local researchers, nature centers, and environmental education organizations.

While our programs are offered to teachers across the K–12 grade span, middle school teachers comprise the majority of our participants. The experiences provided by the institutes model the kind of active, real-world engagement that is critical for middle school students as their personal identities with science become more fixed and they begin exploring career interests. The Summer Institutes also explore a broad scope of content that provides an ideal lens for the NGSS Crosscutting Concepts that link the middle school frameworks. During this summer’s institute on Cape Cod, for example, teachers investigated the interplay between stability and change as they talked with local researchers about the dynamic relationship between local seal and shark populations and how these changing populations have impacted the tourist industry. In previous years, teachers north of Boston have looked for evidence of energy and matter cycles in aquatic ecosystems as they learned field-sampling techniques on the Ipswich River. In several institutes across the state, teachers have visited the production floor of an engineering facility in their community, seeing firsthand how issues of quantity and scale affect various aspects of the research and development (R&D) processes.

When the institute concludes, teachers develop investigations for their classrooms that incorporate the real-world problems and questions they encountered throughout the week. Seeing examples of how scientists and engineers work gives teachers a better context to bring the Science and Engineering Practices alive in their classrooms, engaging students in authentic investigation that mirrors the learning and thinking that happens in labs, field studies, and R&D facilities. With a broader awareness of their region’s science and engineering enterprises, teachers are also well equipped to create learning experiences that leverage natural and human-made phenomena found in their own communities. Our collaborating partners become resources for teachers throughout the academic year, providing opportunities for both on-site and classroom programs for schools, as well as additional resource support.

During the school year, we bring the collaborative learning experiences into the classroom with our Customized Professional Learning Services, designed to help teachers navigate the standards, implement the Science and Engineering Practices, and promote a higher level of student-led, hands-on, minds-on inquiry in the classroom. These services are tailored to schools’ individual needs, but they draw on the best experiences we have developed through work with our informal education collaborators.

Our collaborative partnership model has offered a powerful approach to creating professional learning experiences for teachers that maximize the impact of the diverse resources within a region. Informal educators bring a wide range of expertise in science content and a variety of perspectives on inquiry-based pedagogy. They introduce teachers to a wealth of local resources that can provide direct experience with compelling, locally relevant phenomena. They help teachers see what science and engineering look like in the real world. The Wade Institute for Science Education works with these partners and collaborators to develop programs that interweave thematic STEM content with inquiry-based pedagogy and support in navigating and connecting with the standards. Teachers leave programs with new tools to use in their classrooms and an enhanced capacity for designing hands-on, minds-on, inquiry-based investigations that integrate the Science and Engineering Practices into student learning in an authentic and meaningful way.

Angela Damery is Director of Education for the Wade Institute for Science Education in Quincy, Massachusetts. She has spent the greater part of her career working as an informal educator, most recently as the Program Manager of Exhibit Interpretation at the Museum of Science, Boston. She also taught seventh-grade math and science at Rising Tide Charter Public School in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Damery is passionate about creating learning experiences that allow kids learn to be curious thinkers and creative problem solvers, and her experiences as an educator both in and out of the classroom have led her to a strong conviction that rich informal learning experiences provide an essential foundation for effective classroom education.

Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Future NSTA Conferences

2019 Fall Conferences

Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Helping Educators Develop Young Ocean Problem-Solvers by Corrine Steever

Myrtle the green sea turtle
Myrtle, the green sea turtle. Photo credit: W. Chappell

Informal science centers are in perfect alignment to provide rich NGSS supports using three-dimensional learning and real-world connections. When an educator hears about professional development opportunities at the New England Aquarium (NEAq), they are typically “hooked” by the idea that they may get some great lessons about ocean animals for the classroom while gazing at Myrtle, our 550 lb. green sea turtle. While the “hook” might be Myrtle, the “reel” is linking rich, real-world, accessible phenomena at the NEAq with NGSS-supported lessons for the classroom. Informal science centers like NEAq create models and analyze real-world phenomena using exhibits and research, and are a perfect resource when introducing phenomena in the classroom. NEAq is also a conservation-oriented organization, and our goal is to establish connections to nature, strengthen relationships, develop systems thinking, build skills for civic participation, provide diversity of participation and access, and promote hope, self-efficacy, and confidence. That is why we work to increase the capacity of educators, both in and out of the classroom, using the ocean as a means of providing three-dimensional learning opportunities that align with our goals.

To do this, we restructured how we run our professional development courses to start with a deep exploration of the standards that our courses will support, and then modeling what a lesson or activity could look like. By working with educators to focus on the content and practices of a standard, it helps define what the students will be learning, as well as how they will be learning. The Next Generation Science Standards does this. The NSTA website displays the standards in a way that lets you highlight the Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts that go with each performance expectation. Using highlighters and printouts of standards, educators in small groups work through this themselves. This allows for great discussions on how they would have students engage in experiences that support the standard(s) we are working on. Where the real supports lie, though, is then modeling what this could look like in a series of activities built on real-world experiences that support why students should be learning these concepts.

An example of this is in our Full STEAM Ahead: Ocean Adventures workshop series for early educators. During the Ocean and Us class, our goal was to introduce lessons that support the following K–2 Performance Expectations:

Performance Expectations


Construct an argument supported by evidence for how plants and animals (including humans) can change the environment to meet their needs.


Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live.


Communicate solutions that will reduce the impact of humans on the land, water, air, and/or other living things in the local environment.


Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.


Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs.


Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.


Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs.

We started the day with an icebreaker about systems. Since systems is a Crosscutting Concept that is within many of the standards addressed, we wanted to begin by building a deeper understanding of biological systems. Small groups were given an image of the same tide pool ecosystem inspired by Istvan Banyai’s picture book Zoom. Some groups had a very “zoomed-in” version of the tide pool (such as a tide pool animal), while others had a very “zoomed-out” coastline view. Everyone else observed images at a scale in between those two versions. Each group defined the boundary of their image, then discussed the “living components” of the organisms in the pictures, what they needed to survive (food, water, shelter), and what was flowing in and out of the system (sun, water, air, food). Each shared their image and what they came up with. This allowed for the “aha” moment when the educators noticed that all their pictures were just “zoomed in or out” versions of one another, allowing for not only an understanding of how individuals fit into a large system, but also how the larger system impacts individuals.

Then throughout the day, we built lessons from a systems framework, using an image of a New England river with a dam and an arrow pointing farther up the river, and the prompt “Salmon swim upriver to spawn here.” After allowing educators to share their observations and questions, we created many of the lessons around this phenomenon, while answering most of the questions that the group came up with through engaging in activities. While at NEAq, we visit the salmon exhibit to observe how salmon swim and move, but we also show that for those without access to a facility like NEAq, such investigations can be done using videos and books, and by making models of fish with potatoes and different fin shapes using craft materials.

When modeling and seeking to understand systems, we know that it is important to understand human impact on systems, and we can draw on our knowledge to train educators on how to communicate using values and solutions. Teachers develop an understanding that we use rivers, just like other plants and animals do, but sometimes our actions can have unintended consequences. Teachers learn how humans have built fish ladders to aid movement of fish past dams, then engage in engineering activities to build models of fish ladders, eventually doing this with learners to help them increase their hope and self-efficacy. It also boosts educators’ confidence to teach even their youngest learners about their connection to the natural world.

teachers participating in Full STEAM Ahead workshop: fish ladder model
teachers participating in Full STEAM Ahead workshop: fish stock assessment
Teachers participating in the Full STEAM Ahead: Ocean and Us workshop. Above is a fish ladder model; below is an activity to aid understanding of fish stock assessment.

We live on a blue planet, and know it is important to inspire problem-solvers to act on behalf of the ocean. This is just one example of the many ways that we are trying to support educators at the New England Aquarium to develop ocean problem-solvers through three-dimensional learning opportunities.

What are some ways you are using real-world phenomena to engage in three-dimensional learning experiences? Are you able to use an informal science center near you, or are you working at an informal science center that provides opportunities for educators?

Corrine Steever is the Teacher Services Supervisor at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. She provides teacher professional development programs that enhance participants’ understanding of ocean science, and cross-curricular connections that support multiple ways to engage their students in STEM practices. The New England Aquarium also provides free resources to educators through their Teacher Resource Center. Steever is a board member of the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers and Massachusetts Marine Educators.

Note: This article is featured in the October issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Future NSTA Conferences

2019 Fall Conferences

Posted in Next Generation Science Standards | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

NSTA Legislative Update: House Leaders Introduce The College Affordability Act by Jodi Peterson

Democrats Introduce Bill to Reauthorize Higher Education Act

House Democrats introduced a long-awaited bill earlier this week that would update the Higher Education Act for the first time in more than a decade.

The College Affordability Act, H.R. 4674 (116) expands federal Pell Grants and would ease current student loan debt, but it does not seek to completely eliminate college costs or cancel student loan debt, two proposals currently being offered by  several  2020 presidential candidates. It is expected to cost $400 billion over the next decade.

According to the press release issued by the Democrats, the bill:

  • Tackles the rising cost of tuition by restoring state and federal investments in public colleges and universities, which will reduce the burden that has been shifted to students and their families.
  • Makes college affordable for low- and middle-income students by increasing the value of Pell Grants.
  • Eases the burden of student loans by making existing student loans cheaper and easier to pay off.
  • Cracks down on predatory for-profit colleges that defraud students, veterans, and taxpayers.
  • Holds all schools accountable for providing students a quality education that leads to a rewarding career.
  • Improves students’ safety on campus by blocking Secretary DeVos’s survivor-blaming Title IX rule and introducing stronger accountability to track and prevent cases of sexual assault, harassment, and hazing.
  • Expands students’ access to high-quality programs by making Pell Grants available for short-term programs.
  • Helps improve graduation rates by providing stronger wraparound services to keep students in school and on track.
  • Invests in the critical institutions that enroll underserved students by increasing and permanently reauthorizing mandatory funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement,  “The College Affordability Act is a proposal that Members across the political spectrum should be able to support. It is a necessary and sensible response to the challenges that students and families are facing every day.

Read the full press release from the Democrats on the bill here and the New York Times article and Forbes article.

ED Awards New Research Grants for STEM Education and Computer Science

Last month Education Secretary DeVos announced $123 million in new grant funds would be distributed to 41 school districts, nonprofits and state educational agencies under the Education and Innovative Research (EIR) program.

The program aims to fund innovative programs meant to improve academic achievement for high-need students.

The awards include over $30 million to eight grantees serving rural areas and over $78 million to 29 grantees focused on STEM education. Over 85% of the funded STEM projects include a specific focus on computer science.

A link to the Department of Education press release, which includes the winning grantees, can be found here.

Appropriations Update

As reported in previous NSTA Legislative Updates, federal programs are currently under a stop-gap spending measure (continuing resolution) that provides continuing appropriations at FY19 levels to federal agencies through November 21, 2019. After that, if no agreement is reached, funding runs out and the government would be in risk of shutting down. Will they come to a compromise on the Fy20 budget? Earlier this week Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby told Politico that spending negotiations remain in a “prolonged slump.”

As you will recall, in June the House did pass H.R. 2740 (116), a minibus which bundles the text of four of the 12 appropriations bills for FY2020, (Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water and State Foreign-Operations). The House bill provides a 6 percent increase to the Department of Education, includes $1.3 billion for Title IV/A Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant and $2.5 billion for the Title IIA grant, an increase of $150 million and $500 million respectively.

The education funding bill introduced in the Senate funds many programs at levels lower than the House bill. The Senate bill would provide $71.4 billion in discretionary spending on education, less than the House’s proposed budget of $75.9 billion for the Education Department.  Title IVA Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants did receive a $50 million increase over last year in the Senate bill. Title IIA, which funds teacher professional development would be level funded.

Stay tuned, and watch for more updates in future issues of NSTA Express.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

Posted in Legislative Update | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The PocketLab Air Sensor


The PocketLab Air Sensor is a fantastic tool for investigating the validity of fluctuations in climate and air pollution in your own community.  As a result, teachers can offer students an instrument to measure what’s in the air  (i.e., CO2, ozone, and particulates) for a reasonable price of $298.00.  

With wireless sensor technology, the PocketLab Air can measure a variety of different variables: carbon dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and light.

The small size of PocketLab sensor is convenient to take on the go for experiments, and it stores a large amount of data, which can then be shared with the free PocketLab “app.” When both the “app” and PocketLab device are working as one simultaneous unit, scientists of all ages can generate experiments that reflect the current state of the world around them.

The PocketLab Air, one of four PocketLab devices, is created for users as young as fourth grade students to act as weather professionals. Moreover,  it’s a sophisticated enough instrument for researchers of climate and air quality to use in the field.

One of the greatest features is that the device can be used to collect data with an iPhone, iPad, or Android devices via Bluetooth 4.0; making the PocketLab Air easy to use for scientists of all ages.   

Image 1: The PocketLab Air Sensor

Additionally, the PocketLab Air sensor has the ability to integrate data with CloudLab Science Notebook, which stores and organizes all of the collected data into a single software program.

Once you are ready to begin taking measurements, it’s crucial to make sure the battery is fully charged before launching the PocketLab Air into action.

To do this, simply take the orange micro USB cord that is included with the PocketLab Air and plug it into the sensor. The USB cord can then be plugged into a computer or another device that is compatible with USB ports. Charging the PocketLab Air takes approximately 60 minutes for a full charge.

Once charged, users can follow the directions in the PocketLab Air “Getting Started Guide” by  downloading the free “app” and connect the PocketLab sensor to their chosen device, e.g., iPhone, iPad, etc.

For more information and instructions regarding the PocketLab Air, click on the following link:

After the PocketLab Air is paired with a compatible device, the user will be prompted to grant access to the camera and microphone. Enabling access to the camera and microphone allows users to “record up to 30,000 measurements to the on-board memory.”

Also, the “app” allows users to toggle between the six sensors in the device, change the points/second feature, and seamlessly move between units of measurement. In addition, an excellent feature is that as real-time data is collected, it’s possible to compare measurements taken by different sensors.

Once the user becomes acquainted with the “app,” they can adjust the sensors and take measurements.  Every time a sensor is purchased from Myraid Sensors, a series of four getting started activity cards are included and are helpful to get acquainted with the device; especially in the early design stages of an experiment. Hence,  information is available about ozone, carbon dioxide levels, particulate matter, and air quality index.  

Essentially,  these cards outline how the PocketLab sensor can assist the user in recording data related to whatever experiment they are designing. Moreover, uers can reference the cards via the instruction manual tab located at:

Image 2: PocketLab Air Instruction Manuals  

Video 2: A Day in the Life of the PocketLab Air

Keep in mind that when taking measurements, the gas and weather sensors need time to settle in that subtle changes in the environment may take the sensor up to 10 minutes to fully adjust. In other words, you need to be patient and take your time when using the PocketLab Air sensor.

Overall, we found the PocketLab Air sensor to be an excellent fit for science teachers to put into the hands of their students. Undoubtedly, it is a standards-based device that offers students authentic learning opportunities to conduct research in their communities and beyond.

What’s Included

• 1 PocketLab Air Sensor

• 1 Protective Carrying Case

• 1 Set of Getting Started Activity Cards

• 1 PocketLab Air Sensor Sticker

• Dozens of Lessons and Activities

• Micro USB Charging Cable

Classroom Resources

PocketLab Air Demo


• Wireless Connection: Bluetooth 4.0

• Battery: Rechargeable via micro USB

• Battery Life: 24 hours (wireless, full data rate)/ 3 days (intermittent measurements)

• Wireless Range: 250 feet (76 m) range

• Dimensions: 4 x 2.5 x 1.3 in (10 x 6.4 x 3.3 cm)

• Weight: 142 g (5 oz)

• Memory: 30,000 data readings

* For specific sensor specifications, check out the following link!



About the Authors

Edwin P. Christmann is a professor and chairman of the secondary education department and graduate coordinator of the mathematics and science teaching program at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. Marie Ellis is a graduate student at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

Posted in NSTA Recommends: Technology, The STEM Classroom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Fostering children’s capacity to design and construct

In the October 2019 Early Years column in Science and Children, Anne Lowry, a preK teacher at Aleph Academy in Reno, Nevada, and I wrote about problem-solving experiences that took place in our classrooms. Engineering design opportunities in early childhood may come about by following children’s interests and also when adults provide both materials and challenges. “Engineering is a systematic and often iterative approach to designing objects, processes, and systems to meet human needs and wants” (NRC pg 202). The processes of engineering include testing and revisions, and using engineering habits of mind (Counsell 2015).


In Anne’s a mixed-age classroom of 3-to-5 year olds, not all children are able to draw possible solutions to engineering problems because they may be still developing the necessary fine motor skills.  However, by creating verbal designs, children can describe their design quite successfully. In the process of creating verbal designs, the children build on what they already know, individually and sometimes collectively, if in groups.  The result can be a clear design with concrete testing questions. 

Educators who can be open to children’s loftiest ideas—even those that seem impossible at first—honor children’s capabilities and thinking. Consider how you might be able to say, “Yes, and…” and help children begin problem solving by asking open-ended questions. Make firecrackers at school!? The children wanted to wanted to build their own fireworks and although the teachers ruled out the use of explosives, several children did not give up on the idea of fireworks.

They worked together and identified questions about the design: 1.) What materials to use, 2.) How to make the fire cracker “explode,” and 3.) What to use to make it light up. Images of firecrackers suggested using material with a cylindrical shape—paper towel tubes. Anne asked prompting questions, including “What do you do to make objects move?” The children discussed and tested several methods before including a balloon into their design.

Two materials were proposed for the “light.” Isla and Eve proposed using tiny rounds collected when using hole punches (“confetti”), and Cohen wanted to try miniature pom poms. The children decided this was a testable question and gathered both materials. 

Throughout their process the children used engineering habits of mind: systems thinking, creativity, optimism collaboration, communication, and  attention to ethical considerations (the impact of engineering on people and the environment) (Counsell 2015). The success of their fireworks was confirmation that fostering children’s capacity to design and construct their designs helps them develop critical thinking skills and engineering habits of mind.


Engineering Design with Cardboard

Teaching a summer camp class at the Pinecrest Pavilion Summer Camp on using cardboard in construction of designed structures provided an opportunity for me to see how the developmental age and prior experience of students directs the choice of projects and tools. Kindergarten to grade 2 children were enrolled in the morning session and the afternoon session was 3rd-5th.

Designing and building a marble run was our first project— re-using materials such as cardboard tubes and boxes, construction paper, and egg cartons, with tape. I provided some precut pieces of tape for the younger group and set up “tape stations” with scissors. The older group tended to take the rolls of tape to their table where it disappeared under their materials! The younger children built shorter structures. Seeking to make long ramps, the older children hastily rolled construction paper into long, structurally weak tubes. 

There was just as much difference in skill sets within the age groups as there was between them. Some children needed to hear others’ ideas before they could settle on a plan and get to work. Some were focused on completion and didn’t spend much time making a stable structure or creating a clear pathway for the marbles. Others worked so long on perfecting one aspect of their marble run that they ran out of time that day to make the rest of what they envisioned.  

To become proficient at making well-formed objects of any kind (that meet their own expectations), children need more time than five half-days to mess about with materials, design, build, test, and re-design no matter what material is involved, but especially if they haven’t previously used the material. That very important open-exploration period strengthens children’s experience with the properties of materials and ability to imagine and design. Developing this knowledge also involves developing fine motor skills, patience, and spatial awareness, and is a lot of fun!

With just five half days to work together I decided that the Kindergarten-2nd graders would only use scissors to cut cardboard but would offer the 3rd-5th graders Klever Kutters, a safer alternative to a typical box cutter. I gave them a safety lesson on holding the cardboard with one hand while pulling the cutter through the it with the other—away from the holding hand.

The children mostly used scissors instead of the cutters. They preferred the less-sharp familiar tool. Initially I thought younger children would only use cereal box type cardboard, keeping the corrugated cardboard for older children. All ages impressed me with their willingness to work hard to shape corrugated cardboard. 

The project of making “something” using cardboard gave children an open-ended challenge. Miniature stage scenes, cozy kitty boxes, arcade games, a model kayak, figure with movable limbs, and a fort were structures designed and built, but not perfected over the week.

On the fourth day I challenged the older children to design and build for another person. Each child wrote a note describing and/or drew a picture of an object or structure they would like someone else to build for them. The papers went into a bowl and then each child drew one out to work on.  This is when children’s communication and attention to ethical considerations were evident. They had to interpret the notes to meet the needs of their “clients.”

One child’s request detailed a television with remote. The engineer interpreted the design to include a moveable image to appear when the TV was “turned on.”  In presenting the requested designed object to the clients the engineers demonstrated the features and discussed how the notes guided their design decisions. The children accepting the designed objects impressed me with their gracious appreciation for the work of their peers.

A classroom center for design using cardboard would provide opportunities for children to continue working on their ideas and solving problems through re-design during the school year. What do your children create with cardboard?

Engineering Habits of Mind. From STEM Learning with Young Children: Inquiry Teaching with Ramps and Pathways by S. Counsell, L. Escalada, R. Geiken, M. Sander, J.Uhlenberg, B. Van Meeteren, S.Yoshizawa, B. Zan. 2015. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

Posted in Early Years | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Media literacy week, October 21-25, 2019

A shared reading experience is one of the most powerful strategies for building children’s literacy skills according to the International Library Association (ILA pg 3) and in my experience as a reader, educator, and parent. Once a week I am a guest reader in a preschool classroom for four-year-olds. We stop and discuss the action as I read a library book (my favorite form of media!) and the children access, analyze, and interpret the images in the book. They are developing their ability to understand the book’s symbols and messages, building their literacy skills with support from their teachers and guest readers. I’ve been surprised that many times children identify a dog in a story as a wolf, even though I’m sure they have had many more first-hand experiences with dogs than with wolves. 

Literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context” (ILA Literacy Glossary). The word can refer to basic knowledge in a specific activity, as in “media literacy,” rather than only to reading and writing. Media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication,” and “media” is “all electronic or digital means and print or artistic visuals used to transmit messages” (NAMLE).  National Media Literacy Week is October 21-25, 2019, a good time to share resources with families. 

The word “create” represents a big part of literacy learning in early childhood. Children are more than consumers of media—they are creators of messages using drawn and written symbols, and those made with manipulatives, and on digital media. The imaginative play and dance, and the songs they choose to sing, are all messages about their interests, experiences, and understanding about the world.

A table-size shared page provides a format for illustrating a small group’s discussion about the earlier field trip.
Children draw the parts of the field trip that were memorable for them as they talked about the experience.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) offers resources for understanding how the media we use and create can be analyzed. In discussions with children about books, science experiences, and the community, we can ask, “What do you think happened and what do you think about it? NAMLE recommends asking: 

  • WHO made this?
  • WHY was it made?
  • WHAT is missing from this message?
  • HOW might different people interpret this message? 
  • WHO might benefit from this message?
  • WHO might be harmed by this message?

These questions help young children reflect on media they create, and consider the perspectives of other people.

There is overlap between science literacy and media literacy—they both require us to provide evidence for our claims. Asking for and presenting evidence for how we know something is another way to help children understand the importance of media literacy and is central to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Practices of Science and Engineering and the Crosscutting Concepts. Young children’s evidence comes from their first hand observation and documentation of their experiences, or information from their family or learned from media. When I question why the children identified the animal as a wolf, they tell me their evidence, “It has teeth,” and “It looks like a wolf.” Of course they are right! I need to introduce the idea of animal behavior and many more images to help them distinguish between these animals when they occur in a book.

When children confidently make a declaration such as, “That’s a snake!” when you know it is an earthworm, you can ask for evidence. “What makes you think it’s a snake?” “I’m wondering how you know it is a snake?” “What about the way it looks or moves tells you it is a snake?” “Are there any ways it is different from a snake? How?” “Let’s look at some pictures of this animal and some snakes so we can compare them,” and “Where should we look?”

Encourage children to document their observations with drawings, photography, audio recording, and other media. Ask them, “What do you want people to learn about this animal from your drawing (size, body structure, habitat…)?” “How will you show it so they understand that?” Over time children will begin to consider these questions themselves and revise their drawings.


Ashbrook, Peggy. 2018. The Early Years, Analyzing Media Representations of Animals. Science and Children. 56(4): 16-17. 

International Literacy Association (ILA). (2018). What effective pre-k literacy instruction looks like [Literacy leadership brief]. Newark, DE: Author.

International Literacy Association (ILA), Literacy Glossary. Retrieved October 2019 from

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2007, November). Core principles of media literacy education in the United States. Retrieved October 2019 from 

National Association for Media Literacy Education and Trend Micro, Inc. Building Healthy Relationships w/ Media: A Parent’s Guide to Media Literacy. Retrieved October 2019 from 

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Posted in Early Years | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment