Finding STEM Success in the Post-Secondary Classroom

The 8th Annual STEM Forum & Expo, hosted by NSTA, this July in San Francisco offers a post-secondary track to help educators create STEM-rich learning environments for students. STEM plays a vital role in post-secondary education, whether it’s in the introductory classroom where students are learning about the value of STEM or upper-level classes where students are preparing for STEM-related careers.

The sessions in the post-secondary track at the STEM Forum & Expo will help educators incorporate the value of STEM in their classrooms. For all of the sessions in the track, and to tailor the conference program for your own needs, browse the sessions online and search by date, conference strand, grade level, and more. 

Here are a few of the post-secondary sessions offered:

Thursday, July 25, 9:30–10:30 a.m., Rm. 3022, Moscone Center West

Preparing Students for Actual Science

Join for a discussion of how students are trained to be scientists emphasizing intuition and non-specialized knowledge rather than using the scientific method to make discoveries.

Speaker: Ed Fenimore, Emeritus Fellow

Friday, July 26, 9:30–10:30 a.m., Rm. 3022, Moscone Center West

Activism in the Science Classroom: Where to Draw the Line? 

As instructors, we want to reflect on how to balance activism and adversarial attitudes among students and faculty in the science classroom. How do we present the science and address student claims supported by examples in the media?

Speakers: Annissa Furr, Professor, Kaplan University; Tyra Hall-Pogar, Professor, Purdue Global University

Friday, July 26, 1:30–2:30 p.m., Rm. 3022, Moscone Center West

Nontraditional Students: New Prospects for Qualified STEM Educators at Rider University

The speakers will share the unique experiences of two undergraduate scholars and their nontraditional paths to careers in STEM education.

Speakers: Laura Ramirez, Undergraduate Student, Rider University; Kimberly Konczyk, Student, Rider University

Educators from all grade levels will gain valuable STEM teaching strategies and resources at the 8th Annual STEM Forum & Expo, hosted by NSTA. This unique, focused event brings together (informal and formal) educators and representatives from exhibiting companies who are interested in, and who have tools and resources to share that will ensure successful implementation of STEM education into our schools and communities. It is intended to provide resources for educators and organizations seeking to learn more about STEM education, associated outreach programs, partnerships, schools, and curricula.

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Circle of Life 1.0: Planting seeds

I am working on a lesson plan for the life cycle of a plant for kindergarten. Do you have any activity ideas?
— K., Oregon

If you’re teaching about life cycles of flowering plants you should incorporate all the life stages.

Start by growing plants from seeds—particularly large, easily available seeds like peas or beans. I’m sure you’re aware of the zip-top plastic bag and wet paper towel activity. (Soak the peas or beans overnight.) Students will see where plants come from and you can discuss the different parts of an adult plant. Have students identify the same structures in the plants and trees they see on a nature walk.

Flowering plants create the next generation via their flowers. You can purchase inexpensive, fresh flowers and dissect the different parts. (Ask students about potential allergies.) Make sure to cut open the ovary, a harder, thicker section just below the petals. This contains tiny unfertilized ovules— waiting for pollen to develop into seeds. Use magnifiers to examine the ovules and look closely at the other structures on the flowers.

Buy fresh pea pods, bean pods, and fruit. Open them to see the seeds. Where do the fruit and pods come from? Flowers! Photos of fruit trees in bloom or a nature walk during the blooming season will connect the two. You can have great discussions about the fruit we eat! Consider incorporating a talk about pollinators, particularly bees.

A search of The Learning Center will provide you with ideas, lessons and articles on this subject.

Hope this helps!


Picture Credit:  johndavi from Pixabay 

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Impact of Change by Jessica Holman and Michelle Schuster

If you were to walk into our classroom years ago, you would see students from all walks of life, and with a range of ability levels. All of the students were blended together to learn science and were eager to be engaged. We were teaching units that were not sequenced, and our focus was on memorization and expecting student to regurgitate information to perform well on a state assessment. The pressure to ensure the entire curriculum was covered and high test scores maintained meant that student understanding became secondary.

The NGSS have brought a breath of fresh air into our classroom. We now look at every student differently and expect all of them to learn many science and engineering skills that can help them meet their personal post-secondary goals, regardless of whether they go into the sciences.

Since the NGSS were released in 2013, we started working in our PLCs and planning how we can integrate the science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. We wanted to explore how the notion of phenomena and “figuring out” fit it into what we were already doing. We attended more training and met with peers, and we thought we finally understood, even experiencing our own “aha” moments. But it wasn’t until we experienced a phenomenon as student learners in a training session that we understood how the three dimensions support one other.

It occurred when a peer spoke about the phenomenon of a young man who had died from drinking too much water and wondered if it was possible for water to cause death. She had us use a model to illustrate how the kidneys functioned and experience the same models completed in her class.  By connecting the science idea to the kidneys’ function we were able to look through the lens of the crosscutting concept to explain the science more deeply. This “aha” moment began a  chain of events where we both began to learn how we could transform our classroom to one in which all students feel invested in and connected to their science education.

Today we are enthusiastically learning and applying what we have learned about the NGSS. We first tried our hands at using some of our old resources to see if they fit with the new way of starting with phenomena, then going into a storyline, but it didn’t feel right. We were using the practices and crosscutting concepts and teaching the DCIs, yet it felt disjointed. We realized we needed a model of what this looked like in the classroom, so a friend pointed us to, which is a fantastic resource. We found our new love! 

Our first storyline centered on a young girl named Addie, and it was through her storyline that we were able to see what a genuine phenomenon looked like to the students. We realized rather quickly that our units lacked coherence and didn’t effectively integrate the dimensions. They were often choppy and students didn’t see how each piece of the dimensions could support their learning. We learned in an actual NGSS storyline the students are learning about the phenomena and the lessons they are taught are intentionally selected in the sequence to support students building the science ideas to grasp the phenomena.

Tackling a storyline was challenging at first, but now we are on our third cycle of Addie’s storyline, and we have added two other storylines under our belt. Our motivation is more than just using ready-made units; it was our students who made it clear what we were doing mattered. When we first introduced the phenomena of either Addie or the children with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), our students immediately started asking questions. They were truly interested and began to build their understanding. Their focus started to be about collecting evidence to support their ideas.

Our students had a voice in their learning, and we made every piece of information an intricate part of the puzzle. Together we worked to ensure we could all see the big picture. One of our favorite things has been for us to see where our kids first started in their thinking, and then looking at their completed models. We marvel at how much they have learned through authentic experiences.

We are especially moved by the inclusivity of these units. When we are intentional about weaving the three dimensions together and connecting to a phenomenon we make room for every student in the classroom to be empowered and to take risks while learning about science. We don’t teach at our students in our classes now, teaching is more of a partnership with them. Our students have a voice, and we move together collaboratively to figure out the science we need to explain the phenomena we have all experienced. To be honest, this is precisely what we have always imagined teaching and learning should feel like. We engaged our students through the use of modeling throughout the storyline to allow student to explain their learning combined with many other practices intertwined. We would love to hear from you! Have you used storylines in your classroom? What practices or crosscutting are you using to support your students? We want to celebrate with you, please share with us here!

Student Initial Model

Student End of Storyline Model

Michelle Schuster is a high school biology teacher in Florence, Kentucky. This is her 20th year teaching at Boone County High School where she is also an alumni. Schuster holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. She is a member of the Boone County Science Teacher Leader Committee where she serves as an ambassador for her school aiding in the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards within the district. She works as an Online Advisor for the National Science Teacher Association in the NSTA Learning Center; where she contributes to discussions in online forums with educators across the county. Schuster has been team teaching biology with Jessica Holman for four years. Schuster pours her drive and passion for science into every lesson her students experience.

Jessica Holman is a special education teacher at Boone County High School. She has worked in education for 10 years in both North Carolina and Kentucky. Holman holds a bachelor’s degree from Winston Salem State University in special education and a master’s degree in teacher leadership with a certification in instructional technology. She is active in her role as a science teacher leader in her school district; she collaborates with peers and works to integrate instruction into her blended learning classroom. Holman has worked with educators across the state of Kentucky to communicate educational strategies that support the learning and growing of fellow educators. She is motivated by the opportunity for equitable education through the implementation of the NGSS and works hard to ensure every student feels accepted and encouraged to learn science.

Note: This article is featured in the May 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 National Conference

STEM Forum & Expo

2019 Fall Conferences

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On the Path to the NGSS by Diane Johnson

As several reports have shown, it is critical for teachers to understand instructional strategies that are consistent with the NGSS vision, as well as to have the skills to implement them in their classrooms. I had the privilege of working with two early-career eighth-grade teachers at South Warren Middle School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, as part of an NSTA coaching pilot program. A lesson I learned from this opportunity was that there are many paths toward realizing the vision of the NGSS in the classroom, but, as the ancient Latin adage says, experientia docet (“experience teaches”).

Find Your Starting Place Continue reading

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Dense Question

My kindergarten students believe that small objects are always light and big objects are always heavier. How can I address this misconception?
—L., Wyoming

Excellent question! This is a major misconception many adults have about density: the characteristic relationship between the mass and volume of materials.

I think the best way to tackle this is to have a hands-on activity. Buy or make identical-sized blocks, cylinders, or balls of different materials: plastic, wood, soap, iron, aluminum, styrofoam, plasticine, and so on. Although we are saying size, we are actually referring to volume.

Using the same series of materials, make shapes in larger sizes. The more sizes you can get the better.

Have students hold the same-sized cube of iron and aluminum in their hands. They should observe a difference albeit subjective. Use a double-pan balance or make a simple teeter-totter device to compare masses of objects objectively. Have them rank the different blocks from heaviest to lightest.

Can they balance a small, “heavy” object with a few “lighter” objects? At some point, the students should realize that many “light” things (or a single larger “light” item) can have the same weight (mass) as a smaller “heavy” object.

Now blow up a balloon! How does that compare to any of your other materials? It’s bigger, but I bet it’s lighter than almost everything else.

Hopefully this will lead to a better understanding of the density of different materials.

Hope this helps!

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Why Are Bees so Buzzworthy? Next Time You See One You’ll Know

Bee-Wildering! Hives of Notre-Dame in Miraculous Survival” (Phys.Org): Headlines like this dominate the news lately. They go from wildly hopeful like the Notre Dame story, to speculative [Saving Bees With Sugar: Connecting With Nature or ‘a Last Resort’? (], to downright depressing [Beehive Arson in Texas Kills Half a Million: ‘There Goes My Honey Flow’ (]. All the media attention makes for teachable moments about these incredible creatures that are so vital to our environment. But how do you put this all in perspective for young kids?

Award-winning author Emily Morgan’s new book Next Time You See a Bee is the perfect resource to help children appreciate bees. It’s not meant to be a dry reference, though. Morgan tells readers right up front, “The Next Time You See* books are not meant to present facts to be memorized. They are written to inspire a sense of wonder about ordinary objects or phenomena and foster a desire to learn more about the natural world. Children might initially be afraid of bees. However, when they learn how important bees are to humans and the planet, their fear will hopefully develop into appreciation.”

The book is filled with gorgeous pictures, so even if your students aren’t able to get outside, they can still “experience” the wonder of bees. But if you’re able to follow the author’s recommendations, then do get outside with the kids. Morgan asks readers to watch, find, count, listen, feel, look, touch, observe… but mainly to enjoy and be amazed! Proper cautions are given about being respectful of the bees and to give them enough space. Readers who are fearful of bees are reminded that bees won’t hurt them if left alone.

And yes, the worrisome decline of bee populations is tackled. This is done in an age-appropriate way that addresses the issue, gives vetted science content, and connects readers to their own place in the ecosystem. Simple ideas like planting bee-friendly flowers or using paper tubes to give bees a nesting area will give students a way to be part of the solution (not just for the bees, but for plants, humans, and for all of nature).

Several other pollinators are mentioned, such as butterflies, birds, and wasps, so students get a wider picture of how pollinators and flowers work together. But bees are the most prolific. Once this is established, the author offers information about their bodies and features that make this so.

At one point, Morgan tells us “Bees have no idea how important they are to the plants they visit.” But by the time your students are done reading this charming new title, they will have no doubt as to why!

This book is also available as an ebook.

*Next Time You See a Bee is the newest book in the NSTA Press Next Time You See book series. The series also includes Next Time You See a Sunset, which was named an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K–12 and was the winner of the REVERE Award from PreK–12 Learning Group, Association of American Publishers!

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They can say the word but can they explain what it means? The “illusion of explanatory depth”

Child pouring paint from waist height on to a sheet on the floor.The use of a particular word can support children’s communication about their understanding of natural phenomena and sometimes obscure the amount or depth of their understanding. A full day preschool class of 4-year-old children explored the use of motion in creating art over several weeks. They began by pouring, dripping, and flinging paints of various viscosities from cups onto sheets spread on the ground. As children prepared to work, teachers asked, “How can we get paint onto the cloth without using brushes?” “How the paint be pushed or pulled to the cloth?” “How can we make the paints do what we want them to?” One child said “Gravity does it!” and teachers defined it as a force that pulls objects to the Earth. After that when asked, “How did you make that happen?” many children would simply say, “Gravity,” although they had manipulated the cups and paint while taking the pull of gravity into account. Their understanding of gravity was that “it makes things fall” but were not clear that this is a pull.

When introducing additional activities teachers asked children to plan what push or pull actions they could make, and how they will use the pull of gravity, while using materials to create the artwork they wanted. They rolled marbles through paint on a paper-lined tray as they held it while tipping it back and forth; used a salad spinner to spin paper plates holding pools of paint—faster to spread the paint wider; and built mobiles attaching pieces that balanced (more or less) and turned freely in moving air.

Over time, and with discussion, children’s work moved from “let’s see what happens” with these materials to “what can I make happen?” By mixing in cornstarch children chose how thick to make their paint depending on whether they wanted the paint to pour and spin out, or “blob.” They chose to try using bigger balls in the painting tray, and chose to drip paint from spoons. Some began saying that “gravity is pulling the paint down when I pour” and that the marbles were pulled across the paint by gravity when children tipped the trays. They got the connection between the motion of the paint and a force called gravity, something to build on as they grow and learn more. 

Older children also use vocabulary words without understanding the concepts they describe. Prompted by a blog post by Kevin Anderson of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, middle and high school teachers are discussing this on the NSTA NGSS email listserv. Anderson described his own experience explaining what he meant when he used a word to explain a phenomenon. Students who use terms but don’t fully understand them give the “illusion of explanatory depth,” a description coined by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002. In the listserv discussion, NSTA members recommend asking students questions such as, “Tell me what this means to you?” “Talk to me about it,” and “Tell me more.” These are useful questions to ask preschoolers to help them state their understanding.


Anderson, Kevin. 2019. Students Using Proper Science Vocabulary Can Mask Authentic Understanding. Wisconsin Science and STEM Education blog. April 17, 2019.

Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. 2002.  The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive Science. Cogn Sci. 26(5): 521–562.

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Ed News: Project-Based Learning Boosts Student Engagement, Understanding

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This week in education news, the last decade has seen widespread degree inflation; NCSE has developed a series of five climate change lessons for science teachers; new Florida bill requires schools to place a stronger emphasis on vocational and technical training and apprenticeships; Colorado lawmakers consider new education bills that are directed toward attracting and retailing teachers in the state’s more remote rural school districts; new report aims to help employers assess the impact of their STEM talent development efforts; and 39 percent of California high schools offer computer science courses.

Even More Teachers Can Now Have Their TEACH Grant Debt Forgiven

So far, about 2,300 teachers have had unfair federal loans forgiven, NPR has reported—and due to rule changes by the U.S. Department of Education, thousands more could get help. The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH grant, is meant to incentivize aspiring teachers to work in short-staffed areas and low-income schools. Teacher-candidates who plan to teach in a high-needs field, in a high-needs school, for at least four years are eligible for the $4,000 annual grant. Read the article featured in Education Week.

What If We Hired For Skills, Not Degrees?

The last decade has seen widespread ‘degree inflation.’ But a growing movement of employers, workers and training groups offers a rebuke to a culture that exalts a bachelor’s as the gold standard for upward mobility. Read the article featured in The Hechinger Report.

Continue reading

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Managing an Active Class

How do you maintain classroom management and control during active science lessons? I am curious about how to keep students under control when encouraging movement and active involvement in teaching. 

— A., Texas

I have always liked an active class—provided the activity is focussed on learning! Observing what is happening is important—so pick a spot in the room where the entire class is visible and set yourself up there. A corner is often the best. When helping someone, turn yourself to have as many students (or particularly sneaky ones) in front of you.

I think a key management strategy is having the class listen to you. Developing procedures to quiet the class is a good place to start. Use your teacher voice and be direct: “I need everyone back in their seats.”

Don’t talk over a class. Give one simple command and wait until all students have complied. Insist that students put everything down and face you before talking. When needed, you may want to count to three out loud. Most students respond quickly to this—especially if you have been using it all year.

A last resort for a rambunctious class would be to look at the clock and write the time you asked them to settle down on the board. Remain quiet until the last student is seated and looking forward. Write down this time. Add the delay time to the end of the period (provided it didn’t interfere with the next class or bussing). You’ll likely only need to do this once.

Hope this helps!

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA journals

Sometimes  it seems like there are artificial boundaries in education: elementary vs. secondary, K-12 vs. higher education, middle school vs. high school. Having been an educator at all of these levels, I’ve found that there are more similarities than differences. If you take a few minutes to browse the table of contents for the journals that are outside your own teaching assignments (or read the blogs) you might identify a few articles of interest to download and read. For example, if you need a refresher on content, the secondary journals may help you. You may have students who could benefit from more advanced activities or students who need more fundamental experiences. You can see what the NGSS “looks like” at different grade levels. And get ideas for investigations that could be adapted for your grade level.

The Journal of College Science Teaching is another excellent NSTA resource with food for thought. It’s interesting that some of the articles in this higher education publication are about topics and issues with which K-12 teachers can identify, such as assessments, homework, the use of technology, and investigations. Even though the students described in these articles are older and more experienced, there are a lot of commonalities with science education at all levels. Best of all, unlike some higher education publications, the articles in JCST are very readable, not written in heavy “journalese.”

For example, in this year’s issues there have been articles about

September 2018

November 2018

January 2019

May 2019

As an NSTA member you can download articles from all four journals as PDFs directly to your device. Or you can take advantage of NSTA’s Learning Center to save relevant articles in your own online library or organize them into a resource collection to share with colleagues.

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