How Can Elementary Teachers Work Toward the Vision of the Next Generation Science Standards?

NGSS coverWhen I taught elementary school, science was the foundation around which I built my multi-age classroom, but I think this approach was rare. With the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we have the opportunity for science to become front and center in more elementary classrooms. I am thrilled about the NGSS and the promise and opportunity it holds for ALL students. I am also relieved because finally someone out there “gets it”—just look at Practices # 6 (constructing explanations and designing solutions) and #8 (obtaining, evaluating and communicating information). Science can be the basis of rich instruction around where reading, writing, speaking, and listening are learned and practiced! We don’t have to teach only mathematics and language arts to make students better readers and writers.

What's Your Evidence book coverFor K–5 teachers, the thought of implementing the NGSS in classrooms can be overwhelming. But, it’s exciting too! The NGSS gives us opportunities that we’ve not had in the past to finally make science the centerpiece of the elementary classroom. I think we can make this transition to NGSS more easily if we have a deeper understanding of the NGSS content we need to use in our science instruction. Most (many) elementary teachers, including me, did not learn much science in college, so whenever a learning opportunity presents itself, I am usually the first to sign up. One of those opportunities is coming up soon. NSTA is sponsoring a series of web seminars specifically designed for elementary teachers by people who know elementary teachers best—me, a former elementary teacher turned state science coordinator five years ago; Dr. Mary Starr, author, Executive Director of the Michigan Mathematics and Science Centers Network, and a science consultant who has been working with elementary teachers; and Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul, author of What’s Your Evidence?: Engaging K–5 Children in Constructing Explanations in Science, and a teacher educator who focuses on elementary science and strives to create strong connections between research and practice.

Working in collaboration with these two educators to prepare these web seminars has been a unique learning experience. My own understanding of the NGSS has grown as we have grappled with how to best share our ideas with you within the limitations of the medium. I am looking forward to learning more from you as we move forward with these professional learning experiences. Our vision is that the series of web seminars will encourage teachers to come together in a professional learning community that will be nourished by discussions in the NSTA Learning Center forums.

Rope representing the practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideasWhen choosing the content for each of the grade level web seminars we thought about the following things: first and foremost, the standards; second, what teachers are already doing well in the classroom; and third, new information we have discerned that teachers need, based on actual questions they have asked us. Content alone does not make up the Next Generation Science Standards and this approach is very different from standards in the past. Visualize the NGSS as a rope with three strands: disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and science and engineering practices. Each strand gets its strength from being interwoven with the other two—they are not meant to stand alone. With that in mind, although the disciplinary core idea might be grade-specific, the practices and crosscutting concepts are not. All of the web seminars will discuss and/or demonstrate the use of the practices and crosscutting concepts in the classroom. Different practices will be highlighted in various web seminars so even if you teach third grade, for instance, it might make sense for you to attend the whole series. We would love to have you!

Series Description

September 17, 2014: Kindergarten

In the NGSS, there are four performance expectations bundled together under the topic of weather. We have chosen to address the classroom instruction that is needed to help students meet the performance expectation, Use and share observations of local weather conditions to describe patterns over time, by the time they leave kindergarten. What does everyday instruction around this weather look like?

October 22, 2014: First Grade

Waves are introduced in first grade in the topics of both light and sound. We will highlight the instruction students will need in order to plan and conduct investigations to determine the effect of placing objects made with different materials in the path of a beam of light. We will use videos of actual classrooms to demonstrate that first graders can do very cool science. Using video examples, participants will be able to visualize the first graders in their school doing science around waves.

November 19, 2014: Second Grade

Understanding the concept of matter is foundational to the majority of the science instruction that occurs in later grades. Science instruction in second grade is one of the large building blocks. In this web seminar we will focus on what students need to know and be able to do to construct an argument with evidence that some changes caused by heating and cooling can be reversed and some cannot. What instruction is needed for the students to be successful with this performance expectation by the end of the year? We hope participants will feel more prepared to plan instruction around this concept.

December 17, 2014: Third Grade

Students need the opportunity to explore inheritance and variation and by the end of the third grade, be able to analyze and interpret data to provide evidence plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms. What learning experiences can we provide to students to move them towards this goal? How can we help students build this understanding? What might you do? By joining us in this web seminar, participants will get the answers to some of these questions.

January 21, 2015: Fourth Grade

Students will come into fourth grade with many different ideas and understandings about energy. We will focus on energy transfer and transformation. By the end of fourth grade, students need to make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents. In this web seminar we will share examples of what it might look like in the classroom. We will answer questions we have heard from many teachers about teaching this concept and address questions from webinar participants.

February 18, 2015: Fifth Grade

In this web seminar we will look at what needs to happen in the classroom during this unit so that students are able to understand Matter and Energy in Organisms and Ecosystems the way that it was envisioned in the NGSS. By the end of the year, the students are expected to develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. How might students meet this expectation using their own environment? We will help participants explore the interdependent relationships and how they can lead to greater student understanding.

I have learned so much by using NSTA resources, including many in the Learning Center. There are not many web seminars I have missed, especially those on the topic of the Next Generation Science Standards. I’ve also used SciPacks when I had plenty of time to plan a science unit, and SciObjects when I needed “just in time” content knowledge to teach a lesson the following day. (Note, NSTA will release a SciPack on NGSS later this fall.) My favorite resource is the NSTA Community Forums where the conversation happens, and where I can ask my own questions or share my ideas. I am hoping to talk with many people in the Forums following each of the web seminars.

See you on September 17th.

Editor’s Note
To register for the upcoming web seminars, go to ( Visit the NGSS@NSTA Hub to access NSTA’s growing collection of NGSS resources. To access the official NGSS website, go to

Kathy Renfrew and Carla Zembal-SaulToday’s Guest Blogger is Kathy Renfrew
Kathy Renfrew is the K-5 science Coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education, as well as an NGSS@NSTA curator and online advisor in the NSTA Learning Center. Kathy is an advocate for quality science instruction in elementary classrooms and working with teacher leaders as Vermont transitions to NGSS.” Email her at or follow her on Twitter at @KRScienceLady.
(Photo: Kathy Renfrew, right; Carla Zembal-Saul, left) 


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7 Responses to How Can Elementary Teachers Work Toward the Vision of the Next Generation Science Standards?

  1. Showme Deb says:

    For the last 39 years I’ve used science as my hook, line, and sinker to get primary students to LOVE reading and writing. I applaud you for making this so much easier for younger teachers to integrate!

  2. Terry Wilson says:

    Hi Kathy,
    I’m so excited for these webinars- integration at the elementary level is key. Our content has been too fragmented. Unfortunately I’m going to miss the first one due to conflicts with CSTA board meeting. Thank goodness for archives. I’m doing a book study with “What’s your Evidence?” with my K-5 teachers. Thank you for your insight!

  3. Taylor Gammill says:

    “Science can be the basis of rich instruction around where reading, writing, speaking, and listening are learned and practiced! We don’t have to teach only mathematics and language arts to make students better readers and writers.” I love this quote! I am excited to be coming into the public schools at a time like this when the NGSS are soon to be integrated into our school system. Math and Literacy are so heavily focused on, I am thankful that science is coming back to the forefront of education.

  4. Kathy Renfrew says:

    I cannot begin to explain the exhilaration felt after participating in NSTA’S Grade 1 web seminar. The feeling was amazing. I was engaged NGSS learning. I was so very engaged with the content of the presentation and the interactions of the participants. For that hour and a half, we were a community of practice. All participants in the web seminar, no matter their role were engaged in Science and Engineering Practice #8, Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information. Students want and need to be just as engaged in this practice, in all of the practices.
    On the drive home, I was thinking and the questions kept coming. Upon arrival at home I quickly jotted down some thoughts, ideas and questions. I knew I had to listen to the web seminar archive. While watching and listening to the archived web seminar, I made note of the unanswered questions and I will begin to address those questions here:
    How are the performance expectations connected to the Framework of K-12 Science Education?
    First of all, all of the core ideas, practices and cross-cutting concepts found in a performance expectation can be directly linked to the Framework. Performance expectations are the offspring of the three dimensions. They demonstrate the intertwining of the DCIs,SEPs,and CCCs. Performance expectations were not directly lifted from the Framework because they would have become too unwieldy and difficult to understand.
    How do we Bundle performance expectations ?
    There is no one right wayto bundle PEs. The important element to think about when bundling PEs is what is the storyline? Which PEs when bundled creates a coherent, conceptual development for students? For example,
    “How do you work this way with a class of English language learners?”
    One idea might be a visual word wall which would be helpful for ALL young children. The material might be gravel. Gravel would be written on a word card. A small sample of gravel might be attached to a piece of card stock and hung next to the word or you could take a photograph of gravel to hang on the wall or maybe both. An excellent resource for teachers of English language learners is Appendix D. Here is a brief excerpt:
    ELL Connections
    Like all of the classes at Monroe Elementary, a school with more than 74% of the population at or below the poverty level, Ms. H.’s 2nd grade class was made up of diverse groups of learners. Her class included three Hmong students, eight African-Americans, three students who recently arrived from Gambia, two from Mexico, and …
    How Are Scientists meetings held in Large Classrooms?
    There was a concern voiced about engaging students in a Scientist Meeting in classrooms where there were more than 20 students. One of participants, Suzan Locke, suggested having students do a turn and talk so that ALL students would have a chance to talk although not all would share with the whole group. Another strategy that can be used is a fishbowl. To begin, the outside group might be addressed, “Sometimes, scientists need to be good listeners. I want you to be good listeners and make notes to share when you have your chance to talk” Students might have whiteboards and markers to do this or small handmade clipboards that can only be picked up when they have a good science idea to record.
    How Can Students Address Space Science Standards in Grade1?
    Use observations of the sun, moon, and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted. 1-ESS1-1
    One way this particular concept may be addressed is by observing the moon over a period of time. As a result of these observations, students when shown pictures of the moon, will be able to describe patterns and predict what the moon will look like next. One resource to assist with this instruction is called “The Moon Challenge,A Short Focused Research Project “ which was featured in September 2013 Science and Children magazine. If you want to know more about this NGSS aligned, Common Core project, contact me: .
    I hope I have answered some of the questions that came up in the chat.
    Please come back November 19,2014 for our Grade 2 web seminar focused on Structure and Properties of Matter. the focus is constructing an argument with evidence that when matter is heated and/or cooled some changes can be undone and some cannot.
    Looking forward to working with you again soon.
    Kathy Renfrew

  5. Kathy Renfrew says:

    A Change and A  Check In
    We have completed the first web seminars of the series and I was wondering how we were doing from your perspsective. What components resonate with you? Which pieces do you either just not like or do not understand enough? What are we not including that you feel you would like to know more about?
    We are looking forward to meeting with you again on November 19, 2014. On the 19th, we will be looking at 2nd grade students grappling with the concept of matter. The students will be using the information from their investigation to construct an argument with evidence that some changes caused by heating or cooling can be reversed and some cannot.
    We will be discussing some different facets of using talk as an important component of science instruction. Students engaged in carefully crsfted lessons that include science talk can also be addressing Common Core State Standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards.
    A change to the content of the #NSTA #NGSS web seminar sceduled for February 2015. We have decided it will be more useful for elementary teachers to learn about a disciplinary core idea that will be familair to most to them, “the way humans impact the earth and how we try tomanage that impact” 

  6. kathy renfrew says:

    The next NSTA NGSS web seminar series for Elementary Teachers will take place on on January 21, 2015. The DCI content of this web seminar is based on a 4th grade standard but the dialogue between educators around transition to NGSS, how can science be used to teach literacy ,what are Talk moves and how do they REALLY look and sound like in the classroom goes far beyond borders of a grade level.
    To attend these web seminars, you do not need to be a member of NSTA, but you DO NEED to be a member of the Learning Center.
    Go to:
    We will be looking at a 4th grade classroom that has been working on learning about how energy is transferred from place to place mostly by electricity. The students you will see are grappling with this phenomena. Science talk and science talk are important components of the learning and the integration of CC English Language Arts.
    I am looking forward to seeing you there and talking with other educators.

  7. Shirley says:

    I finished my all my units for my 4th grade NGSS standards! I feel organized, jazzed, and ready to go this year. I made a website to make teaching more efficient.

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