Digging Deeper: Peeling Back the Practices: What Did High School Students Think?

One of the big shifts in the NGSS is the integration of Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) with Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs) and Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). In other words, content is not taught in isolation: The teacher consciously includes at least one other dimension. Sounds easy, right? In actuality, that’s easier said than done. Planning lessons that intentionally incorporate multiple dimensions can be really challenging and time-consuming. A colleague and I used a multi-day activity to help high school chemistry students gain experience with designing a solution to a problem.

The context for the lab may be familiar because it’s a variation of an activity used by many chemistry teachers. We asked students who were learning about stoichiometric relationships, proportional reasoning, and chemical quantities in reactions (HS-PS1-6) to design a small-scale airbag using baking soda and vinegar. We modified the task in several ways to better reflect the practice we were targeting: designing a solution.

We added a silly, but somewhat realistic, frame to the lab by asking students to design an airbag for a stroller company that had received repeated customer complaints about the safety of their strollers. (This frame was based on an idea we heard during last year’s NSTA National Conference in Los Angeles.) More importantly, we sought to include key components of the engineering design process. We specified constraints, including weight limit, proper inflation level, and time needed to properly inflate the airbag, and emphasized that all materials had to be in the sealed bag, but remain unreacted until an “accident” happened.

We also gave students a budget and “charged” them for every item they used, including the baking soda and vinegar. This ensured that they were intentional about their process and not just guessing at the solution. We tracked each group’s expenses using a simple Google spreadsheet, and projected each group’s remaining budget on the main classroom screen and updated it in real time as groups purchased items.

We also included a process for students to patent their ideas by submitting their designs to the patent office (their teacher) for approval. This prevented them from copying other groups’ designs.

Students not only loved this activity, but also treated it very seriously. They were highly engaged in the engineering process, and consequently, the associated DCI. It was fun listening to the academic conversations happening spontaneously around the room.

Listening was our first line of formative assessment in this multi-day lab, but not the only one. To specifically assess students’ use and understanding of the practices in which they engaged, I developed a self-assessment tool. Students rated each of the eight practices on a 1-2-3 scale based on how engaged they felt in that practice.

Though I’d made many anecdotal formative assessments as I facilitated the lab, the metacognition, a crucial aspect of self-reflection, would’ve been missing if I hadn’t asked students to –assess themselves. All teachers agree that the person talking and/or writing is the one doing the learning, so this instruction caused students to pause and reflect more than if I’d simply pointed out what practices I thought they’d engaged in.

Students often surprised me by recounting conversations that indicated they’d engaged in practices I hadn’t witnessed as I monitored the lab. I didn’t anticipate, for example, that students would rate “Engaging in Argument From Evidence” as a 3 (indicating they’d used that practice significantly), but one group described a disagreement in the design process that forced them to gather and present evidence to convince other group members that a specific design would be the most effective.

Realistically, students won’t use all eight practices in any given lab. But by my including all eight on the self-assessment tool, it didn’t reveal what I expected they would use;it provided me with valuable information.

I especially appreciate that this self-assessment tool can be easily adapted for other classroom activities. The engineering portion at the end could be modified to reflect the specific activity, or even removed to generate a very generic, but useful, tool.

I’ve found that creating this document has helped me remember to slow down and give students time to process. Inevitably I feel crunched for time in the classroom and over the course of the year. While I try to be intentional about designing multi-dimensional lessons, this document also has helped me remember, when I worry about having enough time for the lesson, to slow down and give students time to process what they’re learning. Asking them to identify what they’re doing helps them connect the content to the real world and provides relevance for what they’re learning about.

Andrea Ames

Andrea Ames teaches science in Washington. After five years of teaching middle school science, she transitioned to high school science and has taught biology, chemistry, and AP Biology for three years. Ames holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in teaching. She recently completed the University of Washington’s Teacher Leader certificate program and is a member of the Washington State Science Fellows network. 


This article was 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 access other articles from the September issue on assessing three-dimensional learning. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.


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