Safer Science Labs

A Manhattan jury recently awarded nearly $60 million in damages to a former Beacon High School student who was badly burned by a teacher’s botched chemistry experiment more than five years ago. The student suffered third-degree burns over 30% of his body, including his face, neck, arms, and hand. This happened when his teacher accidentally ignited a fireball during a “Rainbow Experiment” to show the colored flames produced by various salts. The teacher seemingly ignored many safety protocols while performing the experiment, including pouring highly flammable methanol directly from a gallon jug instead of using a beaker and pipette to dispense it. During the flame jetting of the methanol from the jug, students were seated too close to the demonstration and were burned. This took place in a classroom without a ventilated hood to remove fumes. Several safety deficiencies have often been identified in lab accident reports and warnings for this type of lab demo over several decades:

• students sitting too close to the demonstration;
• limited, inappropriate, or no personal protective equipment in use;
• no safety shield present or fume hood use;
• alcohol stock bottles sometimes used to refill hot ceramic dishes or surfaces;
• limited or non-existent teacher training in the hazards and risks of using flammable liquids with resultant safety actions.

RAMPing up safety

One approach to help prevent these types of safety incidents involves the active use of four principles of safety fostered by the American Chemical Society: Recognize hazards, Assess risks of hazards, Minimize risks of hazards, and Prepare for emergencies. Using the RAMP process allows teachers working in academic labs to help minimize risks and protect students from serious injuries. Unfortunately, if the first step of recognizing and understanding hazards is not successful, risk of hazard assessment may faulter.

A recent issue ACS Journal of Chemical Health & Safety (May/June 2019, Volume 26, Number 3) had a feature article titled “Recognizing and understanding hazards – The key first step to safety.” The author, Robert H. Hill Jr., presents an analysis of several incidents and illustrates how in most cases, if not all, the teacher lacks understanding of the hazards and in effect cripples the RAMP process, resulting in a safety incident. For example, he noted how the teacher in one case did not understand the properties of flammable liquids in high concentrations of flammable vapor above the liquid.

ACS has a video for students about RAMP and a video for teachers about RAMP.

The AAA method

A similar approach encouraged by the NSTA Safety Advisory Board is the AAA (Analysis, Assessment and Action) process for “driving home” safety involving a hazard Analysis, risk Assessment, and appropriate safety Action. It addresses the need of doing a full hazard analysis as the first step.

To located the hazards for a lab or demo, one reliable source is the Safety Data Sheets: Section 2—Hazard(s) identification: All hazards regarding the chemical and required label elements. Other sources include inquiring with fellow colleagues, checking out the NSTA safety portal, the NSTA safety alert and the ACS safety alert.

Once hazards are analyzed, the associated risks can be assessed. For example, if the chemical is flammable and vapor builds up, a flash fire and jetting flame can be effected. The risk in this case includes extreme heat and active flame exposure for observers. Lastly, determine the appropriate safety actions that should be taken as precautions, given the hazards and resulting risks. In the case of the Rainbow demonstration, the safer action is an alternative demo eliminating the use of the flammable methanol. This can be done by dissolving the salts in water, soaking a wooden applicator stick in the solution, and running it over an active Bunsen Burner flame.

In the end

Whether RAMP or AAA is used, one thing is clear: Most safety incidents can be avoided if done in a safer way using one of these two hazard analysis approaches. Once employed at science teachers, too many schools don’t follow up with initial or annual safety training for science teachers—that is, until an accident occurs and there is a lawsuit like the one mentioned above. Stay safe. Don’t destroy a student’s life or your own.

Submit questions regarding safety to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

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Breathing Life into Lessons

I find it challenging to engage elementary students in the life sciences. What are some hands-on activities that work? Are there anchoring phenomena that you recommend?
—C., Utah

Depending on your curriculum, you could pursue several avenues to capitalize on students’ innate curiosity about nature and engage them in their learning.

One of the easiest is to explore your school grounds. Observing how natural processes and organisms take advantage of almost any condition can be powerful anchors for lessons. Questions like, “How can weeds grow in sidewalk cracks?” or “How can ants survive on a playground?” can lead to broad-reaching inquiries. The questions students raise or phenomena they observe are almost limitless.

Consider introducing a classroom pet or aquarium and make the students the caretakers. Focus lessons with the presence of these living things. Tending a school garden can be enjoyable and educational at the same time. Sharing their harvest will also build a community spirit among your students. Individual projects like terrariums or pop-bottle ecosystems will develop a vested curiosity and motivation to keep them thriving.

Field trips to nature centers or zoos are always memorable and introduce students to experts, careers and role models. Many conservation groups have outreach programs to bring nature into the classroom.

A good introduction into genetics and heredity is for the class to go through a list of human genetic traits and collate their results. Funny traits to track: widow’s peak hairline, hitchhiker’s thumb, attached/detached earlobes, tongue curling, convex/concave nose, and so on.  To avoid conflicts with family privacy, keep this introductory activity as a simple survey among the students in your class.

Hope this helps!

Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

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Measuring Murphy’s Law with the Vernier Go Direct Acceleration Sensor

On the 4th of July this year,  a fitting date, America lost a true hero whom many people had never heard of, namely Robert Gilliland. Bob Gilliland was the chief test pilot and first person to fly the iconic SR-71 Blackbird, arguably the coolest airplane in history.

Robert Gilliland with a model SR-71 Blackbird. Bob glowed when he told Blackbird stories. As a test pilot in the early days of space flight, although Bob did not go into space, he flew into its blackness routinely to avoid every other enemy aircraft or weapon on earth as the cameras in his plane photographed what would later be the job of satellites.

Even without all its world records, the profile of the Blackbird has inspired and awed generations for generations. And if the first SR-71 flight wasn’t enough, Bob took the beautiful new Blackbird to supersonic speed on its maiden voyage back in December of 1964. Something unheard of! And Bob told me he flew the first flight of every Blackbird to follow ultimately logging more time at mach 2 and mach 3 that anyone else on earth.

The Vernier Go Direct Acceleration sensor is a rock-solid piece of science instrumentation. Onboard battery and Bluetooth radio gives its multiple measurements an infinite number of uses. Literally, an infinite number! Prove me wrong.
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PITSCO Hot-Air Balloons

The “Zoon Hot-Air Balloons Getting Started Package” contains all the materials necessary for a class of 30 students to construct and launch their own hot air balloons. The kit is designed for students in Grades 3-12 and is user friendly. By having students follow the instructions provided in the manual, they can construct their very own hot air balloons out of the tissue paper that is provided in the kit.

The kit comes with 30 student user guides to guide students through creating their own hot air balloons. Subsequently, students can select whatever color of tissue paper that they desire to build their hot air balloon.

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Plan an Interactive Family Science Event with Support from an App

Welcome to guest post authors Cindy Hoisington, a science educator researcher at Education Development Center (EDC), and Claire Christensen, an educational media researcher at SRI International. This post is based on Cindy and Claire’s recent evaluation of the PBS KIDS Play & Learn Science app and activities. 

Are you an early childhood educator with lots of experience doing science with children? Or are you just dipping your toes into science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)? You are probably being asked to include more science in your curriculum and make connections to the other STEM disciplines. As you may know, families have a huge influence on their children’s attitudes toward doing and learning science. Family science interactions and conversations support children’s science and STEM interests and their views of themselves as capable learners. By getting families engaged, you can help them maximize their important role in promoting children’s science inquiry, interests, and self-confidence.

Various materials for testing absorbency.

One way to do this is by hosting a family science event at your school or program. But where do you start? We found that the PBS KIDS Play & Learn Science app can be a useful tool for planning and hosting engaging and interactive family science events at early childhood programs. 

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Apply to Serve on the NSTA Board or Council by Dennis Schatz

Now that fall is almost here it is time for you and our colleagues to apply to be an NSTA board or council member. The web portal to apply – or nominate someone else – is now open at Applications are due October 17, 2019.

I am on my 5th year on the board, first as the Informal Science Director and currently as President. The experience has been one of the most fulfilling of my career. I appreciate the opportunity to engage with thoughtful people who believe passionately in the value and importance of science education for the future of our children, society and even human civilization.  It has also been a great learning experience, as I now better understand the science education landscape across the country and Canada.

But don’t just take my word for it:

“Being a member of council and liaison to science educators in District XIV (Arizona, Colorado and Utah) has showed how NSTA involvement can create on ramps to teacher leadership. Before I discovered teaching as a career, I was a meeting planner and being a part of the planning teams for the National Congress on Science Education, and the Phoenix Regional Conference, has made me so happy as my two careers have intersected and I have met so many amazing people working to make a difference in education.”

– Wendi Laurence, District XIV District, NSTA Council

“Being a part of the NSTA governance has been rewarding in so many ways! I continue to grow and learn as a science educator and I also get to meet and work with so many incredible people who are passionate about ensuring a quality science education for all students. I love to encourage others to participate in NSTA leadership roles as part of their science education journey.”

– Jen Gutierrez, Division Director Professional Learning in Science Education, NSTA Board of Directors

The Board is comprised of three (3) NSTA Presidents and ten (10) Division Directors. The Council is comprised of the NSTA President and eighteen (18) District Directors.

Board of Director Offices to be filled in the 2020 election are:

  • President—Term of office: 3-year commitment beginning June 2020 through May 2023 (Year 1 as President-elect; Year 2 as President; Year 3 as Retiring President)
  • Division Directors—Term of office: 3-year commitment beginning June 2020 through May 2023
    • Multicultural/Equity in Science Education
    • Preservice Teacher Preparation
    • Research in Science Education

Council Offices to be filled in the 2020 election are:

  • District Directors—Term of office: 3-year commitment beginning June 2020 through May 2023
    • District I: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island
    • District VI: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee
    • District VII: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi
    • District XII: Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin
    • District XIII: New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
    • District XVIII: Canada

The NSTA Board of Directors and Council work together to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all, and NSTA is only as strong as the people who volunteer to be active on our board, council, and committees. Please encourage all strong leaders in the field to apply.

Don’t forget the application deadline is October 17, 2019 and you can apply at

Dennis Schatz is the president of the National Science Teaching Association (NSTA). He began serving his one-year term on June 1, 2019. Schatz is currently Senior Advisor at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Learning Innovation. He was the founding field editor for the journal Connected Science Learning, a joint effort of NSTA and ASTC (Association of Science Technology Centers).

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

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Nature Walks

My grade 3 students seem to be bored with the content on ecosystems. I’m wondering if anyone has any ideas of what I could do to make ecosystems more engaging?
— A., Arizona

Not being able to visit all the ecosystems in the world somewhat forces our ability to develop engaging activities. In this case, studying one or two ecosystems in depth and discovering the underlying connections that apply to all the others may be the way to teach this in an engaging manner.

I highly recommend field trips to local ecosystems and conducting simple ecological surveys. Many nature centers offer education programs that include field studies. Make sure to prepare your students for the trip and have follow-up activities afterwards. Students will also meet experts and role-models on these excursions.

You can bring ecology right into your classroom using pop-bottle ecosystems. I have written about this before ( ) and have a collection of resources in the Learning Center:

Technology can broaden your horizon. Search for organizations that connect classrooms around the globe. Find a partner school somewhere in the world that will engage in an exchange of ecosystem data.

I successfully engaged and motivated students to dive deeply into the topic by having them research ecological or conservation issues. They used the research to develop information pamphlets, posters, and websites to advocate for action. Organize a conservation expo where students can set up booths to share their information with other students in the school or as an evening activity.

Hope this helps!

Photo credit: Kerbla Edzerdla [CC BY 3.0]

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Designing Engineering Projects That Teach Science Concepts by Cory Culbertson

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the engineering projects in my courses. On the surface, they don’t seem like something I need to worry about. My students love these projects and talk about them all year. My administration likes the student-centered activities and the final products that students can showcase. I look forward to these projects as well. So why am I trying to fix what is already working?

My motivation is that when I consider what seems to be “working” in an engineering project, I often see a lot of student engagement and some good engineering practices, but the science content is hard to find. I know many other teachers have also noticed this shortcoming in engineering projects: There are some science connections to introduce the project, and there might be time to review some concepts at the end, but in the middle of most engineering projects, there is embarrassingly little student contact with science DCIs. Or as a colleague recently said with a sigh, “Now we have three days of messing around with cardboard and hot glue.”

So over the past few years, I’ve been on a mission to ensure that my students will strengthen their understanding of science concepts through their engineering projects, not just before and after them. I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned, along with an example of how revising one particular project improved science learning for my students.

Lessons Learned

  1. Start with the science ideas, then find a project that fits. It’s tempting to start by finding an appealing engineering activity, then making a place for it in the curriculum. But that leads to tenuous connections between the science and the engineering. Focus on the science first, then choose a project that creates a need for students to develop and apply the science to meet the project criteria.
  2. Provide structure for the design process. Students who are given a lot of unstructured project time tend to use trial-and-error methods to make progress. (Or they find other ways to occupy their time!) One technique that has been very effective is to review a written design proposal prepared by students before they do any hands-on building. In the design proposal, students document how they plan to build their design and justify their proposed solution with research data, science reasoning, and/or calculations. The design proposal is a natural way to guide students through applying science DCIs and SEPs, and it makes for an excellent assessment point early in the project.
  3. Limit the scope of the engineering challenge. Even a modest-sized engineering project has so many choices students can make. I want them to focus on the design decisions that connect directly with the science ideas. By providing procedures and materials for some of the more peripheral design problems, I free my students to focus on the engineering problems that are more instructionally productive.

Designing My Engineering Project for the NGSS

A few years ago, I sadly realized that the engineering project that had been part of my electricity unit for years simply wasn’t doing much for the overall goals of the course. This project involved students designing and building a model electrical system with series and parallel circuits. While the project was polished and popular with students, they spent most of their time running wires and fixing loose connections. I wanted them to be learning some science.

Instead of trying to patch up this project, I went back to square one, considering what science ideas I really wanted my students to learn. This unit included electricity and circuits, but the core science ideas from the NGSS are really elements of PS3.A, B, and D (see table below). It was time for brainstorming: Was there an engineering application that relied on understanding how energy is conserved as it is converted to and from different forms?

Among other possibilities, what came to mind was the rooftop solar system that some colleagues had recently installed. They had made careful calculations to match energy flows into and out of the system, and even installed a nifty display that tracked watts moving through the system in real time. A solar energy project also has connections to the ideas from ETS1.A about addressing global and local resource needs. There was some good engineering and science in this, and my students could do it, too.

Disciplinary Core Idea HS-PS3 Energy and HS-ETS1 Engineering Design

Component Ideas Element
PS3.A: Definitions of Energy
  • Energy is a quantitative property of a system that depends on the motion and interactions of matter and radiation within that system. That there is a single quantity called energy is due to the fact that a system’s total energy is conserved, even as, within the system, energy is continually transferred from one object to another and between its various possible forms.
PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer
  • Conservation of energy means that the total change of energy in any system is always equal to the total energy transferred into or out of the system.
  • Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transported from one place to another and transferred between systems.
  • Mathematical expressions, which quantify how the stored energy in a system depends on its configuration (e.g. relative positions of charged particles, compression of a spring) and how kinetic energy depends on mass and speed, allow the concept of conservation of energy to be used to predict and describe system behavior.
  • The availability of energy limits what can occur in any system.
PS3.D Energy in Chemical Processes
  • Although energy cannot be destroyed, it can be converted to less useful forms—for example, to thermal energy in the surrounding environment.
  • Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges also may have manifestations in local communities.

As a concept for the project began to solidify in my mind, I thought about how to structure the engineering design process for my students. The engineering challenge would be to design and build a system that converts sunlight to electricity, stores the energy in a rechargeable battery, and powers electrical loads. Students would be modeling the energy transfers within the system and predicting the level of charge in the battery, which is an element of the SEP Developing and Using Models—Develop and use a model based on evidence to illustrate and predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system. The science and engineering core ideas working in tandem would allow students to design a system that was guaranteed to supply enough energy for the required uses, not unlike the tasks of a professional solar engineer.  

The design proposal that students would submit to me could also mimic a real-life proposal for a rooftop solar system, complete with the calculations needed to show the system would function as intended. After I approved their proposals, students would build the system and measure energy flows to see if they matched their predictions.

The first time I tried out this new project, I learned a big lesson about giving students too many design choices. Students had almost complete freedom in their choice of batteries, voltages, loads, and wiring layout. They spent so much time choosing and connecting components that we ran out of time to do the data collection that was so critical to the project. Oops!

When we do this project now, each student group receives the same basic components to work with. I also give students instructions for connecting some components together so they can focus on designing the core parts of the system. This change alone has restored several class days and time to collect the data needed for the mathematical analysis of energy flows.

Revising this project has been time well spent. Students are developing understanding of engineering and science ideas in the same amount of class time as I devoted to the old circuit project. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s working. I’m already thinking about what I want to do differently this year…

I love sharing project ideas with other teachers. Do you have an engineering project that does a great job connecting to the science “big” ideas? Do you have one that you wish did so?

Cory Culbertson teaches engineering technology at University High School, part of the Laboratory Schools of Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois. He co-authored the book Engineering in the Life Sciences from NSTA Press. His work has also included curriculum writing, editing, and presenting professional development for Project Infuse, the National Center for Engineering and Technology Education, and Project ProBase. Culbertson was an Educator-at-Sea aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus in 2011 and 2012. Before becoming an educator, he worked as a test engineer for a large manufacturing company. Culbertson earned a bachelor’s of science in engineering degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and a master of science in technology education from Illinois State University.

Note: This article is featured in the August 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

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Linking Science and Engineering Through Good Questions by Greg Bartus

Engineering design projects are a wonderful opportunity for students to develop science disciplinary core ideas (DCIs). (As many of you know, with the release of the NGSS, learning in engineering must be integrated with developing DCIs in physical, life, and/or Earth and space sciences.) To take advantage of this opportunity, it is important to ask questions that encourage (or necessitate) students to use specific science ideas to explain choices they make.

Let’s say I ask my students to take part in an engineering design challenge in which the goal is to design a device that will prevent a cold beverage from warming up (DCI PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer—Energy is spontaneously transferred out of hotter regions or objects and into colder ones.) I give students a can of cold soda, an infrared temperature gun, and a few materials they can use to cover the can. The device has to keep the soda’s temperature from increasing more than 5°F in 20 minutes. Student designs are constrained by time, budget, and/or materials.

Students test materials, analyze their data, and design their solutions. As the instructor, I want to know how my students are applying scientific ideas or principles to design their solutions (an element of SEP Constructing Explanations). I find out by asking questions to surface students’ mental models of 1) energy moving from hotter objects to colder ones (PS3.B) and 2) the relationships among temperature, heat, and thermal energy (an element of PS3.A). These questions push my students to think more deeply about how their understanding of these “big” science ideas fits with what their observations from testing the materials are telling them. Research suggests that this questioning is the best way to help students’ thinking advance from a preconception toward the correct scientific idea.1

These are examples of the questions I ask to start conversations with my students:

  • What inspired your ideas?
  • How does your design address the criteria?
  • Why did you select the materials you did?
  • How did the constraints affect your design choice?
  • How does the data collected during material testing support your choice?

These “kick-off” questions offer an opportunity for my students to share their design thinking. Students typically say their ideas come from prior experiences like using the foam holders that keep cans and bottles cool. I’ve seen my students use this type of mimicry as the basis for creative and innovative designs, but I have to be sure to dig a little deeper to get at the science ideas they are using to justify them.

My follow-up questions are drawn from elements of the DCIs PS3.A and PS3.B and the crosscutting concept (CCC) Energy and MatterThe transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system and Structure and FunctionStructures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used. For example, I ask the students whose inspiration comes from using foam can holders questions like these:

  • Why do you think that the foam holder works so well?
  • What materials did you select to use to mimic the foam holder? Why?
  • How does this material work to keep the can cold?

I listen carefully to answers students provide to see if they reveal any common preconceptions that did not surface before. Being mindful of PS3.A: Definitions of EnergyThe term “heat” as used in everyday language refers both to thermal energy (the motion of atoms or molecules within a substance) and the transfer of that thermal energy from one object to another. In science, heat is used only for this second meaning, it refers to the energy transferred due to the temperature difference between two objects, when students say their design is “trapping cold” or “preventing the temperature from moving” or containing heat,” I ask questions like these:

  • What is cold?
  • Is temperature a substance?
  • Are there different “substances” such as hot and cold?
  • What might be the nature of the “substance”?
  • How could we determine which way this “substance” flows?
  • What is heat?

Each of these questions can lead to great student discussion and allows me to formatively assess student understanding and move students from partial understanding toward scientific accuracy. For example, if students say that “cold” and “warm” are substances, I might do a demonstration such as hitting a nail with a hammer, then ask my students why the nail head becomes warm after it’s hammered. [Note: Repeatedly throwing a ball at the same spot on a wall will yield a similar result.] Students typically arrive at the conclusion that the hammer added vibrations (motion) to the nail and that vibration is what we recognize as “warm.”

We then discuss how the temperature of the nail cools, and students say the vibrations (motion) passed from the nail to the surroundings. We’ve moved from the idea of warm and cold being substances toward the concepts of thermal energy and heat. (This is just a brief example; admittedly, the issue doesn’t usually get resolved that fast.) Then I ask students how they can use these same ideas to explain how their device keeps the soda can from warming up.

I hope these questions are helpful and inspire you to engage students in the science ideas they are learning when they take part in engineering activities. Feel free to share your experiences and any questions you use to connect science and engineering.


1National Research Council. 1997. Chapter 4: Misconceptions as barriers to understanding science. In Science teaching reconsidered: A handbook. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Greg Bartus will teach Earth science at Broome Street Academy in New York City this fall. He previously taught high school science courses in upstate New York for five years. In between teaching gigs, he spent 15 years leading professional development workshops on all things STEM, and providing classroom coaching for middle school teachers. Bartus has a master of arts in teaching in science education and a bachelor of science degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering from Cornell University.

Note: This article is featured in the August 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

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Science and Humanities Classes Collaborate for Engineering Integration by Kathy Kennedy

As my school’s new K–4 science teacher, I wanted to expand the limited time I had for dedicated science instruction by connecting science and engineering to established student activities in the homeroom classes. Successful integration depends on three features:

  1. Identify opportunities to collaborate with colleagues.
  2. Be explicit with the use of the Engineering Design Process (EDP) and Science and Engineering Practices (SEP).
  3. Remain flexible with timelines.

I looked at projects the homeroom teachers were already implementing and identified those in which the science and engineering were inherently present. I met with the teachers to discuss the instructional goals of their projects and share my thoughts on the potential to redesign them to include opportunities to learn science and engineering ideas. As we discussed the projects, we began to experience a shared purpose, an essential step in creating an integrated approach! I committed to dedicating science time for the homeroom project so I could ensure coherent instruction on the engineering design cycle and the science and engineering ideas and practices.

Finding the connections to these homeroom projects also made the science and engineering relevant and accessible to students and teachers. Their engagement with the science and engineering ideas carried beyond the science classroom, and students recognized the presence of science and engineering in other subject areas.

Examples of engineering design crossover into homeroom projects included these:

  1. Designing a Kachina doll as part of the second-grade social studies program, which examines First Nation cultures. Science connections focused on the properties of materials.
  2. Designing a roller coaster as part of the third-grade social studies, ELA, and STEAM program. Science connections focused on force and motion.
  3. Designing a piñata as part of the fourth-grade Spanish class exploring Mexican culture. Science connections focused on the properties of materials.

For the piñata project, for example, I met with the Spanish teacher to learn more about her goal to have students create a piñata as part of a unit on Mexico. Originally, students were going to follow a set procedure to create the piñata. We decided instead to present the project to students as an engineering design challenge. The SEP element Defining Problems—Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object and include several criteria for success, and the DCI element ETS1.A Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems—The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success served as the instructional framework from which I started.

Students discovered in Spanish class what made an object a piñata. Then teams had planning discussions, partly in Spanish, and identified the criteria for designing a successful piñata. They documented these features as criteria in their planning log in science:

  1. A cavity in the body of the piñata
  2. A weak spot in the body (so an opening could be made after it dried)
  3. A star-shaped body with at least five points to represent cultural features
  4. Intentional use of color and decoration to enhance cultural significance

While discussing these criteria, students realized they needed to figure out what type of paper they could use in the paper-mache process to create the required physical features. We decided the paper needed to be absorbent. Developing and using the DCI elements PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter—Different properties are suited to different purposes and Matter can be described by its observable properties was one of my instructional goals. These DCI elements are identified as a second-grade science idea in the NGSS.

I purposefully chose these elements because they were most appropriate and reflected the level of student understanding within the class. We had done other investigations earlier in the year that revealed the students had not developed an understanding of the properties of the materials to the depth I had hoped. In my instructional planning, I try to ensure that I meet students at their level and help them to progress; therefore, this project contained a mix of second-grade and fourth-grade elements.

While the DCI was at a second-grade level, students engaged in elements of grades 3–5 SEPs. Student teams designed and carried out their investigations to determine which types of paper were the most absorbent, which is SEP element Planning and Carrying Out Investigations—Plan and conduct an investigation collaborative to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered and ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions—Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Students evaluated wax paper, paper towels, toilet paper, and newspaper. I was surprised and excited by the novel approaches students took to determine absorbency!

Having students determine how they would collect and analyze data did take more time than I anticipated, but remaining flexible with timelines is necessary to support student learning, as I noted earlier. Students used the data they collected to make informed design choices in constructing the piñata.

The piñata construction reflected the engineering design cycle. We used class time to document their thinking with teams filling out engineering design planning sheets. I mini-conferenced with each student group to make sure all of the criteria were accounted for in their design plans. Timelines were also adjusted to accommodate Spanish class discussion of the cultural significance of piñatas, including their color, five-point star design, and use.

A display of the finished piñatas allowed teams to recognize that while their piñatas had common elements, each team created something unique. During small-group to large-group discussion, teams justified how and why they incorporated particular features in their piñata designs. The Spanish teacher commented that the experience had moved from an arts and crafts activity to a thoughtful building process that led to deeper understanding of another country’s culture and science and engineering.

I’d love to hear about what interdisciplinary engineering projects you have developed and what were the successes and challenges with these projects. Let’s continue this conversation!

Dr. Kathy Kennedy is the K–4 science specialist at The Peck School in Morristown, New Jersey. She has previously taught at the middle, high school and college level. Kathy is a co-author of the NSTA publication Engineering in the Life Sciences, 9-12 and has published in Science and Children and in Science Scope. She holds a BS in Biology from Siena College, an MS in Biomedical Sciences from Baylor University and a Ph.D. in Education from Walden University. Follow her @kbkennedy7

Note: This article is featured in the August 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.

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