Do children in your program have direct access to nature?

Puffy clouds over a green landscape.Being outside under the sky is different from being inside under a roof. The experiences that can happen in either place are not necessarily better than the other place, but they are different. We know that children can learn about distant places and the living organisms in those places by using non-fiction books and videos, including television programs. I would not trade the week of my father’s bedtime hour read-alouds of The Borrowers Afield (Mary Norton 1955) for a week spent camping. I would not trade even one day spent in bed reading Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White 1952) for one day on a farm. But since I grew up in a house at the edge of “The Valley” of a small creek, I didn’t have to make those choices—I had both experiences of learning from books and learning through experiences in nature. I think all children should have outdoor experiences in natural settings in "NSTA Recommends" logoaddition to looking at fiction and non-fiction books (or reading or having them read aloud) that are engaging, have rich vocabulary and accurately present the topic. The National Science Teachers Association “NSTA Recommends” is a good source of non-fiction book titles that are accurate and engaging.

Cover of the Eric Carle book, The Very Hungry CaterpillarUsing teaching about the life cycle of an organism as an example, teachers can use the many fiction and non-fiction books, ideas for craft projects, and series cards to illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly. We can read The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle 1969), have children paint and cut and glue to illustrate the egg-larvae- pupa-to-adult-egg lifecycle, and ask them to show us which life stage card comes first. These activities do not provide the same “ah-ha” moments as actually observing living butterflies. Details such as the roundness of a butterfly’s eye, or the two-part wings pop out when seen firsthand. When a school plants some plant sources for nectar for adult butterflies and “nice green leaves” for caterpillars, children can observe a butterfly drinking nectar from a flower, or find an egg or caterpillar on a leaf. They can make first hand observations, gathering evidence for understanding Child holds caterpillar with guidance from a docent.that animals depend on plants for food. When children observe an adult butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, they are gathering evidence from their own observations for understanding that a butterfly changes form during its life cycle. When teachers ask children for the evidence for their understanding, they will have first hand experiences and observations to relate. Early childhood educators in all programs can support children’s understanding of their observations by voicing their own thoughts aloud while making observations, and by supporting discussion and productive arguments about the meaning of those observations.

Weekly walking fieldtrips around the block expose children in built-up areas to a larger slice of nature than what they experience in the schoolyard. Can you go a bit farther once a season, to a near-by natural area? Longer walks can be great exercise and the open space found at many natural locations allow more vigorous exploration on the wider vistas. See the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s list, “Resources for Environments That Engage and Inspire Young Learners,” to find articles and other print sources for learning how others find ways to teach children in natural settings. The July 2009 Young Children article “We Need a Way to Get to the Other Side!: Exploring the Possibilities for Learning in Natural Spaces,” presents many reasons for outdoor exploration and some tips on how to implement it. The authors’ ability to work with small groups of five children is a strength of their program. If your program can not accommodate such groupings, consider other ways to bring children in contact with nature. Authors of the Young Children article, Carolyn Galizio, Julia Stoll, and Pamela Hutchins, reported that the outdoor play supported positive changes in children’s behavior and learning. They also said, “The freedom children experience in a natural environment heightens their feelings of joy, passion, fun, peace, excitement, wonder, and fear. These feelings make times spent outdoors in these spaces valuable for children and adults. As teachers this is foremost in our minds.”

The HighScope Curriculum Newsletter, Extensions (v25 no. 2), addresses nature education in preschool with tips for teachers, resources and support for inclusion of all children.

Cucumber flower
I’ve noticed that children find a way to engage with natural materials wherever they are. On one playground with just one tiny garden corner, children eagerly point out the bee in the cucumber flower and the struggling pumpkin vine. They dig in the wood mulch to create pits and scoop it up to move and mound it up. TheChildren look for ants on a tree trunk.y still use the “climbing structure” with steps, platform and ladder but not for as long as they engage w
ith the mulch. What natural materials can you add to playscapes made of only human-created materials? Tubs of water, a large pot for a few plants, and a box of sand come to mind. Going out the gate to view a neighboring tree and the ants that crawl on it, or walking to a nearby more-or-less natural area to run through the grass or investigate the ant
hills in the dirt will expand children’s world just a little more.


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Classroom science centers

Untitled1One of my goals this year is to focus more on science. I teach at the elementary level (third grade), and I’m thinking of setting up a science corner in the classroom with materials and activities for students. Rather than reinventing the wheel, do you have any ideas?
—Kate, Davenport, Iowa

In a school I visited, the second grade classes were doing lessons on butterflies. Each classroom had a cage with chrysalises and students were to observe how the adult butterflies emerged. In one classroom, the teacher had created an elaborate and colorful bulletin board about butterflies, but the cage was on a table with unrelated materials in a back corner of the room. In another classroom, the cage was an integral part of a science center. There were books on caterpillars and butterflies, pictures of common local species, a hand lens, a ruler, and student drawings. The center was labeled with questions for students to consider as they made their observations. Students were invited throughout the day to observe the chrysalises and record their observations, drawings, or questions in a log that was part of the center. Both teachers referenced the butterfly activity during the morning meeting, but I suspect that the classroom with the interactive center fostered more student involvement and interest.

Some classroom science centers (also called science stations or tables) include activities for students to do on a rotating basis. This is useful when there are not enough materials for an entire class, when you want to provide a choice of activities, or for providing alternative or more advanced activities for interested students. These centers include directions, and the activities should be safe enough for students to do independently. You should have procedures in place for how and when students access the center.

Creating centers for each unit can be time-consuming for the teacher, especially during the first year. An alternative is to have students contribute to them, giving students ownership in the project. Blogger and retired educator John Paull describes a science table as an integral part of his teaching:

Continue reading …

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Outdoor Science Preconference Workshop at NSTA’s Richmond Conference This Fall

Bringing Outdoor Science InIf you’ve thought about taking students outdoors to learn science, this preconference workshop in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday, October 15, 2014, will provide the tools you need to be successful. Teachers can expect to take part in practical, hands-on strategies correlated to the NGSS that get students engaged in active learning. Engineering practices will be considered with questions such as “How does a bird engineer a nest?” NSTA Press author Steve Rich will cover additional strategies, such as the integration of children’s literature, mathematics, and social studies into outdoor science. Participants will leave with resources that will help make teaching science outdoors a powerful learning experience for their students. All participants will receive a copy of Bringing Outdoor Science In: Thrifty Classroom Lessons, a $25.95 value. Continental breakfast for participants is included in the ticket price. The workshop takes place in conjunction with the NSTA Area Conference in Richmond, Virginia.

More information and registration details can be found here:

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Learn What Science Teachers Are Reading


You are what you read. As many teachers know, summer reading requirements don’t just apply to students. In the fields of science, many teachers never stop reading about what is happening and where their field is evolving. Engaging students and creating exciting classroom investigations and activities means reading up not only on subject-specific resources, but also best methods for instruction.

But how do you know where to look for well-written, relevant, and fun science books? Whether on a mobile device, computer, or print, teachers can get in the back-to-school spirit by reading the best science books reviewed and rated by their peers. As the summer wraps up, use your next block of 45 minutes to find out what science teachers are reading:

  1. Get What Science Teachers Are Reading and Book Beat.

NSTA publishes two monthly bulletins, What Science Teachers Are Reading and NSTA’s Book Beat, to announce new resources and highlight tips and lesson ideas in publications. Each issue has a theme and related products to help you expand your scope of knowledge. In this the e-newsletter of NSTA Press, you’ll also find special offers or discounts active in NSTA’s online Science Store. Browse back issues of NSTA’s Book Beat and sign up to receive future issues.

  1. Put a pin in it.

NSTA is on Pinterest! Follow the NSTA Pinterest board What Science Teachers Are Reading, which offers an easy-to-view image collection of the newest NSTA offerings. Create an online reading list, get up-to-date publishing announcements, and enjoy instant notice of special offers or discounts on NSTA products. Pinpoint what you need in your classroom—and share with others.

  1. Consult the winners.

This is the year to consult the Outstanding Science Trade Books K-12 list. 2014 was the longest list of books in the program’s 42-year history. Selected by a committee of educators across the nation with an emphasis on applications for Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These titles reflect the best in subject matter and inquiry—with the right dose of imagination.

Literature is an essential partner for scientific inquiry. Scientists must be able to read and write to fully explore and prove their ideas. NSTA is ready to help you find what you and your students need to read next.

More Time?

NSTA launched a line of Multi-Touch books full of gorgeous color photography, dynamic enhancements, and interactive features that enable you to learn, share, and explore. Animations, simulations, and video bring content to life, while pop-up review questions and special notes help underscore the most crucial points of knowledge. Each e-book is correlated to the Disciplinary Core Ideas of the NGSS.

Learn more.

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Action research on notemaking/taking

4810954845_13f12b6948_qIn your response to my question about notetaking, you suggested “action research” on notetaking/notemaking as a professional development project. How would I go about beginning such a process? I have the question but I’ve never tackled something of this nature.
—Kelly, Raleigh, North Carolina

Action research is inquiry or research focused on efforts to improve student learning. It typically is designed and conducted by teachers or teams of teachers who analyze the data from their own classrooms to improve their practice and student learning. Action research gives teachers opportunities to reflect on their teaching, explore and test strategies, assess the effectiveness of the strategies, and make decisions about which ones to use and for which students they might be effective. Action research uses the types of thinking and problem-solving we want our students to develop.

The response to your original question on note taking referenced a recent study, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” (summarized here) This study compared note taking with pen and paper versus typing notes on a laptop keyboard. You are wondering about a variation on this—handwritten paper-and-pencil notes vs. notes written on a tablet with a stylus.

Action research models generally have several components, which I’ve annotated with some thoughts about your area of interest: Continue reading …

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Where Can I Find Free or Low-Cost Resources and Opportunities for Science Teachers?


Free or low-cost programs and materials can help teachers stretch their tight budgets. NSTA member Sharon Cumiskey has turned to NSTA’s member newspaper, NSTA Reports, for over 20 years to find quality teacher resources. Throughout her career, Cumiskey has benefited from opportunities she’s found in NSTA Reports. “Some of my fellow teachers ask me how I hear about the opportunities,” Cumiskey says. “I tell them that they just need to read NSTA Reports.

Cumiskey: When NSTA sends out NSTA Reports, I like to check out the different sections such as “In Your Pocket,” “Grab Bag,” and “Summer Programs” for free resources and opportunities for teachers. (Note from NSTA: Our popular Freebies column is available online).

I look at programs for the summer months, in particular. At one point during my career I was a single parent, so I was happy if I could find a program that paid me over the summer. I sometimes would apply for three or four of the summer programs I read about in NSTA Reports. I took advantage of anything I could apply for. Fortunately, most of the time, I only got accepted to one program. Only once did I get accepted to two programs and I had to choose (one of the programs let me postpone my participation for a year).

One summer, I spent six weeks in Arizona studying astronomy with the American Astronomical Society Teacher Resource Agent (AASTRA) Program, which I read about in NSTA Reports. During AASTRA, we attended classes taught by astronomers, such as Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway from the University of Texas. We worked our way through a huge notebook of astronomy activities for middle school and high school and would practice teaching the activities to one another. After AASTRA ended, we got paid through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to make presentations about what we learned during the program. I gave presentations about AASTRA at NSTA conferences.

In 2010, I took part in MIT’s Science and Engineering Program for Teachers (SEPT), which I also learned about from NSTA Reports. SEPT is like an honor class for teachers. To be accepted into the program, you have to already have proven that you can network and that you give back to the science education community. You spend a week at MIT attending specific classes, networking with professors, and learning about MIT’s cutting-edge scientific research.

Thanks to NSTA Reports, I also found out about two programs—one on nanotechnology and the other on digital imaging—at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Both of those programs were very informative. In fact, I’m presenting about digital imaging at the NSTA Conference in Richmond, VA, this coming October. The summer program gave us access to free digital imaging software, so I devised a genetics lesson for my students in which we analyze eye color. I recently wrote up the lesson, and it was published in Science Scope.

NSTA provided me with the opportunity to find out about and participate in these programs. So, I feel like I owe something back to NSTA. That’s why I like to present at NSTA conferences.

What other opportunities have you learned about in NSTA Reports?

Cumiskey: A while ago, I read in NSTA Reports that Massachusetts (my state) was offering to pay the fee for a certain number of teachers to pursue National Board Certification. I didn’t have $2,500 to spend on the fee, especially for a certification that I might not get. But, since Massachusetts was paying the bill, I was willing to try. I received my National Board Certification, and it was worth doing. The certification has helped me get into some of the programs I’ve attended.

(Note from NSTA: For more information on NSTA Reports, see “Get Your Hands on NSTA Report” and “Use the NSTA Calendar.” Not a member of NSTA? Learn more about how to join.)

Jennifer Henderson is our guest blogger for this series. Before launching her freelance career as a writer/editor, Jennifer was Managing Editor of The Science Teacher, NSTA’s peer-reviewed journal for high school science teachers.

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Help Young Learners Discover Answers to Their “Why” Questions

New I Wonder Why books from NSTA Kids

Why can’t I see my shadow when it’s dark?” “Why are some sounds loud and some sounds soft?” “Why do we need machines?” “Why can’t I see colors when there is no light?

Teachers and parents know how inquisitive young learners are. Now you can guide K–6 graders to discover answers for themselves as they explore the latest NSTA Kids books in the I Wonder Why series by Lawrence F. Lowery.

Light and ColorLight and Color is a child’s introduction to light and its relationship to the color of objects. This book for young children lays a foundation for science concepts students will learn in middle school that are only possible with early learning experiences.



Michael's Racing MachineIn Michael’s Racing Machine, Michael and his friend Luci build a racing car, and the story serves as a framework for explanations about machines. Simple machines, such as the lever, the wheel and axle, the inclined plane, and the pulley, are applications of science principles, so they can be used as an opportunity to investigate science principles.

Rubber vs. GlassRubber vs. Glass focuses on the idea of properties—the characteristics of objects or substances—by following a brother, Bill, and sister, Mary, through the exploration of two seemingly divergent substances: rubber and glass. Each of these substances, like all substances of the world, has its own set of properties.


Sounds Are High, Sounds Are LowSounds Are High, Sounds Are Low was written for children who are just beginning to learn how to read. It presents some fundamental concepts related to sounds—pitch and volume. Because this is a book on sounds, the sounds of words when they are spoken is part of the content. The semi-poetic structure, the repetitive rhythm of the words, and the reuse of consonant sounds in single-syllable words make the content easy to follow and remember.

Dark as a ShadowAll things—people, animals, plants, and objects—cast shadows of their own particular shape. Through Dark as a Shadow, the reader learns that it is possible to identify most objects by their shadow shapes and that a shadow can be obtained at any time of day or night if there is a light, and object, and something for the shadow to fall on.

International Reading Day is September 8, and these NSTA Kids titles have a universal appeal. NSTA is offering a 10 percent discount on the NSTA Kids books until August 22. When ordering any of the NSTA Kids books, enter the promotion code NEWKID.

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SciLinks Resources

For many of us, the school year is starting soon (if it hasn’t already). If you are looking for new materials to add to your collectioSciLinksn or to supplement a textbook or other resource, check out SciLinks, NSTA’s online database of vetted websites.

The websites in SciLinks have been submitted by a corps of “webwatchers“—teachers who search for and review websites related to topics in science. The websites are organized by content and can be searched by topic and grade level (K–4, 5–8, and 9–12). Teachers can access SciLinks either by using the codes in a SciLinked textbook or NSTA publication (identified by this graphic) or by searching for a keyword or standard on the site itself.

As a teacher-user, you can provide logins for students to search for sites, or you could give them a list of suggestions. For interested or advanced students, you might go to the next grade level or you could go down a level for students who may struggle with the text.

In a large group setting, why just talk about science topics when there are many sites that lend themselves to illustrating the concepts? Observing how volcanoes erupt, watching events in real time, using animations or simulations of complex processes, or accessing photographs and video of various topics bring these topics to life. The resources are free and ready when you are.

One thing I’ve enjoyed over the years is using the SciLinks websites as learning resources for myself. If you’re unfamiliar with a topic, searching for sites geared to middle or high school students would be a quick and painless way to learn more about it. My former district’s teacher evaluation plan had an option for self-study, so I would have taken advantage of the SciLinks list.

A colleague shares his experiences: “I’m starting a unit on biochemistry in a few weeks, so I used the search term Carbohydrate. Within a few minutes, I had compiled a list of sites that would be appropriate for the content and for my students. For example, one on the list, Biomolecules: The Carbohydrates was just what I was looking for. I also found a biochemistry discussion on the Chem4Kids site that would be very appropriate for students who need a basic introduction to the topic. I added links to the sites on my list to my course webpage so that students could access them easily in school or even at home. I also found some simulations that I can display on the interactive white board in my room.”

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Building Partnerships and Collaborations at the #NSTA14 Area Conference on Science Education in Richmond

Richmond conference infoA recent Education Week blog post touts the importance of cultivating curiosity in children. Science teachers do that every day, and one of the things NSTA members frequently do is share their ideas about how to nurture curiosity—not just in their students, but in themselves. This year, attendees of NSTA’s 2014 Richmond Area Conference on Science Education (October 16-18) will have a chance to do exactly that because one of the strands focuses on Partnerships and Collaborations.

Here are just a few of the presentations that will be offered, and the session browser is online, so attendees can put their experience together now!

  • Childlike Wonder: Using Science Hobbies and Hobbyists to Facilitate a Lifetime Engagement with Science
    Saturday, October 18 2:00 PM – 2:30 PM
    Greater Richmond Convention Center, E21A
    Science hobbyists are an untapped resource in many communities. Learn how to create partnerships with hobbyist groups to advance STEM education inside and outside your classroom.
    Presenter(s): Elysa Corin (North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC), M. Gail Jones (North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC), Gina Childers (North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC), Rebecca Hite (North Carolina State University: Raleigh, NC)
    GRADE LEVEL: General
  • Using Citizen Science to Build Community Partnerships
    Thursday, October 16 8:00 AM – 9:00 AM
    Greater Richmond Convention Center, E21A
    Citizen Science engages learners in authentic science that can change the community and beyond. Join us for a look at opportunities, resources, and how to get started.
    Presenter(s): Robert Dillon (MRH Middle School: Maplewood, MO)
    GRADE LEVEL: 5 – 12
  • The Engaged Scientist Project: Lessons from a Decade of Engaging Scientists in Informal Education
    Thursday, October 16 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
    Greater Richmond Convention Center, E21A
    Explore lessons learned from informal education partnership programs designed and run by junior scientists and learn about connecting with scientists via the Engaged Scientist Network.
    Presenter(s): Catherine Vrentas (Outreach Specialist: Ankeny, IA)
    GRADE LEVEL: General

Continue reading …

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How Can I Turn NSTA Resources into an E-Textbook for my College Classroom?


Before becoming an adjunct professor at Florida International University (FIU), NSTA member Kathleen Sparrow was the science supervisor for Akron Public Schools in Ohio. As a science supervisor, she used NSTA journal articles to provide professional development support to her teachers. A few years ago, Sparrow became an NSTA online adviser and loved how the NSTA Learning Center provided members access to journal articles, books, and more. “I got to know the NSTA Learning Center really well. If the Learning Center had been around when I was a science supervisor, I would have used it in a heartbeat,” she says.

Sparrow likes the Learning Center so much, in fact, that she now uses it as an e-textbook for her preservice elementary science methods course at FIU. “When NSTA announced that they were going to start offering the Learning Center as an e-textbook, I jumped at the chance,” Sparrow says. Now, all three of the professors who teach the preservice science methods class at FIU use the Learning Center as an e-text. And, students are thrilled. Each semester, Sparrow surveys the students and asks them if they liked using the Learning Center e-textbook better than having a traditional paper textbook. Each semester, around 90% say they prefer the e-textbook.

Sparrow: I use the Learning Center like I would a traditional textbook. It’s so nice because all of the journal articles and book chapters are available in one place online. I assign various articles for the students to read like I would if I was using a print textbook. My class focuses on a certain topic each week, and I assign various articles, book chapters, and other types of resources to supplement that topic. For instance, during the first couple of weeks of the semester we explore the issue, “What does a good science class look like?” I have students read chapters in the Learning Center from the NSTA book, Doing Good Science in Middle School.

Other than the articles to read, I give students specific assignments in the Learning Center. I make these assignments because I want these future teachers to know that the Learning Center is available to them, it will always be available to them, and it’s so rich in different resources.

This past semester, I included a focus on sustainability. I selected four NSTA SciPacks in the Learning Center to go along with the ecology and sustainability theme. I had students select one of those four SciPacks to work through as a content piece and to extend their content knowledge. Students met throughout the semester to discuss what they learned in the SciPacks, which reinforced their learning.

How else do you use the Learning Center as an e-textbook in your classroom?

Sparrow: Students in my class have to complete 15 field hours in an elementary classroom and teach an inquiry lesson. Before their inquiry lesson, I have them create a collection of articles in the Learning Center on their topic so that they have additional content information. I have them review one other person’s collection of articles.

Students are also required to make two posts in the Learning Center’s Community Forums. Students love it when NSTA members provide feedback to their questions. It builds a familiarity for them.

I also use the Professional Development Portfolio component with my students in lieu of a final exam. I provide six categories of goals for my students and they are required to select one goal from each category. One category, for instance, is knowledge of science content. For the portfolio assignment, students are asked to identify the steps they’ve taken to contribute to the learning of that goal. They are required to write their action item (for instance, “completed the SciPack on Coral Reef Ecosystems”), write a justification of how that contributed to their learning, and then upload a piece of evidence (for instance, the NSTA certificate they received for completing the SciPack).

The Professional Development Portfolio provides an excellent review of what they’ve done and how much they’ve done in the class. It causes them to review everything we’ve done throughout the semester and how it contributes to their learning. In addition, students can use the portfolio tool when they go for a job interview. Anything students put in their Learning Center library during the semester or throughout the year is theirs forever. They’ll always have access to that information.

(Note from NSTA Are you a college or university professor of preservice science teachers? Join NSTA for a web seminar on August 26 and learn how you can create a truly integrated and blended learning experience for your students with a customized interactive e-textbook leveraging the NSTA Learning Center. Not a member of NSTA? Learn more about how to join.)

Jennifer Henderson is our guest blogger for this series. Before launching her freelance career as a writer/editor, Jennifer was Managing Editor of The Science Teacher, NSTA’s peer-reviewed journal for high school science teachers.

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