Scaffolding science skills

Some of my students have little experience in lab investigations. My colleague suggested I “scaffold” my instruction to help them develop lab skills, but I’m not sure what that would look like.  —C., Virginia

“Scaffolding” refers to guiding strategies designed to help students develop greater understanding of concepts and skills to become more independent learners.

Think of when you were learning to ride a bicycle. Someone first walked along with you, holding onto the seat as you pedaled. Your instructor probably gave you advice and encouragement, then let go for a few seconds until you started to wobble. Eventually you were ready to go on your own, and your instructor kept a watchful eye on you for a while.

One strategy to scaffold your students’ skill learning is with an I do->we do->you do progression:

  • focused demonstrations of the skills, connecting them to what students already know
  • guided practice in a variety of contexts with teacher monitoring and feedback
  • opportunities for students to choose and use the skills independently (even if they make a few mistakes)

I observed an Earth science teacher scaffolding with a “think-aloud” as she demonstrated how to create graphs from a data table. This was a not a “how-to” lecture. She reminded herself of the graph’s purpose and the steps of the process, asked herself questions as she worked, and deliberately made some mistakes (correcting them in real time). It was as if the students could peek inside her mind as she worked through the process. When she paused in her thinking, the students volunteered their own suggestions. In the second part of the lesson, students worked in groups to make graphs as she monitored each group, offering suggestions and feedback.

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Ed News: Teachers Eye Potential of Virtual Reality

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This week in education news, teachers eye potential of virtual reality; schools zoom in on STEM equity; Louisiana considers new science standards; South Dakota’s antiscience bill is stopped; and Idaho teachers, parents, and scientists urged lawmakers to keep climate change in proposed new state science standards.

Teachers Eye Potential of Virtual Reality to Enhance Science Instruction

If you can’t afford a field trip to the International Space Station, donning a boxy black headset might be the next best thing. To take advantage of the latest in 3-D technology, teachers are increasingly expressing interest in using virtual reality to enhance science education. Click here to read the article featured on the EdSource website.

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Career of the Month: Evolutionary Psychologist

Evolutionary psychologists analyze human behavior for traits that evolved to increase the odds of survival and reproduction. They may then apply this knowledge to redesign aspects of today’s cultural institutions and practices—such as schools, workplaces, and child rearing—in ways that better align with human nature. Peter Gray is an evolutionary psychologist affiliated with Boston College. His area of focus is education, and he also writes the Freedom to Learn blog on the website of Psychology Today magazine.

Work overview.

As a retired professor, I now mostly research and write about how children educate themselves when they are free to do so. I also examine how education data fit with evolutionary analysis.

A typical researcher may try to figure out which teaching method increases test scores. But when you look at education from an evolutionary perspective, you start to ask more basic questions, such as: What is the purpose of education? One experiment will not answer such questions. Instead, it’s a scholarly approach that synthesizes knowledge from different fields, such as anthropology, history, and even animal behavior.

For example, diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have increased possibly because society no longer tolerates children’s normal unwillingness to sit still for long periods. Instead of adapting school to children, children are being adapted to school. It’s also plausible that depriving children of play is leading to more impulsiveness, because play controls impulsiveness.

Career highlights.

My biggest fulfillment has been writing for the public, first through the blog
and then through my book, Free to Learn. Many people find meaning in my writing, and it has led to speaking invitations and other opportunities.

Career path.

I went to college planning to major in physics. But then I started thinking that the world’s biggest problems are about human behavior, and I wondered how we could bring out the better aspects of people’s being. I became more drawn to psychology and biology. After getting my degrees in psychology and biological sciences, I accepted a job in the psychology department at Boston College.

Many of the introductory textbooks seemed superficial, so I wrote one that covered the usual topics (personality, development, and so on) but from a bio-evolutionary perspective. While I was writing that book, my young son was getting in trouble for questioning his teachers.

We found an alternative school called Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, where children can follow their own interests. For him, it was a dream come true, but I had my doubts. So I studied the school’s graduates and learned that they went on to do well in college and in a range of careers.

I became intrigued by children’s burning curiosity and desire to play. I began to study education from an evolutionary point of view, wondering what could be learned about children’s natural instincts by knowing about hunter-gatherer cultures.

After surveying anthropologists, I learned that in every hunter-gatherer band studied, children played and explored all day long. It was basically the same philosophy as at Sudbury, where children were free to do what they wanted, to interact with adults who were not judgmental, and to play with children in a mixed-age group. This is how they acquired the skills they needed.

Cultures evolve, sometimes in ways that run counter to human nature. Today’s schools originated at a time when it was believed that children were sinful, and one of the main goals was to break their will and drive out that sin. Humans tend to hang on to cultural things even when they are no longer functional because we are creatures of social norms. Our strong tendency to conform can help us survive in the short term but can be harmful in the long run, unless we create more suitable norms.

Knowledge, skills and training needed.

To be a scholar and researcher is to be curious, to question, and to learn new things. There shouldn’t be any transition between learning and doing.

Advice for students.

Don’t decide what field to go into based only on how you’re doing in your courses. Think about what you like to do in your free time, and that will point you to the career you should pursue.

Bonus Points
Gray’s education: BS in psychology from Columbia College; PhD in biological sciences from Rockefeller University

On the web:;;

Related occupations:
biologist, anthropologist, economist

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

Get Involved With NSTA!

Join NSTA today and receive The Science Teacher,
the peer-reviewed journal just for high school teachers; to write for the journal, see our Author GuidelinesCall for Papers, and annotated sample manuscript; connect on the high school level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server); or consider joining your peers at future NSTA conferences.

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Maple trees and squirrels: a relationship

Child using a magnifier to look closely at a maple tree flower.The Silver maple tree is flowering, early for the season in my region, but right on schedule for the way the season is unfolding this year. Although the flowers are tiny, the details can be seen with a magnifier. When children’s attention is drawn to the small happenings in nature it contributes to their framework for later understanding of where seeds come from, and the diversity of plant life.
Squirrels have bitten off, and probably eaten, the sections of the twigs just before the flowers which then drop to the ground. What are the squirrels after? Why do they do this? I see them nibbling but they aren’t eating much of the twigs.

When the maple seeds are fully formed in the fall, children and scientists alike are intrigued by their motion. Squirrels go out on a limb (sorry!) to reach the seeds that develop from the flowers so they can eat the inner seed and discard the hull. Sometimes in mid-chew they drop the cluster of seeds. I ask children to examine the cluster and we discuss why some of the “wings” are empty and others hold seeds. Next Time You See a Maple Seed, a book by Emily Morgan (NSTA Kids, 2014), will help your children learn more about these seeds. The short video that goes with her book is lovely, engaging without telling, allowing children to be intrigued to explore further. 

By following the growth of a single tree over the school year, children become familiar with the tree and begin to notice seasonal changes in other plants. They may not look forward to spring changes to a maple tree in the same way a squirrel does, but they begin to appreciate the interrelated lives of plants and animals.

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Science 2.0: Developing the Computational Thinker

For the past few issues, we have been focusing on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards. This month, we look at the Computational Thinker standard. Its performance indicators require students to use technology-assisted methods to explore and find solutions; collect data, use digital tools to analyze them, and represent data in various ways; break problems into parts and develop models to facilitate problem-solving; and understand how automation works and use algorithmic thinking (ISTE 2016).

Working with data
Students need to become adept at collecting data, typically during labs in which they may be asked to fill in data tables. In co-author Ben Smith’s class, students would compile their data on spreadsheets, learning how to make calculations, graph and chart data, conduct analyses, and solve problems. Students can share data through a Google Form.

Further, students can learn how asking the right questions will lead to the data they desire. Initially, the questions could involve simple research such as the number of siblings, favorite color, height, or age. Data sets in Google Sheets can be used to analyze the class’s results and help students become more familiar with the data-manipulation tools. Questions on Google Forms can even require data validation, which ensures that each response meets the stated requirements.

Automating calculations in a spreadsheet or Google Sheet can find averages, sums, and data counts. Creating graphs, linear regressions, and histograms can help students make predictions and analyses that accompany each data set. Google Add-ons are tools that provide more functionality to the Sheets app.

Students should be able to use online tools (,, and to import a large data set into a spreadsheet for further analysis. This teaches about the importance of multiple trials involved in collecting large data sets. Teachers may have students work on a part of an experiment and then share their data with the class through a classwide Google Form.

On Google Trends, you can enter search terms that will yield results broken down by searches over time, by region, and by related queries. Students can use the tool to find when the next flu epidemic may be coming based on searched terms. When a second term is added to the query, students can see correlations between data sets. Searching the terms tsunami and earthquake, for instance, reveals a correlation between the two. To evidence their learning, students can first examine online infographics (e.g.,,, and then use online tools to create infographics of their own (e.g.,,

Students can use algorithmic thinking to learn to solve problems that lead to automated solutions. Ask students to map steps they will take in solving the problem. A concept mapping tool (such as LucidChart, MindMaps, or Popplet) allows students to create a flowchart or a decision tree to sequence the events needed to complete the solution. Additionally, has a number of activities that teachers and students can use to learn about algorithmic thinking.

The Computational Thinker can collect, present, and analyze data while working through a strategic solution.

Ben Smith ( is an educational technology program specialist, and Jared Mader ( is the director of educational technology, for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. They conduct teacher workshops on technology in the classroom nationwide.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). 2016. The 2016 ISTE standards for students. Arlington, VA: ISTE.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

Get Involved With NSTA!

Join NSTA today and receive The Science Teacher,
the peer-reviewed journal just for high school teachers; to write for the journal, see our Author GuidelinesCall for Papers, and annotated sample manuscript; connect on the high school level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server); or consider joining your peers at future NSTA conferences.

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What’s So Special About Disciplinary Core Ideas? (Part 3)

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DCIs Develop Across Time

The first two blogs in my series on disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) focused on how DCIs form a conceptual framework and that DCIs provide explanations for a variety of phenomena. In this final blog I’d like to focus on an important idea reflected in A Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework) that DCIs are not stand-alone, individual facts that students come to “know” as the result of one lesson or across one grade. Rather, DCIs develop in ways that become progressively more sophisticated as students use those ideas to make sense of new phenomena or problems within and across the grade levels. What is meant by more sophisticated? It means that students’ explanations become deeper and broader allowing them to explain more fully the causes and consequences of a wider array of related phenomena. Sophistication also means that DCIs become integrated with more ideas and experiences. Sophistication is not acquiring more ideas and more details; rather, it is about making connections to ideas and experiences. As ideas get more sophisticated, students come to understand the cause and effect mechanisms that underlie a range of phenomena.

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s February 2017 K-12 journals

All three journals this month include the inaugural Best STEM Books for Students K–12 with descriptions and reviews. The rubric and criteria used in selecting these books is also provided. Share it with your librarian, too.

Crowdfunding for Elementary Science Educators in S&C has fund-raising ideas applicable to any grade level.

Science Scope — Water

From the chemistry of water to the biology of water habitats and ecosystem to the relationship of water and weather to the importance of water in the body to current events related to access to clean water, water is indeed an Essential Substance.

Featured articles that describe lessons include a helpful sidebar (“At a Glance”) documenting the big idea, essential pre-knowledge, time, and cost. The lessons also include connections with the NGSS.

For more on the content that provides a context for these projects and strategies see the SciLinks topics Algae, Aquatic Ecosystems, Eclipses, Freshwater Ecosystems, Groundwater, Ocean Water Chemistry, Photosynthesis, Water Cycle, Water Properties, Water Quality, Water Treatment, Watersheds


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Using Science and Engineering Practices in the Classroom

Helping Students Make Sense of the World Using Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices provides an in-depth understanding of the practices strand of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Helping Students Make Sense of the WorldNoting that the changes to the standards will likely cause some stress, the authors developed this resource to help teachers. “This is an exciting time in science education. We have many opportunities before us to make significant and lasting change in the ways we teach science at the K–12 level. But with major change comes some anxiety. We hope this book can begin to answer some of your questions based on the reforms found in the Framework and the NGSS,” the authors state in the first chapter.

Helping Students Make Sense of the World addresses three major questions:

  • How will engaging students in science and engineering practices help improve science education?
  • What do the eight practices look like in the classroom?
  • How can educators engage students in practices to bring the NGSS to life?

Written in clear, nontechnical language, this book edited by Christina Schwarz, Cynthia Passmore, and Brian Reiser, explains what is different about practice-centered teaching and learning and how it fits into what teachers have already been doing. “We like to think of the focus on practices as a kind of Inquiry 2.0—not a replacement for inquiry but rather a second wave that articulates more clearly what successful inquiry looks like when it results in building scientific knowledge,” state the editors.

Developed for K–12 science teachers, curriculum developers, teacher educators, and administrators, the book’s lessons are classroom-tested and designed to make implementing the practices as easy as possible.

Check out the sample chapter Developing and Using Models.  Helping Students Make Sense of the World is also available as an ebook.

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Ed News: Idaho Legislators Strip Climate Change Language

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This week in education news, Idaho legislators remove climate change language from new state science standards, California renews push to promote environmental education in public schools, three global indexes show that America’s public schools are doing something right, and Intel dropped its sponsorship of the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Idaho Legislators Strip Climate Change Language in New Science Standards

Idaho Lawmakers on the state’s House Education Committee voted to approve the new K-12 science standards only when references to human activity as a prime cause of climate change that had appeared in a draft of the standards were removed. Click here to read the article featured in Education Week.

California Renews Push to Promote Environmental Literacy in Schools

Environmental education in California got another big push last November when the State Board of Education approved integrating five key environmental principles into the new science frameworks last November. The frameworks provide a blueprint for introducing the Next Generation Science Standards, which the state adopted in 2013, and are gradually being introduced in schools across the state. Click here to read the article featured on the EdSource website.

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The Most Profound News of Valentine’s Day 2017

This Valentine’s Day, while most media attention was focused on the dismissal of the National Security Advisor, The New York Times ran a story that received much less media attention, but has far greater potential impact on our nation’s future.

Amy Harmon reported in the article, Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Supportabout a just-released study by the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering (Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and GovernanceNational Academy Press, 2017) that supports continued research and application of genetic modification of human cells, including those cells that pass genetic information to the next generation.

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