Elementary Science—Best Practices for All Students

Envision a room filled with noise, excited whispers, and students shouting across tables. Piles of tinfoil, plastic cups, scissors, string, and tape are scattered around the room. Paper, pencils, and notebooks filled with sketches are strewn across groups of desks. The lingering scent of melting chocolate pervades the room, as does an electric feeling of excitement among students.

This room may seem chaotic, but actually, it represents the best learning. If you were to ask students what is happening, they would describe their goal: to create a wrapper that would prevent a chocolate bar from melting. They would outline their plan and materials list, and discuss the revisions they made after collaborating with their tablemates. The students have spent weeks investigating how different substances react to heat and cold and testing different materials, which has given them content knowledge about changes in matter and the skills to design, test, and redesign a wrapper that even Hershey’s would envy.

What student wouldn’t be excited to have this activity be part of their school day? What teacher wouldn’t want to provide this type of lasting learning experience for his or her students?

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Contemporary Instructional Approaches to Promote STEM Learning for English Learners

The release of the report English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives (shortened to “the report” hereafter) (NASEM 2018) is timely, as three emerging forces shape the changing landscape of K–12 science education. First, demographics of the nation’s student population are rapidly changing, including the fast-growing subpopulation of English Learners (ELs). Second, A Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013) are both academically rigorous and language intensive. Third, computer science, including computational thinking, is becoming increasingly important for all students.

I will describe two key domains the report highlights: contemporary views on language and STEM subjects with ELs, and contemporary instructional approaches compared to traditional instructional approaches with ELs. Based on these two key domains, the report contains promising instructional strategies (see Chapter 4).

Contemporary Views on Language and STEM Subjects With English Learners Continue reading …

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Addressing Electrical Hazards in the Lab

Accidents in the lab involving electricity can produce fire, smoke, electrocutions, and explosions. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “electrical equipment shall be free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.” This blog post describes the steps teachers must take to prevent such hazards from arising in their science classrooms and laboratories.

Preventing electric shock and electrocution

Unfortunately, many people believe circuit breakers protect lab occupants. In fact, circuit breakers only protect the science labs and building, not the teachers or students. Breakers are designed to prevent electrical fires by shutting off the electrical flow if too much electricity tries to move through the circuit’s wires. An excessive amount of electricity coupled with resistance may lead to a fire.

The human body is a poor conductor of electricity. Even so, if a person were to come in contact with a wet surface and an electric current of as little as one-fifth of an amp, then that person could receive a harmful shock. Installing a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) in the lab can protect students and teachers from electric shock and electrocution. This device constantly compares current flowing from the hot wire to the neutral wire. If the GFCI senses an imbalance of approximately 5 milliamps in the current flow, the current will stop flowing in less than a second.

However, there are two safety issues with GFCIs that need to be addressed. First of all, if these electrical devices are not maintained, they may corrode and not function properly. Preventative maintenance can avoid this situation. This can easily be done by flipping the breaker several times every month or two. Inform the school of this maintenance to ensure that computers or other technologies are not being used when flipping the breaker.

Second, the GFCI does not protect the individuals from a line-to-line contact hazard, which happens when a person holds two hot wires or a hot and a neutral wire at the same time. This could happen if a student has his or her fingers on the metal prongs of the plug when pushing it into the wall receptacle. Students and teachers need to be made aware of this danger in safety training workshops at the beginning of the school year before doing work in the laboratory.

Meeting legal safety standards

There are a number of electrical safety protocols that need to be addressed. According to the OSHA, potential exposures to electrical hazards may result from faulty electrical equipment/instrumentation or wiring, damaged receptacles and connectors, or unsafe work practices. OSHA suggests the following best practices to avoid such hazards:

• Always follow manufacturer’s recommendations for using electrical equipment. Do not use electrical equipment to perform a task for which it is not designed.
• Most equipment includes either a three-pronged plug or double insulation. Equipment without these features is less safe, but may meet electrical codes. You will not be protected from electric shock unless you are using a three-pronged plug that is plugged into a three-prong outlet.
• If you plug more than two pieces of low demand equipment into a standard outlet, use a fused power strip that will shut off if too much power is used.
• Make sure that any outlet near a sink or other water source is GFCI protected. If you have a GFCI, periodically test it by plugging something into it and pushing the “test” button. Once the equipment shuts off, just turn it (the GFCI or the equipment?) back on.
• Above all, do not disable any electrical safety feature such as removing a ground prong on a three-prong plug.
• Before turning equipment on, check that all power cords are in good condition.
• Do not use extension cords as a substitute for permanent wiring.
• If you see a person being electrocuted, do not touch the person. Turn off the power (pull the plug or trip the circuit breaker), or use an item made of non-conductive material (e.g., wooden broom handle) to pry the person away from the contact. Call 911 immediately.


Teachers and their supervisors involved with renovations or new science laboratory facilities need to ensure that such electrical protection is provided. Existing laboratory facilities should also have such protection for teachers and students. If concerned about electrical standards and protocols being met, contact your building administrator and request an electrical inspection.

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

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Legislative Update: Administration Budget Request Would (Again) Cut Funding for Key Ed Programs

President Trump submitted his budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 programs last week and, as expected, discretionary funding for the U.S. Department of Education would be cut significantly for FY20 programs that would begin this October. 

The President is requesting $62 billion for the Education Department for FY2020 fiscal year — a 12 percent reduction when compared with current funding.  He proposes to eliminate funding for 29 education programs, including funding for ESSA Title IVA Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants ($1.17 billion); Title II-Supporting Effective Instruction state grants ($2.1 billion); 21st Century Community Learning Centers ($1.2 billion). Title I funding and funding for IDEA (special education grants) would be level-funded.

This is the third year that the Administration has sought to cut ED’s budget. Fortunately, thanks to continued advocacy and voices from education community, Congress has repeatedly denied the Administration these cuts in funding.  As you will recall, Congress raised Title IV spending from $400 million to $1.1 billion in FY2018.

The FY20 budget request also includes a 10-year school choice program (Education Freedom Scholarships) that would create up to $5 billion a year in new tax credits for individuals and businesses that donate to scholarships that help students pay private school tuition or other education expenses

According to the Department of Education, the budget request also contains $300 million for Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grants, a $170 million increase from fiscal 2019. Of this amount, $200 million would be used for demonstration projects to “improve the quality and effectiveness of classroom instruction by empowering teachers to select their own professional development activities” and $100 million would be used for field-initiated projects that would promote innovation and reform in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, including computer science.

The Administration is also requesting $200 million for Teacher and School Leader Incentive Grants that would “help develop, implement, improve, or expand human capital management systems or performance-based compensation systems. New awards would support mentoring or residencies for novice teachers or increased compensation for effective teachers, particularly in high-need fields and subjects, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

In a statement Education Secretary DeVos said “this budget at its core is about education freedom — freedom for America’s students to pursue their life-long learning journeys in the ways and places that work best for them, freedom for teachers to develop their talents and pursue their passions and freedom from the top-down ‘Washington knows best’ approach that has proven ineffective and even harmful to students.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, responded by saying “Secretary DeVos is proposing gutting investments in students, teachers, public schools, and even school safety—all to make room for her extreme privatization proposal that no one asked for. This is not a serious budget proposal, and I am going to once again work with Republicans in Congress to ensure every student has access to a quality public education in their neighborhood.”

In a statement the Title IVA Coalition (NSTA is on the board of this Coalition) said,

 “For the third year in a row, we are deeply disappointed by the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal to eliminate funding for the (ESSA Title IVA)  SSAE grant program despite districts finally being able to make use of these funds in a flexible and meaningful way to support students. The SSAE grant program under Title IV-A of ESSA is a flexible block grant that is designed to provide support for much needed student health and safety programs, well-rounded education programs, and the effective use of education technology.

“The Administration’s decision to zero out funding for this program—just as districts are utilizing the $1.1 billion Congress provided in FY18 and before the Department of Education has done any data collection on how states and districts are using these funds to support critical school and student needs—shows a complete lack of commitment to the success of the program.

“We find it contradictory of the Administration and the Secretary to routinely highlight the value of SSAE block grant by pointing to the value of the program in its reports (most recently, the Federal Commission on School Safety highlighted this program as a way of improving social emotional learning, school climate, and student safety) and speaking publicly about the flexibility and local control this program offers to districts to use funds based on their unique needs—but continuously call for the complete elimination of funding. Proposing no funding for the SSAE program for FY2020 reiterates the message this Administration continues sending to public schools: that it does not value investments in programs that make students safer at school, improve school climate, provide access to courses like AP, computer science, STEM, CTE, music and the arts, PE, or ensuring educators are prepared to use technology for blended and digital learning.

“Defunding the SSAE program stands in stark contrast with the will of Congress, which recognizes the value of this investment, and we are thankful for the $1.1 billion in FY18 and $1.17 billion in FY19 appropriated over the last two years. In order to give districts the opportunity to continue making effective use of these funds to improve the lives of students, we sincerely urge Congress to fund the SSAE grant program at its authorized level of $1.6 billion.”

Read more here and here.

Dems File Resolution that No Federal Funds Be Used to Train or Arm Teachers

Last week  Democratic lawmakers in both the Senate and House, including teacher U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes (CT-5),  introduced a resolution, S. Res. 110 (116), to “clarify” that the Department of Education cannot allow school districts to use federal funds to train or arm teachers with firearms.  Specifically, the resolution says that the funding under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act can only be used for policies that will lead to weapons-free schools.

Watch the press conference here.

STEM for Girls

And finally, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation that would create and expand upon STEM education initiatives at the National Science Foundation for young children, including new research grants to increase the participation of girls in computer science.  Read more about the Building Blocks of STEM Act.

Stay tuned, and watch for more updates in future issues of NSTA Express.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at jpeterson@nsta.org or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

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

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Ed News: A Wave of State Bills Could Threaten Science and Climate Education

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This week in education news, On International Women’s Day, a student reflects on a class that inspired her creativity; new research suggests that there are no real differences in student achievement gains across different textbooks; President Trump seeks 10 percent cut to Education Department aid; Julie Neidhardt wins the Shell Science Lab Regional Challenge grand prize; a wave of state bills could threaten science education; U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens introduces the Building Blocks of STEM Act; a series of recent studies have revealed weaknesses in past evidence supporting grit in education; and climate researchers estimate the average temperature across the United States will warm by 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050.

What High School Engineering Taught Me, and How It Can Empower Other Girls

International Women’s Day 2019 is all about #BalanceforBetter—gender balance, that is. Women make up only 30 percent of the science and engineering workforce today—yet this male-dominated group are the people who are designing our gadgets, building machines and tools that are used in health and environmental care, coming up with algorithms that determine a lot of what happens on social media and more … which does not seem balanced. Read the article featured in Scientific American.

The Gates Foundation is Hoping Better Curriculum Will Boost Student Learning. A New Study Says, Not So Fast.

Better curriculum was supposed to be one of the next big things in education. But new research, amounting to one of the largest-scale examinations of curriculum materials to date, suggests that the choice might not matter much — at least when it comes to elementary math test scores. Read the article featured in Chalkbeat.

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Who’s Who?

What are some interesting ways to introduce some of the major players in scientific discoveries so that my students can have a better grasp at who these people were and that they can aspire to be just as innovative and crucial to the world of science?
—T., Ohio

I would often hold a series of student presentations called Who’s Who in [insert subject here]. These consisted of one, 10-minute presentation per week typically on “Wacky Wednesday.” Students were encouraged to be as creative as possible and use all their varied talents. These presentations were often the highlight of the week. I graded their one-page, written biographies which they also shared with the class.

There were many impersonations. Other students ran game shows, created music videos, performed raps, demonstrated experiments, conducted mock interviews, and more. One student set up a dinner table and gave a monologue on “My Dinner with Tesla.”

You can join in the theatrics. I would act out scenes such as: “Gregor Mendel—Party Animal” where I demonstrated the dedication needed to control the pollination of thousands of pea plants; introduced Newton’s laws of motion in an English accent and curly wig; re-enacted the apocryphal cannonball experiments of Galileo. Some were cautionary tales like “Watson and Crick—Brilliant Jerks” which alluded to their treatment of Rosalind Franklin and “Don’t Jump the Gun! The Fleischmann and Pons Cold Fusion Experiment.”

You can have a lot of fun with this. The out-of-the-ordinary things you do in class are much more memorable than the mundane.

Hope this helps!


Image by mohamed_hassan on Pixabay

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s March 2019 K-12 journals

Regardless of what grade level or subject you teach, check out all three K-12 journals. As you skim through titles and descriptions of the articles, you may find ideas for lessons that would be interesting for your students, the inspiration to adapt a lesson to your grade level or subject, or the challenge to create/share your own lessons and ideas. Click on the links to read or add to your library.

The lessons described in the articles include a chart showing connections with the NGSS. The graphics are especially helpful in understanding the activities and in providing ideas for your own investigations.

NSTA members have access to the articles in all journals, including the Journal of College Science Teaching.

Science & Children – Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions

There may be teachers who are comfortable with life science investigations but apprehensive about physical science ones. This issue has ideas and lessons to explore concepts related to forces and motion – topics students (and teachers) will enjoy!

Editor’s Note: Teaching Forces and Motion “Allowing time for children to explore helps them build early understandings of force and motion. Students can take ownership of planning and carrying out their own investigations about motion, and through careful observation of outcomes, students can recognize patterns, evaluate cause-and-effect relationships, and begin to explore stability and change within a system…So, let’s get the marbles rolling and bring on the pushing and pulling in the classroom as we learn about forces and interactions.”

Many authors share resources related to the lessons and strategies in their articles. These resources include rubrics, graphic organizers, handouts, diagrams, lists of resources, and complete lessons. You can access these through the Connections link for Science & Children.

  • “Because magnetism seems unexplainable and magical, exploring magnetism helps children understand the nature of science.” The Early Years: Exploring Magnetism includes a discussion of how to introduce the concept in an age-appropriate way, along with a lesson which students design and build a structure that uses magnetic forces.
  • Teaching Through Trade Books: Interacting With Forces focuses on “different types of interactions between objects and ask students to consider what happens when a force is applied to an object. Does it stop? Does it change direction? Which force is stronger? How does gravity affect the object?” The article has suggested books and lessons How Does It Move (K-2) and Identifying Gravity (3-5).
  • The author of Tech Talk: Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions states that “Pairing technology-rich experiences that simulate natural phenomena with actual hands-on learning in the real world is an effective way to use technology for science learning… Well-crafted simulation apps give students the opportunity to work in simulated real-world conditions. They also enable students to manipulate interactions with natural phenomena while getting feedback on their decisions.” There are descriptions of two such apps.
  • Ramp It Up! reinforces the Tech Talk article. “Digital tools, such as the digital journal described in this article, can allow children to closely observe, document, review, and make sense of phenomena that occur slowly (e.g., plant growth) or, in the case of ramp investigations, phenomena that occur quickly.” The article has numerous photos of students engaged in their study of ramps and balls.
  • Just Roll With It focuses on how changing the surface and the height of the ramp affects the motion of a marble. Students learn the concepts of independent and dependent variables, prediction, and data collecting. Formative Assessment Probes: Describing the Motion of a Marble could help teachers ascertain what students know (or think they know) about the concept.
  • Fraught With Friction poses a question about how far a toy vehicle would travel on different surfaces. Students addressed the question using the PEOE strategy (predict, explain, observe, explain). The authors note that “Because we asked students for their predictions before conducting the investigation, they thought more about the activity and were more actively engaged during it to find out whether their predictions matched their observations.” Perhaps this lesson could be supplemented with The Poetry of Science: Poetry in Motion.
  • Play takes on a new meaning as students combine play and learning. With traditional tops (which students may not be familiar with) and fidget spinners, students can investigate forces and motion. Engineering Spinners includes a lesson in which students designed their own versions of these toys. Pushes, Pulls, and Playgrounds demonstrates how playgrounds can do double duty as recreation and as a place to investigate forces and motion. Nonfiction texts add to the information and students’ vocabulary.
  • See how students go beyond “activitymania.” In Engineering Encounters: Balancing Engineering and Science Instruction, students solve an engineering challenge to move an object from the floor to the table, as they learn about balanced and unbalanced forces.

These monthly columns continue to provide background knowledge and classroom ideas:

For more on the content that provides a context for projects and strategies described in this issue, see the SciLinks topics Electric Current, Engineering Structures, Forces, Forces and Motion, Friction, Gravity, Inertia, Magnets, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Simple Machines

Continue for this month’s Science Scope and The Science Teacher.

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Using Art as an Introduction to Science

“Ms. Anne!  Did you know kelp is a plant like the sunflowers?”

That was just one of many questions I heard last week as my class turned the classroom into a kelp forest.  It all began with the otters.  No, it really all began with the students…

I teach in the high desert, but many of my students have extended family connections to coastal California.  With the holiday season in full swing, many of my students had visited their relatives and explored nearby beaches, tidal pools, sloughs full of otters and sea lions, visited aquariums and gone whale watching.  The discovery that sea otter awareness week started September 23. 2018 was the final sand grain, so to speak.  They wanted to become sea otters.  As a self-contained teacher I have more flexibility than others in integrating subject matter.   But what I did can easily transfer over to non-self-contained classrooms as collaborations between teachers.

We started with a photo of sea otters, and making sea otter finger masks and puppets.  This required close attention to the photos.  Through such close observation with a purpose, the students compare sea otters to humans and discovered many unique characteristics to sea otters, such as the fur.  We had many “side trip” investigations requiring complex thinking, such as “how do you show fluffy sea otter fur on a flat piece of paper?”

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The Role of Instructional Resources in Supporting Investigation and Design

We are at an exciting time in science education. The Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) presents a vision for how we should teach science that is grounded in empirical evidence and what we know about how students learn. The Framework focuses on learners building useable knowledge of the world by making sense of phenomena using the three dimension of scientific knowledge – disciplinary core ideas (DCIs), scientific and engineering practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs). Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018) revisits the ideas in the Framework and presents greater clarity on the vision for science teaching and learning and what we need to do in the classroom to achieve this vision. The goal of instruction is not for learners to develop understanding of science concepts through a laboratory activity. The goal is for all learners to use the three-dimensions to make sense of phenomena, solve problems, think creatively, and learn more when needed.

But this is a complex change and it will not happen overnight. Since becoming  teachers, many of us have focused on using inquiry activities to help students learn content. In K – 12 schools and in college, it was drilled into us to memorize in order to succeed. But the new vision pushes us to realize that building on prior knowledge of disciplinary core ideas, applying crosscutting concepts and scientific and engineering practices helps develop  deeper knowledge of how the world works. Teachers and school districts need excellent instructional resources – curriculum materials and assessments as well as long-term professional learning to enact this new vision (Krajcik, 2015). Professional learning will allow us to form communities to learn and grow together to realize this new vision. Instructional resources and professional learning need to work together to support growth so that all of our students can make sense of the world, problem solve, design solutions to problems and think creatively.  Chapter 6, Instructional Resources for Supporting Investigation and Design, in Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center (NASEM, 2018) presents critical ideas on how teachers can make use of and what to look for in instructional resources to promote three-dimensional teaching and learning. In this blog, I highlight some of the key features of instructional resources discussed in Chapter 6.

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Ed News: School Lessons Targeted by Climate Change Doubters

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This week in education news, West Virginia governor signs legislation requiring high school computer science; Hispanics make up 16 percent of the American workforce, but only 6 percent of scientists and engineers; bug-in-ear coaching has been around for decades but in recent years, more and more educators are starting to try it out; America Achieves Educator Networks argues that traditional K-12 curriculums aren’t sufficient for a world in which machines are expected to do 42 percent of labor by 2022; 2018 teacher strikes had minimal impact on state education funding; in statehouses around the country, lawmakers this year have introduced bills seen as threatening instruction on science, including on climate change; new research finds that integrating the arts into science classes can help students learn better; and new “baby PISA” study will measure children’s skills in literacy, numeracy and self-regulation.

W.Va. Gov Signs Bill Mandating High School Computer Science

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has signed legislation requiring students to take computer science classes before graduating high school. Read the article by the Associated Press.

Latino Engineers Want to Encourage More to Pursue STEM Careers

STEM jobs, a crucial part of the global economy, are growing faster than other industries and tend to pay better than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hispanics make up 16 percent of the American workforce, but only 6 percent of scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. There is ample opportunity in STEM, according to Latino engineers in several fields. Read the article by NBC News Learn.

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