Conferences as professional development

Presenters discuss with participants as they examine beetle larvae.Professional development—learning that will develop our professionalism, make us better teachers, and expand our content knowledge—aims to be delivered at just the right moment with an insight that changes you forever. Attending PD sessions builds up our store of such learning that we can draw on in challenging moments, those times when we wish a more knowledgeable colleague would step in and show us how. The reality in early childhood is that often PD is fit in during nap time, on half of teacher work days, in a burst at the beginning of the school year, or online alone after work. If we can’t have that knowledgeable mentor to work with on a weekly basis, consider attending a conference to broaden your professional development. Being immersed in thinking and talking about early childhood science education with others in the profession for an entire day, or several, is a transformative experience. Conferences provide those immersive experiences where keynote speakers inspire us to fully participate in our work—at the conference and back at school, and colleagues with more experience share their research, knowledge, and situation or lesson specific tips. The statistics about who attends such conferences helps the profession see who is interested and financially able to attend conferences. 

Cover of "Taking Science to School"The acronyms STEM and STEAM, and sometimes STREAMS, are part of many conference session titles. We should expect these sessions to connect the S-T-E-and-M in ways that represent what is known about how children learn, and how adults learn. In Taking Science to School:Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8  (National Research Council 2007 pgs 2-3) the authors describe what were new understandings of what children know and how they learn: 

  • Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, much of which is implicit.
  • What children are capable of at a particular age is the result of a complex interplay among maturation, experience, and instruction. What is developmentally appropriate is not a simple function of age or grade, but rather is largely contingent on their prior opportunities to learn.
  • Students’ knowledge and experience play a critical role in their science learning, influencing all four strands of science understanding.
  • Race and ethnicity, language, culture, gender, and socioeconomic status are among the factors that influence the knowledge and experience children bring to the classroom.
  • Students learn science by actively engaging in the practices of science.
  • A range of instructional approaches is necessary as part of a full development of science proficiency.

Conference sessions reflect these understandings when they teach participants how to actively engage students in using the practices of science, rather than only being observers of demonstrations or the science work of others.

Play session presenters at the podium.

ECE session to deepen your appreciation of play.

At the 2017 national conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) a session on play was my first choice, “The play experience: Fulfilling the promise of play.”  

It was a way to remind myself why I was there: to learn to teach those experts at play (children). Through hands-on first solo, and then cooperative, play experiences using a variety of open-ended materials, followed by journaling and discussion, we talked about how play helped focus our minds, and opened opportunities for problem solving. We discussed ways to use play to stimulate creativity and imagination as part of teaching mathematics, science, literacy, art, and social studies, and helping children develop social emotional skills. When one 20 minute play period ended several participants remarked on how they didn’t want to stop exploring and using the materials to create through building, designing, trying first one way and then another. Others noted that children feel this way when they must transition to a different activity before they have finished playing.

Participants begin solo play.

Solo play exploring materials.

Presenters document the work for later discussion through photography.

Presenter Dr. Drew documenting the play for later discussion.

As we played I saw people exploring the concepts of shape, balance, symmetry, and trajectory; testing materials for the properties of flexibility, weight, and texture; and creating pleasing patterns.

Solo play may lead to making a structure.

Where does play lead you?

Play with pipe cleaners involved making shapes that balanced.

Extended play with pipe cleaners led to exploring balance.

Cooperative play followed the silent solo play leading to talking about our programs and playing games.

Cooperative play between participants.

Cooperative play.

After the session on play, there were so many STEM, science, and engineering sessions that I had to make difficult choices. I don’t regret attending the sessions I chose but I’d like to learn a little about those I had to pass on. Presenters can upload handouts to the Precis Abstract Management system but unfortunately few do, making it even more important to choose sessions wisely (for content in addition to how far they are from the last session). 

The discussions among educators who work in different areas of the early childhood education profession, and different areas of the country, help me clarify my thinking about teaching science. Presenting with other educators is another way to get the most out of a conference. In preparing for our session on supporting children’s use of the NGSS science and engineering practices, the experiences and views of colleagues Cindy Hoisington and Sandy Chilton informed my understanding. In the session participants sorted through a

Participants view photos and discuss the NGSS science and engineering practices in use.Participants view photos and discuss the NGSS science and engineering practices in of photos of preK-grade 2 children at work and identified which science and engineering practices children were using in their investigations. In my NSTA Press book, Science Learning in the Early Years, I support using the NGSS because integrating the three dimensions—science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas—provides a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings as they build understanding of science concepts.

I’m looking forward to the next conference I’ll be attending, the NSTA 2018 national conference, March 15-18, in Atlanta, GA. And later in the year, the NAEYC annual conference will be held in Washington, DC, close enough to drive! Post about calls for proposals for conferences near you on the NSTA Learning Center Early Childhood forum and the NAEYC forum, Hello.

And I’m feeling wistful about having to pass up several opportunities for effective conference learning including the Early Childhood Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (ECSTEM) Conference, February 2-3, 2018, in Anaheim, CA.

 Meanwhile I’m finding time each week to participate in the NSTA Learning Center conversations and NAEYC forums, and enjoying making time to talk with colleagues locally about the engineering design happening in their Kindergarten class, and the tools their preschool students use to shape cardboard. 

National Research Council. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

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Differentiating for an “Out of This World” Student

Artist’s rendition of Sirius A and B

I have one student whose knowledge of Earth and space exceeds the other students in class. I feel like I just keep giving him more work, more extension activities, and I think he is getting frustrated. Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with this? How do I grade this kind of assignment?
—S., Virginia


Assigning more work to an extremely bright student is not the answer, so kudos for looking for something else! Run this by your principal for approval: Ask the student to propose a project— either long- or short-term —related to the class. The possibilities are almost limitless: videos, a lesson, models, public displays, reviews, and more. Can you find a geologist, astronomer, or other professional that could act as a mentor or be interviewed? Negotiate a grading scheme with benchmarks and expectations for the final “product” or assessment.

Options to reach a fair grade:

  • Have the child complete all the work the rest of the class is handing in and use the project as extra credit.
  • Replace the regular work with this project—this puts the onus on the student to follow through. Align the project with your curriculum and create a rubric to share with the student and his family. If a mentor is involved, you should have a direct communication with him or her about expectations and share the assessment piece. Set the bar high, but make sure he isn’t penalized for pushing himself. If the project doesn’t meet all your expectations, ask yourself, “What grade would I record if any other student handed me this work?”

Hope this helps!

Photo Credit: By NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI) 

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folder icon  Safety

Be Aware of Biohazards

As many high schools begin adopting curricula that include the study of microorganisms, biosafety must be addressed for a safer lab experience.

Biohazards are biologically derived infectious materials, which may present a risk to other living things. Such hazards can enter the body through such places as the eyes, mouth, lungs, and open wounds. Unlike chemical hazards, biohazards can reproduce and spread infection throughout the body. Categories of biohazards include

• human, animal, and plant pathogens: bacteria, fungi, viruses, parasites, rickettsiae, chlamydiae, toxins;
• human and animal blood, blood products, tissues, and body fluids;
• cultured cells and potentially infectious agents within them;
• allergens;
• recombinant DNA products; and
• clinical, necropsy, and surgical specimens (e.g., tissues, fluids).

Biosafety in the lab

Biosafety protocols developed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can reduce or eliminate teachers’ and students’ risk of exposure to potentially hazardous agents. The four biosafety levels (BSLs) consist of combinations of laboratory practices and techniques, safety equipment, and laboratory facilities and are specific to operations performed, transmission of infectious agents, and laboratory functions. The BSLs are described as:

• BSL1: No known or minimal potential hazard of exposure to infectious agents.
• BSL2: Moderate potential hazard with low risk of exposure to infectious agents.
• BSL3: Moderate risk of exposure to agents that can cause serious or potentially lethal disease.
• BSL4: High risk of exposure to dangerous agents that cause life-threatening disease.

K–12 science teachers should only conduct activities with BSL1-level hazards, whereas college instructors can use higher level biohazards. This designation is based on safety equipment, practices, facility design, and construction. Laboratory work using BSL1 hazards is done with defined, characterized strains and non-disease-carrying microorganisms (e.g., Bacillus subtilus, Naegleria gruberi).

Working with a BSL1-level hazard only requires handwashing after use of the biohazard. Lab work at BSL1 is generally conducted on open bench tops using standard microbiological protocol. Students must have special training in microbiological laboratory protocol, with oversight by the science teacher.

Recommended protocols

Although organisms at BSL1 pose a low risk for laboratory use, most microorganisms used in the microbiology are capable of causing an infection. To minimize the risk of infection, teachers should follow the best practices and train students in the proper handling of microorganisms.

The NSTA safety advisory board’s 2016 paper offers tips for safely handling microorganisms. In addition, the American Society for Microbiology also has guidelines for teaching biosafety in the lab. The following list summarizes these important biosafety protocols.

Personal protection requirements
• Wear indirectly vented chemical splash safety goggles when handling liquid cultures, when performing procedures that may create a splash hazard, or when spread plating (a method for isolating and enumerating microorganisms in a mixed culture and distributing it evenly on a slide).
• Wear closed-toe shoes.
• Wear gloves when the student’s hands have fresh cuts or abrasions, when staining microbes, and when handling hazardous chemicals.
• Clean hands thoroughly prior to and immediately after handling microorganisms and any time that microbes accidentally touch the skin.
• Wear laboratory coats.

Laboratory physical space requirements
• Require all laboratory space to include:
o nonporous floor, bench tops, chairs, and stools.
o sink for hand washing.
o eyewash station.
• Keep personal belongings away from the work area.
• Use a working and validated autoclave.

Stock culture requirements
• Only use cultures from authorized, commercial, or reputable sources (e.g., an academic laboratory or state health department).
• Do not subculture unknown microbes isolated from the environment because they may be organisms that require BSL2 practices and facilities.
• Obtain fresh stock cultures of microorganisms annually to be certain of the source culture, minimize spontaneous mutations, and reduce contamination.

Guidelines for biosafety in the lab
• Do not handle personal items (e.g., cosmetics, cell phones) while in the lab.
• Do not put pipette in mouth.
• Label all containers clearly.
• Keep door closed while the laboratory is in session.
• Use leak-proof containers for storage and transport of infectious materials.
• Arrange for proper decontamination and disposal of contaminated material (e.g., in a properly maintained and validated autoclave) or arrange for waste removal in accordance with local, state, and federal guidelines.
• Sweep any glass with broom and dustpan.
• Notify instructor of all spills or injuries.
• Document all injuries according to school, university, or college policy.
• Use only institution-provided marking pens and writing instruments.
• Teach, practice, and enforce the proper wearing and use of gloves.
• Advise immunocompromised students (including those who are pregnant) and students living with or caring for an immunocompromised individual to consult physicians about participation in the laboratory.
• Keep note-taking and discussion practices separate from work with hazardous or infectious material.

Training practices
• Conduct extensive initial training of handling biohazards for instructors and student assistants.
• Require students and instructors to safely and responsibly handle microorganisms.
• Inform students of safety precautions relevant to each exercise.
• Emphasize to students the importance of reporting accidental spills and exposures.

Document practices
• Require students to sign safety agreements about the hazards of the organisms they will handle throughout the course.
• Maintain student-signed safety agreements at the institution.
• Prepare, maintain, and post proper signage.
• Document all injuries and spills. Follow the school’s policy, if available.
• Make Safety Data Sheets available at all times. Follow institutional documentation guidelines regarding number of copies.
• Post emergency procedures and updated contact information in the laboratory.
• Maintain and make available (e.g., in a syllabus, laboratory manual, or online) to all students a list of all cultures (and their sources) used in the course.

Blood borne pathogens

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (29 CFR 1910.1030) requires employers to have an exposure control plan in place if exposure to blood borne pathogens is likely. Blood borne pathogens include viruses, bacteria, and parasites present in blood or other body fluids. Students can be exposed to the pathogens via laboratory work. For the high school science laboratory, an exposure control plan must be in place.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

NSTA resources and safety issue papers
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NSTA Legislative Update: HEA, Budgets, and Taxes

House Education and Workforce Chair Virginia Fox introduced a bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA) last week, and her committee will be meeting to mark up the bill on Tuesday, December 12.

H.R. 4508 (115), the “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity though Education Reform (PROSPER) Act,” would change how students apply for federal aid for college, and streamline the information about colleges that the federal government would provide. Most notably for K-12 educators, the bill would make changes to teacher education by repealing HEA Title II, eliminating the  Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grant program (currently funded at $43.1m), and eliminating the Title II data reporting.

The bill also ends the TEACH Grant program in July 2018.

Currently the bill has no Democratic cosponsors. A Democratic version of HEA reauthorization is expected out after the markup next week. Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has indicated that Senate legislation to reauthorize HEA will be a priority early in the New Year.

Read more about HEA here.

Budget Deal at Year’s End? New StopGap Measure Keeps Govt Open till Dec. 22

On Thursday, December 7, Congress passed another stopgap funding measure that will keep the government open until Dec. 22 in the hopes that leaders can agree to a budget deal by year’s end. The prior spending agreement was scheduled to expire on Dec. 8.

Leaders from both the Senate and House are meeting with President Trump to hammer out a final budget deal and overall spending levels, including the possibility of raising or eliminating the sequestration budget caps currently on many domestic programs.

NSTA joined education colleagues last week in a letter to senators asking them to “raise the sequester-level discretionary caps and ensure that any increases in the defense spending caps are matched with equal increases in the Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) spending caps”  and to “make critical investments in education programs such as the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) Grant Program under Title IV-A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).”

Issues such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and the final push to finish the tax plan (see below) are also in play during these budget negotiations.

The stopgap measure will provide funding for the federal government through Dec. 22, meaning that a pre-Christmas, close the government budget showdown is likely. Stay tuned.

What’s in the Tax Bill for Education?

Congressional negotiations continue over the two versions of the tax bill; here are the key differences in the House and Senate bills on education programs:

Deduction for school supplies: The House plan eliminates the provision that allows K-12 teachers to deduct up to $250 that they spend on their classes. The Senate bill would allow teachers to deduct up to $500.

Expanding 529s: Both the House and Senate plans would expand section 529 college savings accounts to cover K-12 expenses of up to $10,000 per year. The Senate plan would allow 529s to pay for children to attend public, private and religious K-12 schools, and cover the costs of home schooling. The House version does not include home schooling.

Taxing graduate students: The House plan calls for taxing as income tuition that is waived for graduate students working as teaching or research assistants. The Senate plan has no such tax.

Deduction for student loan interest: The House plan would scrap a deduction for student loan interest; the Senate version protects this deduction.

Taxing endowments: Both the House and Senate bills have language that would create new taxes on private colleges and university endowments.  The House plan would tax endowment incomes at schools that have $250,000 per student, which would affect approximately 60 to 70 colleges. The Senate plan would target half as many, setting the threshold at schools with $500,000 per student.

And finally, Change the Equation, which started in 2010 as a CEO-led effort to improve STEM education and was part of President Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, will cease operations at the end of the year.

The group announced last week that WestEd and Education Commission of the States will assume and continue two signature CTEq products:  WestEd will lead STEMworks, a nationally-recognized initiative to identify and scale the most effective STEM education programs; and Education Commission of the States will lead and expand Vital Signs, the state-by-state data on the condition of STEM education.

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 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: TFA, Alternative Programs Marginally Better Than Traditional Teacher Prep

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This week in education news, study finds that alternative teacher preparation programs are slightly better than traditional programs; Idaho education leaders are working with a consulting firm to gather data and feedback about testing; Colorado unveils plan to tackle teacher shortage; efforts to reduce standardized testing succeeded in many school districts in 2017; according to a new survey most students report feeling engaged in school and take pride in their work, but engagement drop as students get order; and public education in more broken than ever.

TFA, Alternative Programs Marginally Better Than Traditional Teacher Prep, Study Finds

Students whose teachers were trained in alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America tend to perform slightly better academically than students whose teachers had traditional teacher training, according to a recent meta-analysis. The study aims to put to rest a long-held debate about whether alternative route teacher training programs, which tend to provide a quick path to the classroom for people who already have a bachelor’s degree, can sufficiently prepare new educators. Read the article featured in Education Week.

Assessment Task Force Gears Up For Likely New Science Test

Idaho education leaders are teaming up with a consulting firm to stage a yearlong conversation about testing. Created this summer by Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, the Assessment Task Force is an approximately 20-member group that is gathering data and feedback as the state braces to launch a new science test. Read the article featured in Idaho Ed News.

Continue reading …

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Presentation Props

My middle school students are creating organism presentations. How much scaffolding should I give them?
— P., New York

Students take more interest and greater ownership when they come up with project ideas themselves and teachers provide, as you realize, a scaffold. I have found this guidance results in higher quality presentations and a better learning experience.

First, make sure to specify what must be included in the presentations and share your grading rubric. I would implement benchmarks with deadlines for completing research, presenting a storyboard, and other milestones. Make sure to set a time limit for the presentations.

Take the time to teach them how to use presentation software or applications. Remind them that they are the presenters, not the slides, so they should:

  • Limit the amount of text on any slide— just a few points in large, easy-to-read fonts.
  • Not simply read the slides— face the audience and refer to notes as they elaborate on the points. Most programs allow the creation of a presenter’s version.
  • Use clear, large graphics that everyone can see.
  • Draft scripts and rehearse presentations.

If your students are making posters, consider going electronic. Have the students make the text and pictures all fit on one slide. Instead of printing large posters, they can share PDFs on a shared drive and maybe include peer evaluations. Electronic posters are also easier to grade than a large pile of paper!

There are many rubrics out there for assessment of posters and presentations that can help you with grading.

Hope this helps!


Graphic credit: FriendlyStock (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

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MEL Chemistry Starter Kit


The Mel Chemistry Starter Kit is equipped with all the materials needed to conduct beginner type experiments. MEL Chemistry is a subscription service that offers monthly delivery of safe chemistry experiments for kids. The subscription will be most beneficial for those who want to gain more knowledge about science. This beginner science kit is perfect for the classroom. It allows experiments to be conducted by students as they watch for certain reactions. The starter kit includes the main chemistry tools that you will need to conduct experiments. When you purchase the starter kit, you will also receive the first two experiment sets as well. The sets are “Chemistry of Monsters” and “Tin.” These sets come with instructions and chemicals to perform four different experiments. Each experiment includes step-by-step instructions along with safety procedures to follow as well. The MEL Science team has done a great job searching for both interesting and safe experiments for students. Best of all, the ingredients and instructions are shipped to your door.

Continue reading …

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Ed News: Review Of New Academic Standards Begins

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This week in education news, North Dakota’s superintendent is requesting teachers to review new academic standards; California teachers find new science standards fun, but expensive; four New York students injured in a chemistry experiment gone wrong; several Wisconsin school districts are trying a new method of evaluating what students learn; Veteran astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris named new CEO of NMSI; new Gallup poll reveals that superintendents have a hard time finding quality teachers; Houston-area administrators are using physical activities to better engage students in STEM courses; and Ohio high school students may soon be allowed to replace the Algebra 2 graduation requirement with an advanced computer science course.

Review Of New Academic Standards Begins

North Dakota’s superintendent is asking teachers statewide to review academic standards for science, health, early learning and the arts as the process for drafting new benchmarks gets underway. State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler is asking teachers who specialize in science, health, the arts or early learning to apply to serve on one of the four content committees that will draft standards. Read the article featured on

Fizz! Pop! Bang! Teachers Find New Science Standards Fun, But Costly

With their emphasis on hands-on experiments, California’s new science standards have turned classrooms into noisy, messy laboratories. That’s been popular with students and teachers who say it’s a more effective way to learn science than studying textbooks and memorizing facts, but the cost of all those underwater robots and exploding chemicals has left some teachers wondering how they can successfully implement the standards with ever-restricting budgets. Read the article featured in Ed Source.

Continue reading …

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What did you learn today, teacher?

I’m teaching a science methods class. I’d like to know: What was the most important thing you learned in your undergrad science methods classes? What do you wish you had known about science teaching that you didn’t learn in undergrad?
– L., Illinois


This post to an NSTA e-mail list produced excellent responses and I wanted to share my thoughts.

Important things I learned in university:

  • Reflect on everything you do, every class. Ask yourself: Did they get it? Is this working toward my goals? How can I tell they learned this? How could I have taught this differently?
  • Check over and test everything you do in advance. Practice demonstrations and labs to uncover any issues, modify as needed, and resolve with safety concerns. Even labs that look “foolproof” on paper could take twice as long in the classroom. Check all handouts for errors and out-dated information.

Important things I learned in my classroom:

  • You teach students, not science. Students want to know that a teacher cares about them. Flexibility, understanding and compassion are good traits.
  • Resist being the “sage on the stage.” There is no way to know everything so admit when you don’t know something. Turn perplexing questions into learning experiences for the whole class, including you. Make sure that the students are active in their learning instead of passively listening to you.
  • You do not have to create everything yourself. Use premade materials that fit perfectly; modify the materials that don’t; and create new materials when you can’t find anything that fits.

Hope this helps!


Photo Credit:  Harker School Staff Photographer (The Harker School)

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Resources from previous NSTA conferences

Educator uses a whisk to make bubble foam.Have you revisited the sessions from previous NSTA conference to check out the resources posted by presenters? Begin with the 2017 Elementary Extravaganza that has 27 resources listed, both documents and webpages. It was held on Friday, March 31 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. My table had a parade of adults and children whipping up bubble foam from simple ingredients, and talking about the properties of matter.  Other EE tables showcased:

  • an engineering challenge to design and build shade structures to protect special UV-sensitive beaded lizards from the sun (Laura Kitagawa),  
  • using a paper template and CD to make a spectroscope as used by the New Horizons spacecraft to explore Pluto (Nancy Tashima),  and
  • infusing children’s scientific knowledge and understandings into writing poetry (Patricia Bricker, Melisssa Faetz, Nancy Luke, & Kelly Tracy).

Slide from “Using Lab Notebooks in the Preschool and Elementary Classroom” Search for a topic, such as “notebook,” to locate sessions with specific topics. See Katie Morrison and Deb Chickadel’s resources from their “Using Lab Notebooks in the Preschool and Elementary Classroom” session for examples from preK-grade 5 and how-to guidance.



Blue Marble Matches session by Veronica Leija and Brandon HargisEven if you don’t teach high school you might look at materials from sessions such as “Blue Marble Matches” by Veronica Leija and Brandon Hargis to enhance your own understanding of science concepts. 

You can view sessions as far back as the 2015 Chicago National Conference by going to the NSTA conference page  and clicking on “Sessions” for the recent or future conferences.  As you search using a grade level or keyword to identify sessions of interest, keep an eye out for links to presenter materials listed at the bottom of the session information. 

Not all sessions have links to materials–consider attending the next NSTA conference near you to learn directly from the presenters!

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