Soaring in a Digital Ecosystem

This column regularly describes digital tools to help teachers make learning more personal and effective for all students. When these tools converge, they create a sort of digital ecosystem designed to make students more collaborative and innovative, skills essential for success in today’s world. But are your students truly using digital technology to its maximum benefit?

The SAMR model
Our efforts toward digital convergence are based on the Substitution SAMR-box2Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model ( (see box), which leads to higher-order technology in the classroom. Used at a low level, technology merely serves as a substitution—for example, using a word processor instead of paper and pencil to write a conclusion.

The next level is augmentation, in which technology improves on a learning task similar to what students could do without the technology, such as using the formatting tools in a word processor to highlight areas of interest. Much of classroom technology falls into these two categories, including scientific probes and graphing calculators ( Our goal is to move on to the next levels of technology use: modification and redefinition of student work to demonstrate understanding.

Getting to Modification and Redefinition
To help you look at your lessons through a SAMR lens, let’s put a sample activity—a traditional chemical reactions experiment—through the SAMR continuum. First, students might use technology to substitute for an analog tool, such as using an online stopwatch (e.g.,—instead of an actual stopwatch to time a reaction. To compare the physical and chemical properties of compounds being used in their reactions, students might substitute online reference guides (e.g.,, for the paper periodic tables crammed into their backpacks or binders.

The next step up, augmentation, includes tools that give students time to analyze data rather than merely collecting it. Examples include using graphing software (e.g.,, and and data-collecting probes (such as those found at and to quickly gather data about the chemical reactions so students can focus on describing the reorganization of matter in their products to evidence learning.

Traditionally, we may have asked students to complete a worksheet with data tables and analysis questions, a task that could be substituted by an online Google Doc or Form. But now we can modify this task—advancing to the next level—by asking students to create a podcast (using, for example, that describes what they saw as the chemical reaction occurred. We could also ask them to video (using, for example, or what they saw, narrating in voiceover how bonds are breaking and new ones are being formed. With the right device, they could even mark up that video (using, for example, or Turning in such an assignment could be as simple as sharing a URL or dropping a file into a shared folder (e.g.,,
But why not completely redefine how student work is assessed and evaluated by asking students to critique each other’s work ( and extend the thinking of the student who created it? This type of collaboration and discussion, previously only available in text-based discussion boards, allows students to build and grow their learning network and share their innovative products with peers in a meaningful way.

Digital convergence really means increased engagement and higher-order thinking in our students. Look at the technology available in your own classroom and ask whether students are using it to reach new heights in their learning.

Ben Smith ( is a physics teacher in Red Lion, Pennsylvania; and Jared Mader ( is the director of technology for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. They conduct teacher workshops on technology in the classroom nationwide.


Get Involved With NSTA!

tst_summer16_covJoin NSTA today and receive The Science Teacher, the peer-reviewed journal just for high school teachers; to write for the journal, see our Author Guidelines and Call for Papers; 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.

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

Future NSTA Conferences

5th Annual STEM Forum & Expo, hosted by NSTA

  • Denver, Colorado: July 27–29

2017 Area Conferences

  • Baltimore, Maryland: October 5–7
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin: November 9–11
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: November 30–December 2

National Conferences

  • Los Angeles, California: March 30–April 2, 2017
  • Atlanta, Georgia: March 15–18, 2018
  • St. Louis, Missouri: April 11–14, 2019
  • Boston, Massachusetts: March 26–29, 2020
  • Chicago, Illinois: April 8–11, 2021

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Place-Based Learning in Middle School: Putting Scientific Principles to Work in your Community

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” -John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911.

We hope that you are enjoying your summer!  As teachers, we realize that your mind is never far from your classroom, even if your body is lounging on a chair next to *insert appropriate body of water here*. As science teachers, especially, even the sounds of waves and splashing children have entirely different meaning to us than to those in other walks of life.  You might hear water hitting the beach and start pondering frequency, wavelength, and longshore drift and before you know it your mind starts generating lesson plans.  Teachers are constantly mining personal experiences for ideas to help students connect what they learn to the world around them.

Making these connections is infinitely easier for our students if we are able to take them beyond the confines of the schoolroom. While the majority of us would hesitate to invite our students on summer vacation with us, we work hard to provide real-world, authentic learning opportunities for them. When students embark on a nature walk around the school grounds, enjoy a guest speaker from the local community, experience a well-planned outdoor education trip, or gather data for citizen-scientist programs science concepts come alive in a way that even the best textbooks can never match.

Many teachers are taking this experiential learning a step further and challenging their students to advance beyond experience into action through Place-Based Learning (PBL) opportunities.  The intent of PBL is to bring students’ attention to a community problem, develop partnerships within the community and beyond, and connect students to their environment on an emotional as well as intellectual level. In the process of these investigations, students are learning key science concepts, conducting authentic research, and refining their communication and collaboration skills.

Middle school students at the Global Learning Charter Public School in New Bedford, MA researched animals in the local zoo during a unit on ecology and environmental standards. They shared their reports with the Buttonwood Zoo and that material was later used by the zoo to create conservation signage for zoo patrons. These same students, now in high school, became concerned about plastic pollution in local waterways and did a number of presentations on the  ‘Perils of Plastics” to the school and also the New Bedford community on Save the Planet day at the Buttonwood Zoo. The students have also formed a partnership with the Buzzards Bay Coalition (BBC) to create games and pamphlets to educate the community about the life cycles and local habitats for American Eels.  They continue to help monitor the health of the Acushnet River and present student-designed lessons on water quality and the American Eel at BBC local events and at the zoo.

As shown in the above examples, PBL can have long-term and far-reaching benefits for students, schools, and communities. However, many teachers are hesitant to embark on these projects due to time constraints, pressures from standardized test curriculums, and lack of funding for buses and program fees. They are not given mentors who have used PBL and can often be left to design and struggle with the planning on their own. If teachers are to embrace PBL they need help in doing so.

If you are interested in incorporating place-based learning into your lessons, we suggest that you start small, work with school families and administration, and gradually work to develop ties and partnerships with community members.  Successful relationships with the community are the foundation of successful PBL.  Encouraging students to enter into local and national contests accesses their natural competitive spirit and helps them to develop partnerships with organizations to obtain the resources to address the problems they have identified. For example, to further the American Eels project described above, students successfully applied to Dr. Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program and the school now has two Roots and Shoots clubs on campus.

Steps to Incorporating Place-Based Learning

1) Select a local environmental issue that is interesting and relevant to you, your students, and the community.  

2) Plan an inquiry project for your students that connects the work of the community organization with your standards and their local realities.

3) Identify parents,  local or national organizations that address the issue and connect with them in person and online. Ask them to speak with your students and provide learning opportunities for them.

4) Include an action component in the project plan, i.e. personal change, public awareness campaign, art installation, etc. Some organizations have campaigns or projects already established and will welcome your assistance.

If you have experience with place-based learning, please share your stories and advice for other teachers in the comments below.  

Diana Cost and Elizabeth Orlandi are members of NSTA’s Middle Level Science Teaching Committee.

Cover of the April/May 2016 issue of Science ScopeGet more involved with NSTA!

Join NSTA today and receive Science Scope, the peer-reviewed journal just for middle school teachers; connect on the middle level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server); or consider joining your peers for Meet Me in the Middle Day (MMITM) at the National Conference on Science Education in Los Angeles in the spring of 2017.

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

Future NSTA Conferences

NGSS Workshops

2016 STEM Forum & Expo, hosted by NSTA

2016 Area Conferences

2017 National Conference

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Changing grade levels

5229139935_f4b54c053c_mNext year there will be an opening in the high school science department. Although I love teaching middle school, I’m tempted by the opportunity to try something different and use more of what I majored in (chemistry). What advantages and disadvantages should I consider?—C., New Jersey

Taking on new subjects or grade levels can be exciting and professionally rejuvenating. It can also be a lot of work, almost like starting over.

Continue reading …

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NSTA Legislative Update: Update on ESSA; Good News for STEM and FY2017 Appropriations


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July 14, 2016: Congress is set to adjourn for the summer and will return after Labor Day. Before leaving town though there was a flurry of activity around appropriations for FY2017 programs and career and technical education. And the political drama continues as Education Secretary King answers questions from key Congressional Republicans over implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The good news for STEM: The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has approved a FY2017 Labor HHS and Education spending bill that includes $1 billion for the new Every Student Succeeds Act Title IV block grants.  This amount is $500 million above the President’s budget request and $700 million above the Senate funding ($300m).  The program is authorized at $1.65 billion in ESSA.

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3D Brings Science to Life

Middle school children are inquisitive and enjoy classroom opportunities to learn visually. Subsequently, an option worth consideration is an application of technology known as 3D. It’s similar to the 3D technology that is used in movie theaters and is designed to enhance visualization of pairs of images and gives users a greater sense of depth perception.

For nearly 150 years, stereoscopes have been used for looking at images that depict left-eye and right-eye views of the same object; culminating into a single three-dimensional image.  Subsequently, when viewing the image with special projection hardware and eyewear, a typical stereoscope provides each eye with a lens that makes the image seen through it appear larger and more distant, resulting in the illusion of depth.


Recent Advances in technology have led to much more sophisticated ways of projecting the third dimension.  For example, Data Light Processing (DLP) technology creates a stunning picture and is used in contemporary projectors. DLP technology is extremely fast, and projects two images on the screen at the same time, i.e., one for each eye. As a tool for conceiving the image, 3D glasses are used to combine the two images into 3D and can be purchased from a variety of projector manufacturers, e.g., InFocus, Texas Instruments, etc. Continue reading …

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Write Grant Proposals That Win

A successful grant application can provide you with the funding you need to do exciting new activities with your students. The only problem is that grant writing is an art form of its own. There’s a new NSTA Press book that can help.

Write Grant Proposals That WinBe a Winner! A Science Teacher’s Guide to Writing Successful Grant Proposals by Patty McGinnis and Kitchka Petrova offers practical tips and strategies to help you write winning proposals.

 “As a science educator, you are concerned with the state of science education in your K-12 schools, and you understand the importance of facilitating your students’ science learning through the science and engineering practices identified in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Unfortunately, funds for purchasing materials are not always available in schools, thus requiring you to seek outside funding opportunities. Given the economic situation of many school districts, it is more imperative than ever to master the art of grant proposal writing to secure funds for innovative classroom projects,” write McGinnis and Petrova.

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Water play…exploration…science inquiry

Children at a water table outsideWater explorations are a popular in early childhood programs during the summer. Exuberant water explorations can happen outdoors. The experience of wetness is enjoyable and clothes that get wet accidentally can dry on the child rather than having to be changed. Natural materials such as leaves and twigs can be incorporated into the exploration.

To keep the water experiences enjoyable, meaningful and a powerful learning opportunity, take a look at these resources.

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Managing Communication Channels

3172841858_4f317b12f7_mLast year, I tried improving my communications with students and parents via electronic media. I had lots of responses, but I was being texted, tweeted, emailed, and called on the phone at all times of the day and night. While I want to encourage these communications, I’m looking for ideas to manage them and keep my sanity! —G., Colorado

It sounds like you have a case of “be careful what you wish for….” Many teachers would love to have parents and students contacting them, but I can understand how this can become overwhelming.

In a recent article in Educational Leadership (May 2016)*, Catlin Tucker, an English teacher from California, shared her ideas on “avoiding technology overload.” You may find them helpful as you try to manage communications with the many other responsibilities of a science teacher:

Continue reading …

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How Can Science Teachers Use Examples of Dishonest Science?

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NSTA members ask and answer one anothers’ questions about science teaching every day via the listserv, and the topics are fascinating. The latest question, trending on our NGSS list, focuses on dishonest science. The answers and comments are eye-opening!


“We’re exploring what it means to be principled and show integrity in science and I’m wondering if you know of any famous (or not so famous) NON-examples of integrity in science?  When did dishonesty in reporting data lead to some devastating consequences?  Any insights are appreciated!”

—Sara Severance, 8th Grade Physical Science Teacher, McAuliffe International School, Denver, CO
(question shared here with her permission)
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Solar Panels Enhance STEM Learning

Columbia Water and Light presented a solar energy demonstration to students at Benton STEM Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. Photo Courtesy of Heather McCullar

Columbia Water and Light presented a solar energy demonstration to students at Benton STEM Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri. Photo Courtesy of Heather McCullar

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers and students are acquiring solar panels for their schools to save on energy bills and to educate students about solar power. “The price of solar has plummeted, so it’s more affordable,” says Margo Murphy, science instructor at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine. Murphy serves as advisor for Windplanners, a student club that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a campus wind turbine; “we’re now focused on paying off rooftop solar panels,” she reports. “We have been very active and focused on moving our campus toward becoming…carbon neutral.”

The school acquired its 160-kilowatt system of panels through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with local company ReVision Energy. Under the PPA, for the first six years, “Camden Hills will continue to pay a contracted price to ReVision Energy that is based on the current price paid, but won’t change. [It] will allow ReVision to take depreciation over six years; [it’s a] way for them to maximize their return while also bringing our cost down…We buy their energy for six years, then buy out the whole system in year seven,” Murphy explains. “We [also] determined that if we take out a…loan in year seven from a bank and [repay] it over seven years, we will pay less on the loan than we would on the amount we would have paid ReVision for the power. Continue reading …

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