Quick Lab and Activity Assessments

I would like to include a rubric when students are completing various labs and activities in science. Could you share any examples?
– A., Iowa

I have found that checklists, in particular, are good assessment tools during a lab. The objective is to quickly assess and record student performance while still monitoring the lab as you circulate the room and answer questions.

Most textbooks and lab manuals include generic checklists and rubrics for assessing lab skills and maintaining safety. Streamline the checklist by incorporating it with a class list. I would often copy checklists on colored paper and carry it around on a clipboard. You can align it with curricular goals by listing the specific learning outcomes. A ‘checklist’ doesn’t have to be tick-boxes – it could be a Likert-type scale or a quick numbering system (as simple as 1-2-3). Incorporate space for comments.

A quick search of NSTA’s The Learning Center came up with a few sample chapters that might be useful:

4Teachers (https://goo.gl/3QHVUa) offers a pretty good checklist generator with some built-in items that you can select, edit, and augment. (After you select the appropriate grade level under the Science heading, check out the option for Experimental Research.) I would even give students the checklists to self-assess after cleanup.

This same website also has an excellent rubric maker: rubistar.4teachers.org. This website revolutionized the way I teach because I could generate an assessment rubric for almost any type of activity I could think of: reports, posters, brochures, public service announcements, videos, and more. I would never have considered doing debates in biology if it weren’t for this website. As for your specific needs: under the Science heading there is a Lab Report item that contains some lab safety assessment options. Group work rubrics can be generated as well.

Hope this helps!

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Discovery bottles: Learning moments for children and adults

“Discovery bottles” are one way to allow children to use small objects without putting them in their mouths. These bottles for open-ended exploration can be constructed to relate to many different science concepts and topics. Other bottles are made expressly for helping children calm themselves as needed. See the Early Years blog post of September 17, 2009 or Sandy Watson’s 2008 article, “Discovery Bottles,” about using bottles filled with different materials as tools for science explorations. (Watson, Sandy. 2008. Discovery Bottles. Science and Children. 45(9): 20-24) Of course there is only “discovery” when children are first playing with the bottles and later when they talk about what they observe and think about it. None of the Discovery Bottles I’ve made have ever held children’s interest for more than a few months. Pass them on to another classroom or child care provider when your children have finished their discoveries.

Child care providers at a professional development session showed how important open exploration also is for adults. I was presenting about using Discovery Bottles to engage infants to eight year olds. I shared examples of using bottles filled with water and objects to play with and roll, and to observe water flow, air bubbles, magnification, color change (looking through colored water), floating and sinking objects, counting the number of objects, identifying shapes of objects, and for soothing oneself. Then each participant made their own to use for a purpose they chose and later described.

One provider and his spouse made a bottle half filled with water and just one cube made from thick art foam. He intended it to be a way to explore the level of a surface, to see how the cube floated when the bottle was laid sideways on different surfaces. Unexpectedly the cube stuck to the side of the bottle when he rotated the bottle, rather than staying afloat in the water. He wondered why the cube stuck there, wondering if static electricity was involved.

The water-filled bottle with a foam cube sticking to the inside and another one sticking to the outside.We talked with the small group at the table, then rubbed the bottle on our hair and tested to see if another cube of art foam would stick to the outside of the bottle. It did not. We talked about how the inside was different from the outside of the bottle and they identified water as being present inside. So he wet the outside of the bottle with water and put a cube onto the wet outside. Since the cube stuck in the water on the outside of the bottle he said he thought it was something about the water that made the cube stick to the bottle. We talked about how water sticks to our hands when we wash them and that children also experience this. There is a word for that phenomenon, “adhesion.” Knowing a word doesn’t help us understand why a phenomenon happens, but it does give us a quick way to talk about it. The ‘why’ can come much later, after children have had many experiences observing the properties of different states of matter and building structures out of many smaller parts, when children encounter the fact that matter is composed of atoms and molecules in middle school.

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A Learning Trajectory for Sensemaking in Science

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer teachers the opportunity to consider teaching science in a new way. We help students engage with, wonder about, and make sense of natural phenomena, which closely resembles how scientists perceive the world and do their work. By observing phenomena, scientists generate questions, predict outcomes, and generalize results to develop shared knowledge. Using NGSS, and with the teacher’s help, students also work to build shared knowledge.

But the NGSS present another opportunity that is nested within shared knowledge-building: the opportunity to teach sensemaking. Because shared knowledge-building is a collaborative effort, it requires students to interact with one another and make sense of one another’s ideas. To productively engage with other students’ ideas for understanding phenomena, students must do three things: Make their own idea clear and comprehensible, understand their classmates’ ideas, and figure out how to compare their ideas.

These tasks are harder than they seem; even adults find them challenging! When a colleague processes a shared experience very differently than you do, consider how hard it can be to regard his or her viewpoint as equally credible as your own.

Our understanding of what others say is heavily influenced by both our expectations and prior knowledge. When students have ideas that are very different from what is expected and what is already known, teachers must provide support so the ideas can be comprehended and considered potentially valid and sensible. Collective sensemaking is particularly challenging for ideas contributed by English language learners (ELLs), or by students with social or cultural perspectives that diverge from the rest of the classroom community. Their ideas may be differently constructed or developed from resources unfamiliar to students accustomed to mainstream white middle-class norms promoted in the classroom. In these situations, teacher supports require more thoughtful and purposeful preparation.

I recommend three processes to help prepare for these sensemaking opportunities:

  1. Send home a science content or phenomenon interview for family
  2. Use Equitable Discourse Tools
  3. Prepare to Dig Into Discourse

Using these processes leads us along a new trajectory for developing increasingly sophisticated sensemaking skills: 1) Seeing others’ very different perspectives as valid, 2) learning how to make use of others’ ideas, and 3) developing sustained and rich discourse stamina.

Send home a science content or phenomenon interview for family (translated if necessary)

As the teacher in the ELL case study in Appendix D of the NGSS, I included the homework assignment to interview a family member about the driving question of the unit, “Is all soil the same?” As an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, I have found these family interviews useful in revealing the high-level thinking that students use but are unable to express in English. They also provide access to the intellectual resources for sensemaking that ELLs will draw from and offer to the rest of the classroom community.

Ever since Luis Moll and colleagues generated the Funds of Knowledge concept to describe the intellectual resources students bring to school from home and community, content-area ESL teachers have been developing ways to access those resources. If a scientific phenomenon is accessible and occurs in daily life, students can engage in high-level discourse with their families in their home language and then share those resources in science class.  

The opportunity and benefits are not just for individual ELL student; they extend to all students in the classroom. When the teacher shares the interviews and ensures they are viewed as valid, the entire class gains access to increasingly diverse resources. In science, however, it can be challenging to ensure these resources from home and community are considered relevant by other students. My solution has been to write the experiences, ideas, and stories shared from home on sentence strips and present them as “evidence.” As a group, we can condense the stories into sentences, and highlight them alongside other evidence we’ve collected in class.

Returning to the example from Appendix D of NGSS, students shared information gathered from their family interviews about soils in different countries. Combined with other sources of evidence, this rich collection from diverse students helped our classroom community understand that soil varies across countries, has different colors and textures, and is made of different materials, and these factors influence what types of plants will grow.

Use Equitable Discourse Tools

As a content-area ESL teacher, I used the talk moves (traditional discourse moves) from TERC’s Talk Science Primer. But I found myself checking off different Talk Moves without using all the ideas to the fullest extent. This unintentionally introduced bias and led students to believe that some ideas were more useful for the community than others. Unfortunately, it was often the same students whose ideas were implied to be “less useful.” For example, if a student was presenting an idea that was unclear or didn’t make sense to me, I tended to emphasize it less because my perspective of success in discourse was based on whether I had satisfactorily delivered the prompt (e.g., Can someone build on that idea?), rather than on the idea’s usefulness to the community. There wasn’t an expectation that all ideas would be useful, but rather that all ideas would elicit a response.

What discourse moves—or what I propose we call Equitable Discourse—do is highlight the potential usefulness of every student idea. The concept of usefulness is an affordance. Each discourse move, in this framework, is a description of the work needed to capitalize on the affordance of a student’s idea. Talk can help clarify, strengthen reasoning, or apply “old” ideas to the new one. Every idea offers affordances for improving the sensemaking underway. By carefully considering how to use every idea, we advance sensemaking, and we begin to grasp how others perceive those science concepts, and how to shape and communicate those perspectives for a deeper and broader understanding of the phenomenon by everyone in the classroom.

Returning to the NGSS Appendix D example, an ELL student shared with the class the idea that black soil might mean that the soil has more water in it. His idea was not clearly understood, and it did not seem to particularly interest the rest of the class. The teachers, of course, thought that it deserved a response, and said, “Ah, yes, very interesting! Who agrees with Mohammad?” But initially, we did not substantially mine the idea.

The student persisted. He was trying to share that wetness could be an important identifiable characteristic of soil. If we had used the barometer of “idea successfully used by the class” as the measure of well-executed discourse, he would not have had to struggle to express himself. I consider this an excellent example of how equitable discourse moves can support class sensemaking, and enrich the knowledge building overall.

One of the equitable discourse moves is to “help student clarify their idea.” Mohammad’s idea—that soil can be wet and that wetness should be noted—didn’t make sense to most of the students because they were used to thinking of “wet vs. dry” as being a temporary characteristic, rather than a characteristic that varies across different types of soil. The discourse move helps us consider “whether or not the idea has been sufficiently clarified for use.” In this process, teachers model for the students the wherewithal and perseverance necessary for clarification, and at the same time, make explicit the skill of self-reflection for “how do I know that the idea is now clear?”

Examining and clarifying the student’s idea, especially because the idea didn’t make sense at first, turned out to be a valuable experience. At the end of the hour, the students remarked that soil as a characteristic of a habitat can be described in terms of wetness, and that this impacts what organisms the soil can support.

Prepare to Dig Into Discourse

Funds of Knowledge resources and the discourse moves are intended to support the teacher in creating an equitable space for conversation or “discourse.” This moves us away from the IRE model, in which —the teacher asks a question, the student answers, and the teacher evaluates——an approach perhaps best termed “guess what the teacher thinks.” We are aiming instead for a rich conversation in which teachers model the scientific practice of sensemaking: Ideas are being offered, considered valuable, evaluated, and then built on or discarded.

I have found that rich discourse happens when we allow sufficient time for thinking and reasoning to occur by and among many students. Most importantly, student ideas should represent a variety of ways to approach the phenomenon, incorporating the diverse intellectual resources that students bring from home and community, as well as classroom-based experiences. By digging deep into a conversation around questions with more than one right answer, students’ ideas can carry the conversation.

Teacher MovesWe are told that our aim with the NGSS is to mirror in the classroom many of the processes and practices that scientists use. But we can enhance some of those real-world practices by employing the processes I’ve described, and by viewing the classroom community and individual students as moving along a sensemaking trajectory in a way that is purposefully supported. Because the scientific community is extremely stratified and not very diverse, and current science may not be representative of broader and more diverse communities, we could be overlooking key questions and missing out on ideas that would foster deeper understanding and innovative solutions for the challenges science undertakes. By enabling our students—our future scientists and decision-makers—to acknowledge, evaluate, and incorporate diverse perspectives, we have an opportunity to build a world that expands and enriches who does science, how science is conducted, and how it is used in the real world.

Emily Miller

Emily Miller is an elementary teacher and was a lead writer for the NGSS Diversity and Equity Writing team. She has taught science as an ESL/Bilingual Resource science specialist at a Title I urban school for 16 years. Miller has used the NGSS in her own diverse classroom and continues to improve and refine teaching to the standards with her students. She is consulting with the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research to develop teacher tools to promote sensemaking and language learning for ELLs in science. E-mail her at emilycatherine329@gmail.com.

Additional Links

Discourse Moves

MacDonald, R.,  E. Miller, and S. Lord. 2017. Doing and Talking Science: Engaging ELs in the Discourse of the Science and Engineering Practices. In Science Teacher Preparation in Content-Based Second Language Acquisition. p. 179-197. Springer International Publishing.





Funds of Knowledge 

Moll, L. C., C. Amanti, D. Neff, and N. Gonzalez. 1992. Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into practice. 31(2), 132-141.


Appendix D


Lee, O., E. C. Miller, and R. Januszyk. 2014. Next generation science standards: All standards, all students. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 25(2), 223-233.

ELL Case Study ELL


Different perspective STEM TEACHING TOOL




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Asking Questions and Defining Problems by Making Cultural Connections

My goal for students in my eighth-grade middle school science class is to enter high school with the absolute certain knowledge that they can “do” science. They know that when presented with the inevitable problems and questions of everyday life, they have strategies to analyze, interpret, and sort evidence to make good decisions. My role is to provide a framework for students to develop those strategies. The NGSS practice of asking questions and defining problems is the first of the techniques I use in my classroom.

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Science for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Like many classrooms around the country, my diverse fourth-grade classroom consisted of regular education students, special education students, English learners, gifted students, students receiving free and reduced-cost lunches, and students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The science and engineering practice of developing and using models affords all students access to science learning.

As one of the writers of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and member of the NGSS Diversity and Equity Team, I became familiar with the research on effective teaching strategies described in NGSS Appendix D. I learned that the effective teaching strategies leverage support of science learning for specific demographic groups. But how could I incorporate all the strategies in my unit and lesson plans for my diverse classroom? Since some strategies overlapped across demographic groups and some students overlapped across demographic groups, I focused on those overlapping strategies (noted in italics in the lesson description below):

  • Promote place-based learning in a community context;
  • Use authentic, relevant activities;
  • Use language to do science, as NGSS practices are language intensive;
  • Provide multiple modes of representation, including both linguistic (i.e., oral and written language) and non-linguistic modes (e.g., drawings, graphs, tables, symbols, equations); and
  • Leverage students’ funds of knowledge from their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

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Ed News: Attracting, Retaining Qualified & Diverse Faculty Is A Prerequisite To Building The Field

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This week in education news, Girls Scouts launch $70 Million STEM initiative; new study reveals that some Latinos believe science education may have a negative impact on the religious faith of their children; the more education that Democrats and Republicans have, the more their beliefs in climate change diverge; Nevada may add math and science requirements to graduate high school; and after school STEM programs inspire kids to keep learning.

Attracting, Retaining Qualified And Diverse Faculty Is A Prerequisite To Building The Field

As we try to digest how to get more women and underrepresented minorities into STEM fields, or really any other type of career, experts often say that one key factor is that students see in themselves a future through the people they look up to. In other words, it’s difficult for a girl from a diverse background to see herself getting into a computer science field, when the demographics of her class and her professor is the complete opposite of anything she’s ever known. Read the article featured in Education DIVE.

Girl Scouts Launches $70 Million STEM Initiative

Girl Scouts of the USA has announced a national fundraising initiative in support of a new program aimed at closing the gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Read the article featured in Philanthropy News Digest. Continue reading …

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folder icon  Safety

7 Safety Guidelines for Guest Presentations

Although guest presenters can offer real-life science experiences to students, they may not be familiar with the safety practices that need to be in place to create safer learning experiences. In October 2012, for instance, two fourth graders were rushed to a hospital during a science demonstration involving dry ice and salt. As part of the demonstration with the science education company Mad Science, students placed items in their mouths, reportedly resulting in corrosive burns in one child’s mouth and throat.

As a licensed professional, the teacher carries the bulk of the legal responsibility with student injuries during a demonstration. Thus, science teachers need to keep safety in mind when planning a guest presentation. The following seven strategies will help teachers prepare for the event and establish safety guidelines and expectations for guest speakers.

1. School policies. Contact school administrators to determine if there are any policies in place governing the use of guest speakers in your classroom or science laboratory.

2. Announce the activity. Let the school’s main office know about plans to have a guest speaker, including the time, date, location, and topic. Also, invite building administrators, the department head, and fellow colleagues to the presentation.

3. Choose a reputable source. Know who you are inviting as a guest. Reach out to colleagues, parents, the local Chamber of Commerce, local colleges, and other reputable resources for guest speakers. Continue reading …

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Sub Plans for Physics

This is my first year of teaching physics and I can’t think of generic substitute plans for this class. Can you suggest some generic/emergency plans that could help me? 
– E., Michigan

One of the hardest things is to wake up knowing you can’t make it to work and you’re now scrambling to provide something for your substitute. Mary Bigelow recently posted an excellent blog post (goo.gl/7ctWKe) on preparing for substitutes. Since your question is specific to physics, I can add a little to her advice.

  • I advise against generic activities to “just keep students busy.” Concentrate on moving your lessons ahead.
  • The Physics Classroom (www.physicsclassroom.com) has free downloadable worksheets along with online tutorials and quizzes that can address almost anything you’re teaching in physics (although I find them a little short on magnetism).
  • The National Science Digital Library goo.gl/wXV3hE has a searchable library of lessons, activities, simulations and more.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an incredible number of videos on all subjects:
    – Multimedia library: goo.gl/aqv2pA
    – NSF YouTube Channel: goo.gl/WZPLmF
    Science 360 videos: goo.gl/hsRAh3

When showing videos, the students shouldn’t see them as a break from learning, particularly when there is a substitute teacher. You should always have some form of follow up or active component. An online search for graphic organizers to respond to videos will give you lots to choose from. Keep these on file.

Hope this helps.

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Ed News: Are Science Fairs Worth All That Trouble?

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This week in education news, a team of researchers is now analyzing whether science fairs help to improve student achievement or interest in science; Best Buy pledges $30 million to dramatically expand its Teen Tech Centers; K-12 students in 30 Long Island school districts are learning to code; teachers would lose $250 deduction for classroom material under new proposed tax bill; a new study finds teachers who are good at raising test scores are worse at making students happy and engaged in school; and OK governor sets goal to increase the number of paid internships and apprenticeships in the state to 20,000 each year by 2020.

Are Science Fairs Worth All That Trouble? Study Seeks Some Answers

It’s something of a rite of passage for middle school students (and parents) to struggle with musical water glasses, baking soda volcanoes, sprouting yams, and red cabbage indicators in the science fair. Surprisingly, we don’t actually know a ton about how (or whether) the fairs help to improve student achievement or interest in science. But thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, a team of researchers is now analyzing a national survey and case studies of more than a dozen schools for clues about how the fairs might help pay dividends for students. Read the article featured in Education Week.

A Corporate Funder Finds a Way to Get Teens Jazzed About STEM and Scales It Up in a Big Way

Best Buy recently pledged $30 million to dramatically expand its 11 Teen Tech Centers to more than 60 in the next three years. The philanthropic arm of the consumer electronics store also plans to extend its internship and professional mentorship opportunities. The expansion is a part of its goal to reach 1 million kids a year by 2020. Read the article featured in Inside Philanthropy.
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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s November 2017 K-12 journals

Looking for lessons that align with NGSS? Teaching NGSS-Aligned Lessons in Science Classrooms has several examples that illustrate three-dimensional learning.

Science & Children – Vocabulary in Context

Editor’s Note: Making Sense of Science Terms: “Making sense of science terms requires selection of appropriate words, identification of strategies that help children connect with the words, and repetitive experiences over time to develop complete word knowledge. How is that accomplished? Through intervention by a teacher who uses a variety of strategies…” such as those in this month’s featured articles.

The lessons described in the articles have a chart showing connections with the NGSS, and many include classroom materials and illustrations of student work.

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 Adaptations of Animals, Amphibians, Chemical Reactions, Dinosaurs, Food Chains, Magnetic Poles, Magnetism, Pendulums, Plant Growth, Plants as Food, Static Electricity

Continue for The Science Teacher and Science Scope
Continue reading …

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