NSTA conference in Boston: Reflection and making connections Part 1, Th and Fri

I didn’t see the swan boats in the Public Garden or tea in the Harbor, but I did see many things—skylines, modern art, sunrises and fabulous sessions at the conference.

A Boston skyline with moon.Nick Cave's "Sound Suits" exhibit

Sun rays at sunrise in Boston makes an interesting reflection on the building.

I got to use a Smart Pen, talk with other early childhood educators, draw a cricket, and hear inspiring talks.

It has taken me a few weeks to report on the conference as I adapted to only having an iPad and camera at the conference, and a busy family visit soon after. These summaries are from my notes and may not accurately reflect the presentations or the presenters’ views. Don’t delay, go to the Boston conference session schedule while it is still online and download the files from the presentations you attended, or wish you did.

Beginning on Thursday at 8am with “STEM Integration—Don’t Leave a Letter Out!” presented by Shannon K. McManus (Museum of Science: Boston, MA) the conference offered up many sessions addressing the full STEM. We handled and discussed various materials to use in making a wind sail before choosing materials to build a model to test. The activity is suggested for grades 1-5 but we adults enjoyed it as we tested it for its value for our classrooms.

The “ASTC Session: Teaching with Collections: Bringing the Next Generation Science Standards to Life” presented by Wendy Derjue-Holzer and Amy Gunzelmann (Harvard Museum of Natural History: Cambridge, MA), Wendy Hanlon (Atlantic Middle School: Quincy, MA) and Fran Ludwig (Retired Educator: Lexington, MA) had us practice learning through observations and discuss how to apply this to our classrooms. There was a selection of tree twigs to sort, match and identify, and a series of decomposition jars to view—part of an on-going investigation!

Speaker PictureThe keynote presentation by Mayim Bialik from the hit TV series The Big Bang Theory, “The Power of One Teacher,” was affirming. She was upstaged (in advance) by the student who introduced her, Nick Lombardo. He won the honor in an essay-writing contest sponsored by Texas Instruments but he won the audience with his perceptive and very funny comments about science teachers. Although science did not come naturally to Bialik, she was inspired by her biology teacher-tutor on the set of the Blossom TV series who taught her the skill set and gave her the confidence that she could become a scientist. See her speech on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2E5brNOzg8

Exhibit Hall.The Exhibit Hall offered many diversions and I came away with free pens, a few purchases, and admiration for the many organizations supporting science education. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was an exhibitor this year, supporting all the early childhood teachers who teach science along with all other areas.

After lunch, it was easy to stay wide awake as Christina Ryan, a former kindergarten teacher and current independent consultant in Round Rock, TX, presented a Wheelock Pathway Session, “No Hands! Facilitating Meaningful Science Discussions with Elementary Science.” The wonderful video examples of meaningful science discussions in a kindergarten classroom reinforced the ideas she presented about a collaborative scientific classroom community. Christina noted that such discussions were both planned and spontaneous—”When there was an opportunity, we allowed this [discussion ] to happen.” Using Jos Elestgeest’s* ideas in “The right question at the right time,” she found that in her practice too, “A good question is the first step toward an answer; is a problem to which there is a solution.” I wish I could share her video of the moments her students discovered and observed as their iguana laid an egg. Within their excitement they expressed many questions, wonderings and possible answers. Christina noted that there are often way more questions than you can discuss with the entire class and that’s okay. Some you will discuss with just one or a few children, and some “just hang there,” literally, on a Question Wall. They used classroom rules for discussion, including an assigned “inviter” to invite quiet people to speak. This role can be given to children who usually say a lot, allowing others to speak and the child to develop an awareness of sharing the speaking time. The teacher’s task was to be quiet and take notes.

*Elsteeg, Jos. (1985). The right question at the right time. In Wynne Harlen. Primary Science: Taking the Plunge. Oxford, England: Heinemann Educational, 36-46.

Example of questions from a "Wonder and Discover" book.
photo 2Friday morning was too short. By staffing a table at the Elementary Extravaganza session in a ballroom, I did not take time to wander among all the others, learning from the 100+ presenters who provided hands-on experiences along with time to answer questions and share strategies for teaching science concepts. One of the presenters, Carol Ann Brennan of the University of Hawaii: Honolulu, taught us about Wonder and Discover Books. This tool is a way to record children’s unanswered questions that are worthy of later attention. The tool can be formatted in a way that fits your classroom: a student science notebook, computer file, a binder or using a big book format. Each question has its own page for students and teachers to record on, both drawing and writing and photographys, with more questions, clarifications, observations and discoveries. She recommends learning more about how to move from observations to searchable and investigable questions by reading Weiss, Tarin Harrar Weiss’s 2013 article, “Any Questions?” in Science and Children 50 (9): 36-41. Learn more about Elementary Extravaganza presentations by downloading the handouts from the session scheduler—find it quickly by searching for “extravaganza.”

Participants at the Ramps and pathways table in the Elementary Extravaganza test out their ramp design.Ramps attracted much attention.I presented with Beth Van Meeteren of the University of Northern Iowa on “Ramps and pathways,” a physical science and engineering activity that can become an exploration and investigation when children are given time to explore, supportive adults to promote questioning and problem-solving, and time to reflect on what they learned. I loved being able to hear how other early childhood educators use the materials or others in similar inquiries. Experiencing the possibilities ourselves is key to understanding what children can learn from using the materials so I was delighted to have so many participants build, roll, and re-build ramp NAEYC supports early childhood science educators with a table at the Elementary Extravaganza.structures as we talked. We heard from proud sons of mothers who are preschool teachers, engaged children and district science coordinators, and were supported by the adjoining NAEYC table! See the session schedule to download our handouts!

Moving materials from my EE table I missed the Council for Elementary Science International (CESI) session, “Family Science Events—Logistics, Engaging Science, and Parent Involvement” presented by Jim, Jackie Swanson, Kali Remelts, and Jenna Orr, all fromCentral Michigan University: Mount Pleasant, MI. But they generously uploaded files to the conference session schedule for our use. For more resources from CESI, visit http://www.cesiscience.org/

A "sink and float" station at a Family Science Night.“Preschool STEM Family Night: A University, Preschool, and Community Partnership” involved all but the kitchen sink! Or maybe that was part of it too… The first group of preservice early childhood teachers sharing their plans for a preschool STEM family night used the theme “Kitchen Science” with activities using materials that are found in most kitchens, as a way to connect with families and encourage them to continue investigations at home. Thanks to Nicole Glen, Emma Lee Hunt, Allison Mooney and Emily Tuminelli, all from Bridgewater State University: Bridgewater, MA for your presentation.

The second group of presenters created a prezi to present about two community STEM events they organized, one more successful than the other. They outlined the steps and paths they took to create their “Building Family STEM Literacy” events. I appreciate hearing about the pitfalls and problems as well as the wildly successful events. Thanks to Ellen M. Streng and Madison B. Gearhart from Wright State University: Dayton, OH for this fabulous presentation! Their uploaded files include a checklist and activities.

Literacy connections for science learning includes trade books.Books and science investigations support science and literacy learning.Gail Laubenthal and Diana McMillain’s presentation, “Connecting Science Content Using Trade Books!”went deep into and well beyond the title content and introduced us to useful technology. We learned about a game that hones observational skills, “Is this your object?” Beginning with a group of objects, the students are led through a series of clues about attributes to guide them to eliminate objects until they can identify the intended object. The students are encouraged to discuss and defend their choices. For example, in one sort, the teacher provides 5 wooden objects: tree cookie/slice, small rectangular block, large rectangular block, acorn top, and a red wooden cube. The clues are: “It is not rectangular”, followed by “It is not rough.” Then we ask, “What is it? Why do you think that?” An answer: “Red cube, because it is smooth and not rectangular.”

Two apps they suggested are iLapse for recording a series of photos over hours, and ShowMe, a way to show children’s work as they create, using video. They also use the “Big Huge Labs” program online to create inspirational posters using their photos. The Smartpen from LiveScribe helps families connect with their children’s school work during visits to the classroom by recording conversations and dictation that relate to artwork or books. See handouts on session scheduler!

Storykit imageKristen Wendell and Brandon Lee’s presentation, “Creating Digital Interactive Engineering Notebooks in a First Grade Classroom” related how they and their first grade students communicated their Bridge Design Project engineering work using the Storykit app. This app allows students to upload photos, drawings, text boxes and use multiple 1 minute audio recordings to record their work, their thoughts and later reflections and additional student work. The teachers were able to record guiding open-ended questions or comments, allowing them to go beyond the limitations of paper and pencil. They feel that writing in first grade doesn’t allow expression of deep ideas, and invented spelling may further obscure children’s thinking. (Note that to download the StoryKit app, search in the App store for “iPhone only” apps. StoryKit appears as an iPhone-only app, but it does download onto iPads.) But before they launched into their presentation, we got to play, using spaghetti, marshmallows and tape in the tower building activity. Wendell and Lee generously shared the hurdles they faced in trying out this tool in the weekly 40-min “specials” class, the successes and the “oops”. Very inspiring presentation, showing how engineering can fit into a standard first grade curriculum and it is available to download from the session schedule!

Discussion and supportive open-ended questions help participants with an engineering problem.Discussion before action.I got more engineering practice in the “Design it, Explore it!” session presented by Charles Hutchison from EDC, Inc. and Michael Koski of the Fitchburg Public Schools. They reviewed the NGSS engineering design standards for grades 1-5. They described engineering as “magic” because children get involved, get to fail, teachers may learn about the capacities of children who aren’t typically high level learners. We were cautioned that for some children, fear of failure is a huge threshold to cross. Hutchison suggested that when doing engineering design work, give set of constraints up front, ask questions of observation rather than cause, use what and how questions rather than why questions–What do you see? What materials will you use? How will this piece work? What are you trying to make happen?

photo 5 photo 4 photo 3 photo 1 (2)





We got to invent bridges to cross a 8.5″ wide “river” using 4 sheets of 8.5×11″ paper and just a little tape because it is “hugely expensive”, then test its strength with metal washers, pennies, a baggie and a paper cup (only to hold the load). Each group was assigned three jobs: materials person, scout/spy to look at other designs and find other ideas, and reporter. The scout job is important so students will feel comfortable using ideas they get from observing others, something that engineers do but is not promoted in schools.

We discussed what worked and what is a fair way to test the different designs. And the presenters discussed these important parts of the activity: teamwork, an activity that is open-ended with some constraints, including re-design as part of the process, building in failure, not giving answers, giving permission to scout which made it all about making our own design better over time not being the best, and using materials are relatively inexpensive.

Hutchinson and Koski modeled the teacher’s role—they visited each group three to five times for just a few minutes, asked open-ended questions, asked us to stay away from materials while we gave them attention, and avoided judgements. They suggest that if you can interrupt the students before they get finished or bored, they stay involved. One way to have students leave the materials alone during discussions, is to invite all students up to the board to discuss (away from materials). We were urged to prepare, pace, create interest, engage, promote and lead discussions, find conclusions and support sharing. What we did in less than an hour is designed to do over four or more sessions.

I’d love to hear about sessions you found inspiring and worthy of review. Post a comment to spread the word about your own session or that of others. I’ll report on more sessions in my next post.

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  1. Gail Laubenthal
    Posted April 24, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    It was a wonderful conference…I did notice more sessions for Early Childhood teachers, too! It sounds like you were able to attend most of them. I am very impressed! Thanks again for sharing and for giving Diana and me a “shout out” and for sharing your reflections!

  2. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted April 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Gail, I’m working on Part 2. I hope you’ll let the early childhood and science education worlds know whenever you present.

  3. Posted April 29, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the shout-out Peggy. Yes–it was NAEYC’s first time exhibiting at an NSTA Conference. That was a wonderful experience–and we loved the warm reception we got from fellow ECEers at the conference. I also loved being a part of the Elementary Extravaganza (& thanks for the pic of me in the blog!). Wonderful sessions at this conference! I’m looking forward to Chicago next year!

  4. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    It was great fun to work alongside you, Peter. Developmentally appropriate science education got a boost at this conference!

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