Making NGSS Storylines Work

I had eagerly anticipated a session at the NSTA National Conference in Atlanta called How Do We Make NGSS Storylines Work by Pushing Students to Go Deeper?—presented by Michael Novak and Brian Reiser—and I was not alone: Attendees filled the room to overflowing. I was fortunate to have worked with Novak and Reiser when I was a science coordinator in Vermont, and I was excited to learn more at their session. I was not disappointed. My understanding of how storylines can deepen student understanding of science continues to grow, and this session was valuable because it further enhanced my knowledge.

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Scaffolding the Crosscutting Concepts: Graphic Organizers in Action in the Middle School Classroom

The crosscutting concepts have great potential to help students connect their learning across grade levels and science disciplines, but they can easily become the forgotten “third dimension.” Last May, we wrote about developing a set of graphic organizers that help make the crosscutting concepts explicit for students and scaffold their thinking as students apply the crosscutting concepts to scientific phenomena. At the recent NSTA National Conference in Atlanta, we were excited to share the experiences of middle school teachers who piloted the graphic organizers with their students. You can find our presentation materials on the Conferences section of NSTA’s website (search any of our last names), or click here. In the following paragraphs, each teacher shares a brief reflection on her experience.

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Using Primary Sources as Anchoring Phenomena

I think the best part of attending NSTA’s national conferences is having the opportunity to learn so much from every person you meet. The sheer number of so many likeminded educators in one place can seem overwhelming, but the opportunity to learn from them all is one that can’t be missed.

After leaving the 2017 NSTA National Conference in Los Angeles with so many strategies to implement in my classroom, I decided to share about the new strategies I had incorporated in my classroom. I chose to discuss my use of historical primary sources in the science classroom; specifically, how they could be used as anchoring phenomena in an NGSS classroom.

My session, Using Primary Sources as Anchoring Phenomena, was inspired by my participation in the Library of Congress (LOC) Summer Teacher Institute in 2015. The LOC suggests using primary sources in education because they engage students, develop their critical-thinking skills, and help them construct knowledge. Since attending the Summer Teacher Institute, I have become much more familiar with the NGSS.

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Cultivating Every Child’s Curiosity in the Natural World

At the NSTA National Conference in Atlanta, I was honored to give the Mary C. McCurdy lecture on young children and their natural curiosity about how the world works. Anyone who has ever spent time with them knows they are born scientists who are curious about the natural world and continuously question, test, and try to make sense of it. Research studies bear this out: “All children bring basic reasoning skills, knowledge of the natural world, and curiosity, which can be built on to achieve proficiency in science” (see Taking Science to School, NRC 2007).

Carla Zembal-SaulWhy, then, do young people become so disinterested in science, often by the time they reach middle school? Even Albert Einstein observed, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” Who am I to correct Einstein, but this statement could be modified to say it’s a miracle when curiosity survives formal education. How then do we preserve children’s natural sense of wonder in an era of new standards and change in science education?

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and the Framework on which they are based, describe an ambitious vision for students’ science learning. Three-dimensional science learning–learning core ideas and crosscutting concepts by engaging in scientific and engineering practices–has major implications for traditional curriculum, instruction, and assessment in science. Because NGSS is intended to reflect scientists’ and engineers’ authentic work, it fundamentally serves as a vehicle for promoting curiosity about phenomena. Focusing on phenomena isn’t merely a way to generate interest and excitement, it also should elicit students’ wonderings in ways that produce an overarching question to guide investigation; create a persistent need to explain/understand; and require sustained investigation (STEM Teaching Tool #28). In other words, an emphasis on phenomena and 3-D learning should by their very nature cultivate curiosity about how the world works.

In this post, I identify two common practices in elementary school science that interfere with children’s curiosity, coupled with instructional practices that nurture wonder. As you read, I encourage you to reflect on your own science teaching and share the work you do to nurture children’s innate curiosity about the natural world.

Shifts in Science Teaching Practices That Support Wonder

teacher and studentIt is commonplace in many school settings to pre-teach vocabulary before engaging in investigations and sensemaking. I have referred to this as “the vocabulary dilemma.” As I worked closely with teacher colleagues, I observed that teaching vocabulary by defining terms appears to stem from traditional ELA instruction and the pressures of high-stakes testing. The practice works against curiosity by focusing on pre-defined terms, which are decontextualized, and represents science as little more than a static body of facts. When taught this way, the focus is on reading, writing, speaking, and listening “about” science.

So what is the alternative? Tying words to meaning requires engaging with and investigating phenomena while accepting “kid talk” until the point in the sensemaking process that children have enough experiences and emerging understanding of the core idea(s) that it makes sense to introduce the scientific term(s). For example, rather than defining force at the beginning of a unit, allow children to explore a variety of forces. Resist introducing the term until they have enough experiences to make the connection between the word and its meaning in context.

This may sound simple, but resisting the urge to explain and define vocabulary during the act of teaching requires intentional planning for opportunities for children to participate in sensemaking: reading, writing, speaking, and listening “for” science (NRC 2014). Remember that NGSS implementation requires a phenomena-based context in which students themselves are interested and motivated to investigate, explain, and understand.

My next example of common practices that inhibit children’s natural curiosity may surprise you. It’s hands-on activities, something a teacher colleague calls “snacks and crafts” science. It is deceiving because when kids are doing activities, they appear to be engaged and having fun. So how does “activity-mania” counteract a sense of wonder? When taught in this way, science may indeed be exciting; however, an activity focus is often driven by science topics or themes and does not build toward a coherent science content storyline (Reiser 2013).

Additionally, collections of fun activities rarely involve students in scientific practices, such as modeling, arguing from evidence, and constructing explanations. Kids may find out “about” cool science facts or see “flash bang” demonstrations, but they are not participating productively in scientific discourse and practices that are essential for sensemaking. So children’s excitement about activities tend to wane as the activity concludes instead of persisting across a unit of study, driven by students’ need to explain and understand some aspect of how the world works.

Carla Quote

As we progress in the hard work of NGSS implementation, it is important to consider that we have all been rendered novices in some way by the ambitious new vision for students’ science learning. In the end, however, teachers are the ones left to enact the instructional practices that support this vision, often in the isolation of our own classrooms. Change requires us to be curious, not only about the NGSS, but also about how children learn and how our instructional practices impact their learning.

Additionally, we must be willing to share what we find as we engage in inquiry into science teaching and learning with others. In her book A Sense of Wonder, marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson describes her wish for every child as an indestructible sense of wonder that lasts a lifetime and protects from the disenchantment that comes with age. My wish for you as an educator is that you, too, will never lose your sense of wonder.

I welcome feedback on your experiences with making these challenging shifts away from pre-teaching vocabulary and activity-mania to tying science words to meaning, and using phenomena to promote coherence across investigations. Please comment below…

Zembal-SaulCarla Zembal-Saul is a professor of science education and the Kahn Professor of STEM Education at Penn State University. A former middle school science teacher with a background in biology, she is co-author of the book What’s Your Evidence? Engaging K–5 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science. Zembal-Saul’s research investigates instructional practices and tools that support preservice and practicing elementary teachers in engaging children productively in scientific practices and discourse with an emphasis on sensemaking about natural phenomena. She is deeply invested in practitioner inquiry and video analysis of practice as mechanisms for advancing teacher learning and development. In 2015, Zembal-Saul was recognized as a NSTA Fellow, and she served on the National Academies of Sciences consensus panel that produced the report, Science Teachers’ Learning: Enhancing Opportunities, Creating Supportive Contexts.

This article was featured in the April issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to access other articles from the April issue. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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

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Ed News: Amid Walkouts, Charter Fight, Kentucky Commissioner Forced to Resign

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This week in education news, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt resigns under pressure from the Governor and State Board; a new report from Achieve includes criteria states can use to develop NGSS tests; women who watched The X-Files pursued more careers in STEM; and a wrap on the 2018 March for Science.

Amid Walkouts, Charter Fight, Kentucky Commissioner Forced to Resign

Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, an affable former science teacher who led the state through an upending of its school accountability system, dramatic budget cuts, and  teacher walkouts over pensions, abruptly resigned under pressure Tuesday . . . “Despite the outcry of tens of thousands of Kentuckians, today Gov. Matt Bevin continued his offensive against public education, this time through proxies and behind closed doors,” Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Wikler said in a statement. “Dr. Stephen Pruitt has been a strong and effective champion for our students and public schools. Forcing an honorable and highly qualified man to resign from his position without any cause is contrary to the best interests of students across the commonwealth.” 

Achieve Gives Guidance to States on Developing Well Rounded Science Assessments

Recently released criteria from Achieve can be used by states to develop NGSS grade-level tests. Finding success, a new report advised, will require states becoming sticklers in three areas: using “intentional design”; supporting design decisions and rationales through evidence; and reflecting more comprehensive learning goals.

Women Who Watched ‘The X-Files’ Pursued More Careers In STEM

When The X-Files premiered in 1993, FBI agent and medical doctor Dana Scully was unlike any other woman on television. Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, was equal to, and not just the sidekick of, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). She was sharp, resilient, fiercely intelligent, and working a career that most women hadn’t seen themselves in onscreen. The idea of women becoming interested in the scientific field as a result of Scully has been known for years as “The Scully Effect”–and now there’s data to back it up.

The Second March for Science a Smaller Affair

Far fewer came out to support the April 14 March for Science than last year’s estimated 100,000 attendees.

Stay tuned for next week’s top education news stories.

The Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs (CLPA) team strives to keep NSTA members, teachers, science education leaders, and the general public informed about NSTA programs, products, and services and key science education issues and legislation. In the association’s role as the national voice for science education, its CLPA team actively promotes NSTA’s positions on science education issues and communicates key NSTA messages to essential audiences.

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

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The Wow Factor

What are some activities that I can plan for the next school-year of science with that will excite my students for the lessons to come?
— C., Arkansas


There are a host of demonstrations and hands-on activities that can impress a class and start off the year with a real rush! Try conducting quick science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) challenges using drinking straws and tape that get students moving the first day and teach teamwork. Break the class into small teams to build something. For instance, each team can be responsible for one part of a tower that will be built in half an hour. In 30 minutes stop and assemble all the pieces into a monstrous structure!

Discrepant events are also exciting and thought-provoking. Find ones that match your curriculum but be sure to test them out before demonstrating them. Alternatively, provide groups of students with simple discrepant activities and have them try to explain them to the class. The Brain-Powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events series by Thomas O’Brien (published by NSTA Press) features a multitude of discrepant events.

Give teams several science brain-teasers and demonstrations and tell them that if they can adequately explain them all you will give their team an A for the entire course on the first day! Obviously make these too hard, but the students will be excited and they will argue with you about what the correct explanation is!

Hope this helps!

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Equity & Access — Policies and Best Practices for Science Educators

The Multicultural and Equity Committee is rolling out a new NSTA blog on topics of equity. The intent is for the blog to allow readers to discuss and highlight policies and best practices that promote and sustain educational equity for all students.  We also hope the blog will provide a place where readers can share ideas, and stay connected with topics, resources and events related to equity.

We will use the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education to help contributors to the blog showcase resources and strategies that focus on diversity of the stakeholders in science education. We hope the blog will provide a platform to discuss the challenges and meaningful solutions related to the allocation of time, resources and expertise needed to create space for educators to authentically engage all students.  Ultimately, we hope that our blog posts will work to foster environments that address systemic inequities, eliminate educational barriers, and will afford access and equity for all students.

Let us hear from you! Do you have an equity-related question or a challenge you would like to see addressed in this blog? What resources, policies, and strategies do you find effective? Are you interested in writing for this blog?  Email us at or

Natacia Campbell is Chair of the NSTA Committee on Multiculturalism and Equity in Science Education.  She is with Joliet Public Schools District 86. Meg Delgato is Academic Chair, College of Education for St. Petersburg College in Florida, and a member of the NSTA Equity Committee.

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

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s April 2018 K-12 journals

Regardless of what grade level or subject are you teach, as you skim through the article titles, you may find ideas for lessons that would be interesting for your students or the inspiration to adapt/create your own.

For example, there are definite overlaps between the lesson ideas in Citizen Science and Real-World Connections. Many citizen science projects are appropriate for both elementary and secondary classrooms.

And take a look at NSTA’s online journal Connected Science Learning for more real-world and citizen science projects.

Science & Children – Citizen Science

Editor’s Note: Citizen Science “Citizen science opportunities provide real-life experiences that link what students are doing in school to what is happening in the world. They can feel a part of the effort to increase our knowledge about topics that impact their lives. This can be rigorous science reflecting what scientists do while also building solid disciplinary core ideas in the sciences…Students feel empowered with the ability to make a difference through citizen science projects and as a teacher you will likely to feel empowered as well.”

The lessons described in the articles have a chart showing connections with the NGSS and many include classroom materials, illustrations of student work, and photographs of students at work. They also include contact information on the Citizen Science projects used in the lessons.

  • In addition to describing their community water quality project, the authors of Water Warriors note that “place-based environmental education and citizen science clearly work in conjunction to strengthen each other. The mix of student engagement and content mastery, while working with community partners, produces experiences that impact students’ lives for years to come.”
  • Formative Assessment Probes: Uncovering Students’ Ideas About Watersheds would be a way to assess students’ prior knowledge before starting a water-quality project.
  • Real Science in the Palm of Your Hand provides a framework to help teachers use citizen science resources for meaningful science learning in the three NGSS dimensions. (Take a look at a student project, too)
  • Fourth graders mentor first graders through a project in Tracking Nature With Technology. The students participated in a bioblitz to study the diversity of the schoolyard using technology to record and send observations and photographs.
  • Nurturing Local-to-Global Thinking demonstrates a multi-disciplinary activity in which third-graders combined environmental science, geography, reading, technology, and data analysis in comparing local and faraway places.
  • Given A Global Perspective, students collect local soil samples as they share their own data, ask questions, and analyze data from different parts of the world.
  • The Early Years: Introducing Children to Phenology has suggestions for experiences in which younger students make observations and collect data about their environment using cameras, drawings, and simple arithmetic. (Phenology–the scientific practice of observing and collecting information on the timing of life cycle changes in plants and animals)
  • In addition to recommending trade books, Teaching Through Trade Books: Beneath Our Feet has two lessons (Engineering a City K-2) and Sketching the Sea Floor (3-5) that help students understand how changes on Earth occur over time and how humans have an impact on Earth systems.

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 Biodiversity, Buoyancy, Conduction Convection and Radiation, Dynamic Earth, Heat and Temperature, Insects, Ocean Floor, Polar Climates, Soil, Soil and Climate, Water Erosion, Water Quality, Watersheds

Continue reading for Science Scope and The Science Teacher

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From Vision to Reality: Making the NGSS Come Alive in Every Classroom

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are ushering in an exciting new era of science education where three-dimensional learning integrates core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts to deliver an education that prepares today’s students to become “effective, rational thinkers able to contribute to (and cope with) our complex and constantly changing societies,” writes Bruce Alberts in the foreword to NSTA’s new book, Preparing Teachers for Three-Dimensional Instruction.

Alberts, who serves as the Chancellor’s Leadership Chair for Science and Education at the University of California, San Francisco and is the President Emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences, acknowledges that the NGSS require substantial shifts in the way preservice science teachers are trained as well as to the professional development practicing science educators receive so that science educators can empower their students to become effective problem solvers who make wise decisions for ‘themselves, their families, and their nation.”

While the book’s primary audience is preservice education teachers, science education faculty and practicing K-12 science educators will also benefit from reading it. The instructional practices that K-12 science educators are using to unlock the vision behind the NGSS as well as the shifts being made to the entire field of science education—by higher education science faculty, science teachers, teacher education faculty, and others—are showcased in this book.

Five major sections organize the book’s 18 chapters which are written by outstanding classroom teachers and science educators at all levels:  

Section 1

Shifts in Teacher Knowledge and Practice: Models of Teaching to Meet the Intent of the NGSS

Some of the nation’s most outstanding science teachers share how they are using three-dimensional strategies in their classrooms as they transition their teaching of science from inquiry to science as practice. NGSS-aligned curriculum planning and methods of assessment are also addressed in this section.

Section 2

Professional Development Strategies That Support the Implementation of the Framework and the NGSS

Examples of professional development strategies to help K-12 science teachers address specific subject matter as well as proven instructional activities that promote critical thinking and depth of understanding are covered in this section.

Section 3

Teacher Preparation Courses for Preservice Teachers

The nation’s future science teachers need to be equipped with the knowledge and tools to design lessons, assessing students, implement strategies, and evaluate outcomes. This section discusses ways higher education faculty are supporting future teachers’ understanding of three-dimensional learning by giving them opportunities to build capacities and demonstrate their knowledge as they construct explanations, analyze and interpret data, develop models, and engage in argumentation from evidence.

Section 4

Undergraduate Science Course for Preservice Science Teachers

Future science teachers cannot embrace the paradigm shift called for by the NGSS if they have never seen models of context and content in their undergraduate science courses as well as in their teacher education preparation programs. Higher education instructors, in this section, describe some of the changes they made as well as the challenges they have encountered in revamping their teaching techniques.

Section 5

Epilogue: Three-Dimensional Instruction Beyond the Classroom

Teachers know that it takes business-education partnerships to ensure that K-12 students are obtaining the skills and knowledge they need for success in higher education and the workplace. This section explores the work of East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) Center of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education as well as ETSU Northeast Tennessee STEM Hub. Guidance is also provided in this section for leaders to use in forming new partnerships, establishing shared goals, and encouraging ongoing contributions to meet those shared goals.

Book editor Jack Rhoton, in the preface, acknowledges the “daunting, complex, and time-consuming task” of fully implementing the vision of the NGSS.

“There is no magic wand for achieving the vision. Instead, educators will need to apply a variety of approaches and efforts over an extended period of time. We believe that the contents of this volume will serve as a motivating resource for the science education community that helps them to harness skills, expertise, and passion as they look to revitalize science instruction.”

Read the free sample chapter to learn how the authors engaged preservice teachers in evidence-based augmentation and helped them assess their own science content knowledge, augmentation skills, and ability to plan instructional activities centered on augmentation.

Making the vision of the NGSS come alive in every K-12 science education classroom will take more than teachers just reading the new standards and aligning their content to the curriculum. This book supports students in becoming true practitioners of science by supporting the transition away from formulaic classroom instruction that far too many students continue to experience.

This book is also available as an e-book.

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Homework Conundrum

A colleague and I were wondering what type of homework works best for our students? How do we hold them accountable?
— N., California


In general, you have to be flexible and adapt to your classes. Different courses, units, and students will create different conditions for homework to be useful. Topics like balancing equations, math/physics word problems, genetics crosses, and others that follow an algorithm require practice and repetition. Projects that require more time than you can afford in class also can be done at home. Give students time in class to get their feet wet in a topic while you are there to provide support. This time is critical to ensure that the students understand what they are taking home and that you know where they are in their understanding.

Varying your approach will keep students on their toes. You can sometimes just do a check, other times collect homework papers and grade them. I often asked students to pull out their homework and I just walked around, giving them a small mark for completion. I might even give them partial credit for partially completing homework!

There are some concerns with work completed outside of class: students may copy from others; parents or siblings may ‘unteach’ your lessons; and students may have little free time outside of school. To mitigate these concerns, I rarely gave daily homework and almost never asked for work to be done in one night. This reduced pressure to copy, allowed students to plan around activities and time to ask me questions.

Hope this helps! 


Photo Credit: Tony Alter from Newport News, USA

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