Gardening in schools

14489154692_60d8931d12_mI want to encourage elementary students to spend time outside. We don’t have a lot of funds for field trips, and I think it would be better to have an ongoing project. I also want to involve teachers and students of all grade levels and subject areas, not just science. I’m considering a school garden, but that sounds overwhelming.  —B., North Carolina

It’s hard to believe, but many students don’t know where their food originates (the supermarket??). And many have had no experience growing plants from seeds. (I was surprised when a high school teacher mentioned this, too.) They may never have had the opportunity to dig in the dirt or watch earthworms wiggle their way through soil. The lawns they play on may have been chemically treated to eliminate any interesting diversity of plants and insects. And gardening is a lifelong pursuit. So your idea of a garden could fill many needs.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s been my experience that starting small on projects is important. This should be an enjoyable, ongoing experience, not a chore or burden in which interest wanes after a short time. I worked with teachers who created a school garden, and the following advice is based on their experiences.

Ask some questions before making a commitment to the project:

  • Who else is interested in this project? Be sure the school administrator and maintenance staff are on board.
  • What funding is available for starting and continuing?
  • Where is a good place for the garden? If your school doesn’t have a lot of open ground to turn into a garden, the alternatives could be raised beds, container gardens, or window boxes. Consider the amount of sunlight during the growing season and a water source (if water is not available outside, students will have to carry buckets of water.)
  • Who will prepare the space? Is it secure from vandals or hungry deer? Should the soil be tested? (A recent NPR article describes how to deal with soil that may have been contaminated in the past.)
  • Do you have (or can you get) gardening tools for smaller hands? Are there safety concerns with using tools?
  • How will students with allergies be accommodated? How will the garden be accessible to students with handicaps?
  • What kinds of plants will grow in your geographic location? Can volunteers or summer school classes maintain it over the summer or during breaks?

Visit nearby school gardens and ask about their experiences. Enlist community volunteers: senior citizens, garden clubs, service organizations, parents, master gardeners, state university extensions. In addition to donating materials, time, tools, and funds, their most valuable contribution will be sharing their passion, experiences, and expertise with teachers and students.

Involve students in planning the garden. They may have big ideas, so you’ll have to help them with the scale of the project and with identifying appropriate plants for your region. I’ve seen theme gardens in schools: plants mentioned in stories, butterfly gardens, native plants, pizza gardens (tomatoes, basil or other herbs, onions, peppers), salad bar gardens (lettuce, spinach, radishes, sprouts), or color themes.

A garden will need class time for maintenance. You could rotate classes to care for it or start a gardening club. Using cooperative learning roles (e.g., weeder, waterer, journalist, weather reporter) will streamline the process and help avoid confusion. Keep tools (including gloves) in a central place so that different classes can access them. Be sure that students wash their hands after gardening. Avoid chemicals that might not be safe for children.

Once your garden is established, you can include additional features. This will also keep the project fresh:

  • Attracting birds with feeders or creating a butterfly/bee-friendly garden
  • Adding a water feature such as a pond or birdbath
  • Creating a compost bin
  • Adding benches or tables

The most important feature, however, is what students learn from the experience. Gardening connects with learning goals in science, math, art, physical education, social studies, literature, and writing (particularly journaling). You can incorporate citizen science projects  such as Cornell’s Project Feederwatch and BirdSleuth or Monarch Watch. Your new living laboratory can be the venue for students to investigate questions such as Are insects attracted to different flowers? or What factors influence plant growth?

If this does seem overwhelming, it is possible to do small-scale gardening in containers or on tabletops. My colleagues had students start seedlings in school and take them home as a summer project, including a journal with sketches and photographs.

Search the Internet for “school gardens” for more resources. NSTA blogs and books have described school garden projects, and I’ve created a Resource Collection on School Gardens with articles from NSTA publications.



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NGSS for All Students

graphic showing the NGSS for All Students book cover and a quote from the blog

The Next Generations Science Standards (NGSS) are intended for all students, and that is why the NGSS Appendix D is subtitled: All standards, all students. Science for all students should be at the core of NGSS implementation for those states that have adopted the NGSS and for those that consider adoption.

Science education for all students is imperative, because while traditional minority groups have become the numeric majority, science achievement gaps among demographic groups of students persist. Consider these statistics:

  • 22% of children lived in poverty according to the 2010 U.S. Census. 51% of the school-age population were eligible for free and reduced price lunch in 2013.
  • 45% of the school-age population was a racial and ethnic minority according to the 2010 U.S Census.Racial and ethnic minority students are expected to become the majority by 50.3% in the fall of 2015.
  • 13% of students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2011-2012.
  • 21% of students spoke a language other than English at home according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and English language learners (ELLs) constituted 9% of public school students or an estimated 4.4 million students in 2011-2012.

In short, the latest statistics of the nation’s student population highlights that teaching science for diversity is teaching science for all.

Bring Science to Students

NGSS for All Students book coverThe NGSS have the potential to enable all students to learn science and offers opportunities for diversity and equity by bringing science to students in their local contexts. In his NSTA blog (How to Select and Design Materials that Align to the Next Generation Science Standards; 2014), NGSS physical science writing team leader Joe Krajcik emphasized that “the critical and perhaps most important shift in the NGSS” is blending disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts (i.e., three-dimensional learning) for learners to make sense of phenomena (science) and design solutions to problems (engineering). I would like to add that making sense of phenomena and designing solutions inherently occur in local contexts (e.g., homes and communities) that capitalize on students’ everyday language and experience. As such, three-dimensional learning as the most critical and important shift in the NGSS promotes diversity and equity by situating science in students’ homes and communities. As a result, academically rigorous three-dimensional learning also becomes personally meaningful and socially relevant in local contexts.

Through the NGSS Diversity and Equity Team’s work, intentional and explicit steps are undertaken to attend to diversity and equity issues. Of the 41 members of the NGSS writing team, a subgroup of individuals formed the Diversity and Equity Team. I had the honor of working with this team of classroom teachers who represented diverse student groups, grade levels, geographic regions, and urban/rural/suburban areas. Our team completed four significant tasks: (1) bias reviews of the standards; (2) inclusion of the diversity and equity topic in the appendixes; (3) Appendix D All Standards, All Students: Making the Next Generation Science Standards Accessible to All Students; and (4) seven case studies (for details, see Lee, Miller, & Januszyk, 2014). Appendix D and the seven case studies are available on the NGSS website.

The commitment of the NGSS to student diversity and equity has culminated in our edited book, NGSS for All Students, through the NSTA Press (Lee, Miller, & Januszyk, 2015). The book starts with three chapters by external contributors. Stephen Pruitt expresses his vision of the NGSS to “give every student a choice,” Helen Quinn highlights science and engineering practices for equity by “creating opportunity for diverse students to learn science and develop foundational capacities,” and Andrés Henríquez describes what it took to build policy support for the NGSS with a focus on how the topic of diversity and equity was woven into the NGSS. Considering the commitments of these leaders, it is no wonder that diversity and equity issues are emphasized from the inception of the NGSS. Continue reading …

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Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in Science

Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in ScienceAuthor Richard Konicek-Moran spent years studying and researching children’s alternative conceptions in science and author Page Keeley acquired her passion for improving conceptual understanding using formative assessment tools. They realized that their respective work had so much in common that they decided to put their thoughts and ideas gleaned from their experiences, research findings, and practices into a book that would focus on this important topic: Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in Science.

What Does Conceptual Understanding Mean?

The authors explain it this way:

“Conceptual understanding is very much like making a cake from scratch without a recipe versus making a cake from a packaged mix. With the packaged mix, one does not have to think about the types and combination of ingredients or the steps involved. You make and bake the cake by following the directions on the box without really understanding what goes into making a cake. However, in making the cake from scratch, one must understand the types of ingredients that go into a cake and cause-and-effect relationships among them…. In other words, making the cake from scratch involves conceptual understanding rather than simply following a recipe.”

The book focuses on some key questions: How do we move our students from their present, limited knowledge of certain scientific concepts toward an understanding closer to what scientists now believe and that local, state, and national standards expect? What does current research tell us about building students’ deeper understanding of both science as a process and a set of practices and science as a knowledge base?

Children come to us with own conceptions about what makes the world work. They appear before us with minds full of ideas that they have developed to help them understand, in their own way, what makes the world tick. Their ideas were sufficient and allowed them to function, up to that point, but then in school they are introduced to ideas that may be different from those they held before.

These prior concepts are usually sound enough for a child to be comfortable with them, but we know that broader ideas are more useful and powerful. A student’s ideas are also ingrained and persistent. How in a child, just as in society in general, do these ideas change and become more useful?

Each chapter of the book tackles a specific question:

  • Chapter 1: Teaching Science for Conceptual Understanding: An Overview
  • Chapter 2: What Can We Learn About Conceptual Understanding by Examining the History of Science?
  • Chapter 3: What Is the Nature of Science, and What Does It Mean for Conceptual Understanding?
  • Chapter 4: How Does the Nature of Children’s Thinking Relate to Teaching for Conceptual Understanding?
  • Chapter 5: What Can We Learn About Teaching for Conceptual Understanding by Examining the History of Science Education?
  • Chapter 6: How Is Conceptual Understanding Developed Through the Three Dimensions and Learning Strands?
  • Chapter 7: How Does the Use of Instructional Models Support Teaching for Conceptual Understanding?
  • Chapter 8: What Are Some Instructional Strategies That Support Conceptual Understanding?
  • Chapter 9: How Does Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning Support Conceptual Understanding?
  • Chapter 10: What Role Does Informal Education Have in Developing Conceptual Understanding?

The authors look at the research, the history of science, the thinking, and the dreams that are leading us toward a better way to help children learn science and be active participants in science along with those of us who teach it.

This book is also available as an e-book.

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

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Webinars for K-5 on teaching the NGSS: making sense of phenomena using evidence

NSTA webinar logoThe National Science Teachers Association’s Web Seminars are free, 90-minute, live professional development experiences. Next Generation Science Standards (K-12)(NGSS) were written to include early childhood, beginning in Kindergarten. To learn more about aspects of the NGSS such as, constructing explanations from evidence, making meaning through discourse, and planning a coherent storyline that guides both the teacher and learners in making sense of phenomena, join presenters Carla Zembal-Saul, Mary Starr, and Kathy Renfrew online on:

  • Wednesday, July 22, starting at 6:00 pm Eastern time for the web seminar titled: Teaching NGSS in K-5: Constructing Explanations from Evidence.
  • Wednesday, July 29, starting at 6:00 pm Eastern time for the web seminar titled: Teaching NGSS in K-5: Making Meaning through Discourse.
  • Wednesday, August 5, starting at 6:00 pm Eastern time for the web seminar titled: Teaching NGSS in K-5: Planning a Coherent Storyline.

 You can register today! And stay connected in the summer.Child digging in sand.

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Explore Outstanding Educational Resources: 2015 REVERE Awards Finalists

NSTA Revere Finalists' covers

Each year, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) PreK–12 Learning Group reviews hundreds of educational resources to select the best of the best for the REVERE Awards. AAP has just announced the 2015 REVERE Awards Finalists, and NSTA is pleased to have 10 publications on the Finalists list. Congratulations to the authors of these publications and to NSTA staff members for reaching the final round of 2015’s most prestigious awards in educational publishing! Read on to learn more about these and all the Finalists among this year’s educational resources.

covers of Next Time You See the Moon and Next Time You See a Maple SeedExplore the Finalists in Resources for “Beyond the Classroom”

Author Emily Morgan’s Next Time You See series is designed to inspire elementary-age children to experience the enchantment of everyday objects and phenomena and encourage them to learn more about the natural world. Next Time You See the Moon showcases photos of the different phases of the Moon and key information about why the Moon looks different at various points in time. Download an excerpt of Next Time You See the Moon for a look inside this unique children’s book. Next Time You See a Maple Seed (timely for spring!) is chock full of facts and detailed photos of the mysterious-looking winged seeds that maple trees shed. Young children will learn all about how these fruits of maple trees, called samaras, help disperse seeds and what’s required for seeds to grow into the tall maples we see around us. You can download an excerpt from Next Time You See a Maple Seed for a glimpse at the book’s story of a seed’s journey and growth. Visit AAP’s website to see all the REVERE Awards Finalists in the Beyond the Classroom category.

It's Debatable and Argument-Driven Inquiry book coversExplore the Finalists in Supplemental Resources

What better way to help students see how central science is to understanding and participating in our complex world than to introduce lessons that require them to delve into everyday issues? Dana Zeidler and Sami Kahn’s book It’s Debatable! Using Socioscientific Issues to Develop Scientific Literacy, K–12 can help you bring science to life for students through lessons on topics such as “Should schools charge a ‘tax’ to discourage kids from eating unhealthy foods?” and “Should rare Earth elements be mined in the United States?” Download the free unit “A Need for Speed: Should Speed Limits Be Lowered to Reduce Traffic Fatalities?” for a sample from this collection of lessons. Continue reading …

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What time of day is best for science?

When scheduling science at the elementary level, which is better for students: having science class in the morning or the afternoon? We have always had reading and math in the morning with science and social studies in the afternoon. But now my colleagues and I are wondering if there are better ideas. —H., Maryland

When I was involved in a reading project and visited classrooms of participating teachers, it was common for reading and math to be scheduled in the morning. The thought was that students would be fresher and more focused for these “skill” subjects (and we all know these are the tested subjects!). But like you I wondered if science, social studies, art, and music would also benefit from this perceived early morning freshness and focus.

This topic was discussed in a recent NSTA discussion forum, too. Some contributors noted that the morning was better for science because students were more alert, while others suggested that the hands-on, interactive nature of science investigations were perfect for the afternoon hours.

In addition to the time of day, another consideration would be the quality of the science lessons. A thought-provoking investigation, project, or discussion may engage students whatever time of day, while a worksheet or lecture may turn kids off no matter when it happens.

It would be interesting to see formal research studies on the optimal time of day for learning in different subjects. Assuming your administrators are cooperative, you and your colleagues have an opportunity to conduct your own action research on the topic. By analyzing and reflecting on data from your own classrooms, you can develop effective strategies for your students.

Action research models generally have several components, which I’ve annotated with some thoughts about your question:

  • Identify and fine-tune a focus area or research questions. How does the time of day affect learning in science? Some other related questions could include: Do some students perform differently in science depending on the time of day? Is there any difference in terms of gender, age, or type of activity?
  • Design a strategy and collect data. Set up a schedule in which students have science some days in the morning and other days in the afternoons. If other teachers are interested, you could expand the study to include other grade levels or subject areas. Note the kind of activity being done (investigation, group work, paper-and-pencil activity, simulations, video, etc.) and observe the students as they work. Describe their engagement in the activity. Describe their physical activity and their conversations. Summarize the types of conversations students have. Use formative evaluation strategies to check on the content and skills students are learning.
  • Analyze and interpret the data. Examine your observations. Look for patterns and differences. Does there appear to be a difference in assessment scores between the two time periods? Are there differences in the level of student engagement and types of student interactions? You’ll also want to debrief with the students on their perceptions, insights, or feelings about the switch in schedule.
  • Develop an action plan. Depending on your results you may decide to stay with your current schedule, change it, or have an alternating schedule. Making any changes should involve your administrator and an awareness of how “specials” are scheduled. You could also study ways to fine tune the scheduling. For example, in the discussion forum, a teacher noted when science was scheduled first thing in the morning or right after lunch or recess, it helped students to refocus if the teacher did a read aloud on the topic before starting the activity.

I’m glad to hear that your school does schedule science every day! In many elementary schools, science and social studies appear to be less emphasized, in favor of reading and math. Students are losing an opportunity to use and apply what they learn in math and reading to other content areas. And most students really enjoy science.

More on the action research process:


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Students Collaborate Worldwide on Science, Engineering

A student at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, holds up a prototype rechargeable lantern for inspection by collaborating students at the CHAT House in Uganda via Skype. Photo courtesy of Heidi Hood

A student at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, holds up a prototype rechargeable lantern for inspection by collaborating students at the CHAT House in Uganda via Skype. Photo courtesy of Heidi Hood

 It’s an international effort that may be unique: Students in the United States and Canada are working together to design 3D–printed, portable, battery-powered, rechargeable lanterns that students in Uganda and the Dominican Republic, who do not have reliable access to electricity, will field test. This isn’t an act of charity, it’s a “global collaboration to use kids’ unique talents and technology to make the world a better place,” says Tracey Winey, media specialist at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“The premise of the program is everybody has different talents,” she continues. “It’s not one group serving another. Each [group] is contributing unique talents to make a successful program. We have laid a foundation that everybody’s voice is important.”

The groups include students at Preston Middle School; Riverview High School in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada; the Care and Hope through Adoption and Technology (CHAT) House in Uganda; the Dominican Republic; and Pheasey Park Farm Primary School and Children’s Centre in Walsall, United Kingdom.

At Preston Middle School, students in the One Million Lights Club visit Winey’s media center before and after school and during lunch to work on the project. Along with Winey and John Howe, the school’s vice principal, they have Skyped with CHAT House students to learn more about their particular needs for the portable lights and shared their designs with the Riverview students. The CHAT House students also will field test the lights designed and built in Colorado. Winey says the CHAT House students will check the circuits to make sure they work and track how long the lights last, how many cranks are needed to charge the battery for how many minutes of light, whether the light is strong enough, how long batteries must be plugged into solar panels to be fully charged, and more. Their feedback will help the Preston students improve their designs.

“One byproduct [of the project] is light, but another is to foster global collaboration…[while] creating philanthropy in our kids,” explains Winey. “Our kids learn so much content through this program. This isn’t a class; my kids come before school, after school. Kids are motivated because they are curious and they know their work matters.” Continue reading …

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NSTA’s K-12 April/May Science Education Journals Online

journal covers

Stability and change; gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data; and science for all—these are the themes of the April/May 2015 journal articles from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Browse through the thought-provoking selections below and learn more about the power of water, what happens when an environment changes, using authentic data, myths about English Language Learners, and other important topics in K–12 science education.

Science and Children

April/May 2015 cover of Science and ChildrenWhile stability and change are phenomena that we deal with frequently within many science concepts, they are rarely pointed out or emphasized. This issue of Science and Children offers ideas for helping students identify when they recognize these elements within the investigations and when it is appropriate to use these terms.

Featured articles (please note, only those marked “free” are available to nonmembers without a fee):

Science Scope

April/May 2015 cover of Science ScopeGathering, analyzing, and interpreting data are at the heart of doing science. In this issue we offer a variety of activities you can use with your students to engage them with real-world data as they explore different science topics. We hope they will help your students make better sense of the world around them.

Featured articles (please note, only those marked “free” are available to nonmembers without a fee):

The Science Teacher

April/May 2015 cover of The Science TeacherThis issue of The Science Teacher marks our 20th consecutive annual issue devoted to the theme of “Science for All.” Teaching strategies targeted toward a specific group almost always turn out to improve learning for all groups. And so, when this issue suggests ways to use quality graphics to support English language learners or provides ideas for using videos to engage reluctant readers, you will also discover ideas that work for all students who struggle to read science texts. Likewise, in an article describing strategies to support students with weak executive functioning skills, you will find ways to improve all your students’ organization, planning, and self-regulation abilities. High-quality teaching strategies like those in this issue benefit students well beyond the targeted groups.

YouTube fans, watch high school science teacher and TST Field Editor, Steve Metz, introduce this month’s issue.

Featured articles (please note, only those marked “free” are available to nonmembers without a fee):

 Get these journals in your mailbox as well as your inbox—become an NSTA member!

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Building with Blocks: Exploring stability and change in systems

In my neighborhood, flowing rainwater from rooftops and yards is making a small gully in the hillside before it runs into the street and goes into the storm sewer. The hillside used to be just a grassy slope. As the original bare patch deepened, roots and rocks became visible in the soil. I wondered what changes in the neighborhood made this happen? The neighborhood is a system of surfaces where rain falls and flows off on its way to the river—roof tops, downspouts, drainage pipes to direct the water, trees, grass yards, garden slopes, sidewalks and roads. What changes in this system led to the erosion of the hillside?

Maybe your children can see the changes made by rain or wind in their local environment. Observing these changes can help us think of our neighborhood and environment as a system. “A system is an organized group of related objects or components that form a whole. (NRC 1996).”

Child at the block shelf where blocks are sorted by shape.A common and simple system that children work with in early childhood programs is the structure they build from blocks. Teachers have a role in supporting children’s work in block building. Professional organizations that support teaching science, The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), provide some resources (some at no cost) to help us understand Cover of journal, Young Childrenhow to maximize children’s learning in the block area. The topic of the March issue of Young Children is “Blocks: Great Learning Tools From Infancy Through the Primary Grades.” Two of the articles available to non-members address block building in preschool: Building Bridges to Understanding in a Preschool Classroom: A Morning in the Block Center by Lea Ann Christenson and Jenny James, and Using Blocks to Develop 21st Century Skills by Karen Wise Lindeman and Elizabeth McKendry Anderson.

Susan Friedman, Executive Editor of Digital Content at NAEYC, reminisced about the materials on the block shelves in her first classroom on the NAEYC blog—add your comment to describe your block area and how the children use it. Continue reading …

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Reviewing during a unit

Do you have any suggestions on how to help students review and apply what they learn during a unit? I’ve tried creating games and contests, but the students don’t seem to get much out of them.   —C., Minnesota

Many teachers have special review sessions prior to a test. With my middle and high school students, I found a few issues with this practice:

  • Some students became so dependent on reviews that they would say, “I was absent for the review session. Do I have to take the test now?”
  • The traditional games often focus on factual knowledge or vocabulary, even though the assessments had items that required higher-level thinking.
  • The games and other activities took time to create, find, or adapt, and I was the one doing this. The students had little ownership in the review process.
  • Even though the students enjoyed the games, they didn’t always realize that the purpose was to reinforce their learning or apply the concepts.

So I changed my plans to incorporate periodic review sessions, rather than a marathon one at the end of the unit. Here are some review activities that involved students, seemed to be most helpful for them, and did not take a lot of planning time.

Continue reading …

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