Keep PD sessions focused

Recently, there was a question about what to do when students were off-task. I conduct many professional development programs, and I could use some ideas to keep adult participants on-task! —T., Virginia

As a presenter, it’s frustrating to see participants grading papers, texting, or reading the news. But in all fairness to our colleagues, their inattention may stem from experiences with compulsory professional development (PD) sessions that were “sit ‘n’ git,” conducted by drop-in presenters who were not familiar with the school’s culture, had no teacher input into the content, or held afterschool when everyone was tired.

I shared your question with a colleague with whom I have held many PD sessions. We agreed that in addition to well-planned content, it is important to engage the participants with effective strategies they can apply in their classrooms:

  • Greet participants as they come in, making a personal connection. Share a summary of your own classroom experiences during the introduction to establish rapport.
  • Describe the purpose and goals of the session. Ask what the participants what they would like to get from the session. Record their responses and debrief the list at the end.
  • Avoid trivial ice-breakers, especially if the teachers already know each other. Instead, use bell-ringers, such as responding to a focus question or a brief reading. Refer to their responses during the session.
  • Provide an agenda, indicating when there will be breaks to check e-mails or texts. Start and end the session on time.
  • Move around and make eye contact.
  • Use gallery walks or turn-and-talk for sharing ideas.

Relax and realize, as an administrator told me, some people aren’t happy unless there’s something to complain about. One of our workshops was rated low by a participant because “I don’t like tomato on my sandwich” that was in a provided lunch.

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Ed News: What The Latest Assaults on Science Education Look Like

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This week in education news, Bill Nye thinks Pruitt and DeVos are the least qualified people for their agencies; science advocates double down on their outreach attempts; some teachers may be misleading students about climate change; Trump signs executive order reviewing federal role in education; Alabama is changing how it teaches science; and researchers debate how educators and policymakers can better understand what influences teacher shortages from state to state.

What The Latest Assaults On Science Education Look Like

Each year, anti-science education legislation is introduced in state legislatures around the country — and, in a few cases, has been passed. So what is an anti-science education bill — and how many have been introduced in 2017? Click here to read the article featured in the Washington Post.

Bill Nye: Pruitt, DeVos ‘The Least Qualified People On The Planet’ For Their Agencies

Bill Nye the “Science Guy” is taking aim at President Trump’s Cabinet picks, singling out Environmental Protection Agency Administrator (EPA) Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as “the least qualified people on the planet” to head their agencies. Click here to read the article featured in The Hill.

After The March: Science Advocates Prepare For A ‘Marathon’

The March for Science brought tens of thousands of science supporters into the streets of Washington, D.C., and to around 500 satellite marches around the world on Saturday (April 22). Now, supporters say, the challenge is to turn the energy in the streets into sustained science advocacy. After the march, science organizations and universities are doubling down on their outreach attempts. Click here to read the article featured on Live Science.

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Commentary: Going Beyond the Textbook

It has been said that science began “whenever and wherever [people] tried to solve the innumerable problems of life” (Sarton 1952). The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) call for the pursuit of scientific literacy for all through science instruction. This includes acknowledging the contributions to science of those whose communities have been historically marginalized.

The contributions of non-Europeans

Unfortunately, science educators often fail to acknowledge the contributions of non-Europeans. We also fail to convey the complex, messy, culturally contextualized aspects of scientific progress not found in most textbooks.

Consider, for example, the story of the smallpox vaccination. English scientist Edward Jenner has been credited with developing a cure for the deadly disease, a cure that ultimately lead to the acceptance of immunology in the 1800s (Johnson and Raven 2006). However, records indicate that long before Jenner was born, Africans practiced a form of inoculation by scratching the arm of a healthy individual with a tool infected with the offending virus, eventually protecting the person from the illness.

During a smallpox outbreak in the American colonies in the early 1700s, a slave named Onesimus explained the African practice to a puritan minister, Cotton Mather, who in turn persuaded a local doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, to use it (Herbert 1975). Their willingness to accept African knowledge saved lives during the outbreak. Unfortunately, few textbooks addressing the origins of vaccinations mention the African practice or the story of Onesimus.

Although there is little empirical evidence to support the seemingly intuitive practice of incorporating the history of science to improve students’ understanding of the nature of science (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000), many science educators acknowledge the potential of such instruction to augment student understanding of science.

Finding fresh resources

If teachers are to engage their diverse students in more meaningful discussions about the history and nature of science, we have to go beyond the sterile stories propagated by textbooks and research other resources to support our efforts. Good choices include the books Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers (White 2001), A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bryson 2003), Blacks and Science, Volume Three (Walker 2013), and Hidden Figures (Shetterly 2016), the book on which the Academy Award–nominated film was based.

Students need to see connections between science learning and their experiences and cultures (Gay 2002; Ladson-Billings 1992). Becoming more inclusive in our representations of science in the classroom is important to developing an understanding of who does science, how science is done, and how science progresses. This will benefit students, teachers, and society.

Karen Rose ( is a clinical science education instructor in the FSU-Teach program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.

Abd-El-Khalick, F., and N.G. Lederman. 2000. The influence of history of science courses on students’ views of nature of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 37 (10): 1057–1095.
Bryson, B. 2003. A short history of nearly everything. New York: Broadway Books.
Gay, G. 2002. Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education 53 (2): 106–116.
Herbert, E. 1975. Smallpox inoculation in Africa. Journal of African History 16 (4): 539–559.
Johnson, G., and P. Raven. 2006. Biology. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Ladson-Billings, G. 1992. Culturally relevant teaching: The key to making multicultural education work. In Research and multicultural education: From the margins to the mainstream, ed. C. Grant, 102–118. Bristol, PA: The Falmer Press.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Sarton, G. 1952. A history of science: Ancient science through the golden age of Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.
Shetterly, M. 2016. Hidden Figures. New York: HarperCollins.
Walker, R. 2013. Blacks and science, volume three: African-American contributions to science and technology. London: Recklaw Education.
White, M. 2001. Acid tongues and tranquil dreamers: Tales of bitter rivalries that fueled the advancement of sciences and technology. New York: HarperCollins.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the April/May 2017 issue of The
Science Teacher
 journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s April 2017 K-12 journals

Two articles of interest to all K-12 teachers:

Science & Children – Matter and Its Interactions

Feature articles in this issue focus on how to introduce young students to the characteristics and properties of matter and Small Pieces of Matter. The lessons described in the articles include connections with the NGSS.

  • The activities described in Clean It Up! introduce students to “properties” of matter and how properties can be used to design procedures to separate mixtures.
  • Using color and pigments as a context, Colorful Chemistry describes how students investigate how mixing materials can result in a chemical reaction. Artwork is part of the assessment!
  • Are Clouds a Solid, Liquid, or Gas? addresses misconceptions students may have about the composition of clouds and the water cycle.
  • If the Shoe Fits, Sort It! incorporates a tradition “sorting” activity of students’ shoes into a more robust study of organization, patterns, and characteristics. Can the shoes get back to their original owners?
  • Describing Matter has a 5E lesson incorporating and app and hands-on experiences to extend student’s understanding of the properties of matter.
  • Rethink the baking soda-vinegar “volcano” into a more accurate study of matter and mixtures with the lesson in The Early Years: Mixing Materials.
  • Poetry of Science: What’s the Matter? includes a poem that reinforces the states of matter.
  • Teaching Through Trade Books: Matter All Around Us provides developmentally appropriate 5E lessons for K-2 and 3-5 that focus on observable properties of matter.
  • Methods and Strategies: Much Ado About Nothing describes the ideas and experiences young students have about the small-particle model of matter.

For more on the content that provides a context for projects and strategies described in this issue, see the SciLinks topics Chemical Reactions, Classification, Clouds, Matter, Mixtures, pH Scale, States of Matter, Water Cycle

Continue for Science Scope and The Science Teacher.

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Planning Three-Dimensional Instruction

Knowing that content material is most engaging when students can relate to it, I always begin my year with a student survey. The questions are designed to help me design lessons to be as student-focused as possible. Knowing my students’ interests and history also helps me identify phenomena and storylines that will be the most engaging for them. The phenomenon is the hook to capture students’ interest and inspire their curiosity; storylines provide links between performance expectations. The combinations of phenomena and Performance Expectations are virtually endless.

I write my units using my own template which is a hybrid of Understanding by Design and Universal Design for Learning. Click here to view and download my template

Pre-planning: I recommend you bundle Performance Expectations into a logical storyline and include driving questions to guide students toward conceptual leaps. For example, when learning the fact that all cells come from existing cells, I expect a student to ask about the origin of the first cell. I use these questions to devise investigations that will help students find answers and develop their own questions. Asking probing questions during these activities is critical. I recommend you plan ahead and make your questioning targeted and intentional so that it causes students to think deeply and make sense for themselves.

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Digging Deeper: Designing Solutions

This month’s Digging Deeper column for the Next Gen Navigator focuses on the practice of constructing explanations and designing solutions, and specifically the design process that addresses the engineering component of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Its inclusion is relatively new in science education, and for teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to develop understanding of the engineering design process through workshops or teacher preparation coursework, it’s often viewed with trepidation. 

The Framework for K–12 Science Education, the foundation of the NGSS, defines engineering as any “engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems.” The inclusion of the design process enables students to engage in the practical application of science knowledge to solve problems. It makes science relevant and meaningful to students. This relevancy makes learning engaging, and we know students learn when they are engaged and having fun! I think this is what makes the NGSS, and its inclusion of designing solutions, so powerful.

My journey into the engineering design process began almost 10 years ago when I was awarded a grant to purchase LEGO Mindstorms for my gifted and talented students. I had the wherewithal then to align the program to standards, guide my students to create their own challenge, and identify criteria for success. At the time, however, the science standards consisted only of the scientific and technological design processes. The technological design standard was simply stated as design, modify, and apply technology to effectively and efficiently solve problems.  While the students no doubt were following this iterative process, they lacked an understanding of engineering design to facilitate their learning.

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How I Came to Understand the Three Dimensions

When I first started teaching science, I taught the facts. I taught the nine planets (before Pluto got demoted; sorry, Pluto!), the steps of mitosis, and the workings of plate tectonics, for example. I was proud that I had students who could learn the facts and recite them to me. It was always wonderful to have my students perform well on their tests, and it made me smile to know they could identify things like the various Moon phases.

More recently, however, I noticed I was becoming more worried about my students’ ability to “do science,” not just learn about it. I became more intent on helping my students learn about the process, the nature of science. I was very encouraged when I heard new science standards were being developed that recommended exactly what I was trying to accomplish. I thought, “Hey, I do this already.” Then I began exploring the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and thought, “Oh, good grief. What is this? I don’t do this at all.” So it was back to the drawing board again.

As I prepared to teach the NGSS, I felt like a first-year teacher once again. I read the Framework for K–12 Science Education, looked through the NGSS Appendices, and asked questions, lots of questions! To be honest, I was initially most comfortable with the Disciplinary Core Ideas. The other two dimensions, Science and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts, were not as easily understood. I was able to really comprehend the practices when I started to accept the idea that they were the process.

The Crosscutting Concepts have been the most challenging, for sure. They have not been easy to grasp and implement in my classroom. This is where I feel the most challenged. It has been a real struggle to integrate them in a meaningful way and to have my students work with them without my feeling like they were an “add-on.” I will not say I have mastered them–far from it–but I do feel better somewhat more comfortable with discussing and teaching patterns, systems, and energy flow. Maybe in a few more years I will be able to say, “I get it!”

Two actions that have helped me understand and wrap my brain around the three- dimensional aspect of the NGSS were helping to design and lead professional development opportunities for my district’s middle school science teachers and participating in the #NGSSchat on multiple occasions.

Designing professional development for our district was a test. You can’t stand before a group of teachers and fake it. Our group had to know our stuff—not perfectly—but enough to discuss it intelligently with our peers. We also had to be able to disseminate our work to give teachers examples of what works and what doesn’t. That was a learning experience.

Participating in the #NGSSchats has been exciting. So many insightful, passionate people with many fantastic ideas take part in them, sharing with one another about our craft and helping one another. For example, a significant piece of information I received from the #NGSSchat has been the recommendation to be intentional with Crosscutting Concepts. I regularly get great ideas like this from the chat that I try out in my class or contact one of my peers from the chat to discuss further. These discussions are invaluable in helping me grow as a professional. If you don’t have a Twitter account, sign up now! It will be the best decision you can make to help you increase your knowledge of and skills in teaching the standards.


Patrick Goff

Patrick Goff is an 8th-grade science teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, and has taught for 18 years. He is a National Board Certified teacher with a master’s degree in Administration. He has presented at multiple conferences locally and internationally, and is a co-founder of @ngss_tweeps.


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Classroom atmosphere

I recently took a teaching position, after several years in a different job. I thought I could create a calm, focused atmosphere in my middle school science classes, but some of my students have really annoying and off-task behaviors. How do I deal with this. —C., Maryland

Even though they try to act like adults, most middle schoolers are still basically kids, with high levels of energy and enthusiasm. Most love to participate in activities and readily engage in discussions. They are also physically active, prone to fidget, and aware of how to annoy a teacher to get a response.

To provide focus, set out explicit learning goals and performance expectations, describe how each activity contributes to the goals, and provide feedback that will guide students toward the goals.

In terms of a “calm” atmosphere, eventually you’ll be able to tell when noise is “noise” and when it’s the sound of learning and excitement. Some noise can be controlled by establishing (and practicing) routines and procedures for the beginning and end of class, transitioning between activities, and lab/safety behaviors.

If a behavior is distracting to others or potentially dangerous, you’ll need to deal with it by talking with the student or removing him/her from the activity. Otherwise, can it be ignored? Is it worth making an issue out of? I had a student who would talk to himself as he worked (even answering his own questions!) I asked others if they were distracted; they shrugged and said, “It’s just his way of thinking.” So I asked him to keep his voice down and raise his hand if he had a question for me.

When a student appears to be off-task, ask “What are you doing or thinking about?” You might discover what appeared to be an off-task behavior was very much on-task for that student.



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Ed News: Can Grade-Skipping Close The STEM Gender Gap?

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This week in education news, the March for Science has special relevance for K-12 science teachers; survey results show that parents generally rank math and science lower than reading and writing in terms of importance and relevance; young children are more likely to be held back in school, than they are given the opportunity to skip grades; and Texas State Board of Education voted unanimously to change language in its science standards.

What Does The ‘March For Science’ Mean For STEM Education?

Scientists and educators across the country will converge on the National Mall tomorrow for the March for Science, an event meant to highlight the importance of science to society and advocate for evidence-based policymaking. The march has special relevance for K-12 science teachers, who will be well-represented in Washington and in 374 satellite marches across the country, said David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, which is partnering with the march. Click here to read the article featured in Education Week.

Parent Perspectives On Math And Science: 2017 Public Opinion Survey

Earlier this year, the Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation commissioned a survey to determine how parents of school-aged children view math and science in relation to other academic subjects. The findings show that though children enjoy math and science, parents generally rank these subjects lower than reading and writing in terms of importance and relevance. Science in particular was notably less valued than the others, suggesting that rigid definitions of “science” limit interest and engagement for both parents and children. Click here to read the results of the survey.

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The Green Room: How Border Walls Affect Wildlife

Steve Hillebrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service

The proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would significantly affect wildlife (see “On the web”). Most animals cannot get past walls that are hundreds of miles long and many meters tall. Some species along parts of the border where a wall already exists, such as jaguars and ocelots, suffer from dwindling populations and difficulty finding mates.

Daily access to food and water can be disrupted by walls, and wildlife populations need to migrate freely to find viable habitat as climate conditions change. Researchers worry that an expanded wall would increase the number of threatened and endangered species requiring protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Besides walls, other human activities fragment wildlife habitat, including, for example, building houses in a forest, converting tallgrass prairie to cornfields, and laying highways along mountainsides. While such activities may not always substantially shrink the overall size of a habitat, they do break it into smaller, more isolated fragments.

Fragmentation disrupts plants and animals alike. When plans arose to expand the border wall in 2006, Arizona park and wildlife managers’ pointed out that “…building a wall, along with the roads and support facilities it necessitates, would not only plow under saguaros and other fragile desert plants but scare Sonoran pronghorn and other wildlife from important sources of food and water” (Cohn 2007).

Border walls going up in other parts of the world are having similar effects. A study in Slovenia found that the over 100 miles of fence built along the border with Croatia has fragmented habitat for large carnivores, such as wolves, bears, and lynx, which rely on intact territories. “These fences represent a major threat to wildlife because they can cause mortality, obstruct access to seasonally important resources, and reduce effective population size” (Linnell et al. 2016). Continue reading …

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