Keep it grounded. Keep it real.

I’ve been teaching science for three years. My students seem to see science as an abstract subject and have trouble imagining it. How can I help my students appreciate the lessons more with limited time and resources?
—R., Philippines


I think the way to teach science with less abstraction is to ground your lessons in observable phenomena. Students build up knowledge and understanding by examining and investigating commonplace events. These don’t have to be expensive demonstrations—just simple, everyday observations, pictures or videos. There are many websites that provide these phenomenon and storylines to make just such learning happen. The NSTA Learning Center and NGSS Hub are excellent places to search for these. One example: A time-lapse video of tree shadows moving during the day can be a springboard to investigating the motion of planets. Case studies are similar to using phenomenon-based teaching and there are many websites that provide examples to use in science classrooms.

Inquiry projects allowing students to select their topics are another way for students to dive into a concept and demystify it. They will take ownership for their learning and it will be more meaningful to them.

Integrate the nature of science and how scientists think and work into your teaching. I think people disbelieve scientific claims and call them abstract because they don’t understand how scientists draw conclusions or the continual change inherent in the nature of scientific knowledge. Students should discover that science isn’t magical or arcane, it is hard work and conclusions based on the best evidence.

You can accomplish all these things with the smallest of budgets.

Keep it grounded. Keep it real. And, of course, keep it fun!

Hope this helps!

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Administrators: Be Intentional ‘For All’

As academic institutions strive to create stimulating learning environments where students embrace the “sciences” to become critical thinkers and ecologically productive citizens, more and more employers are recognizing they have an essential role in helping to define qualified employees for the future workforce, but several steps in between need to happen in the educational system to help bring this new cadre of scientific literates to fruition.

School district leaders and campus administrators must take the helm and realize that science instruction must be a priority for a sustainable society. Because science understanding is not assessed as frequently as math and reading—and often left out of funding calculations—its importance has been woefully negated, and our workforce is suffering from lack of qualified science-literate candidates. Even more dismal is the rarity of science-literate candidates from underrepresented populations in the global schema. This is not just about ethnicity or low socioeconomic status, but also about access, now more than ever.

Although I continue to witness our society’s wavering commitment to the belief that all students are capable of science learning and pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), I also see teachers who want to reach all students regardless of race and seek professional development from organizations such as NSTA to improve their pedagogy. What I do not see is an influx of campus administrators seeking opportunities to develop their capacity in science education to support their teachers. Continue reading …

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Ed News: Can STEM Camps For Girls Really Make A Difference?

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This week in education news, there’s no way of knowing whether summer STEM camps help nudge more women into STEM careers; education in STEM fields can be the road to economic empowerment for women; Missouri Governor calls on state legislators to tackle STEM education bill is special session; and teachers across the country turn to DonorsChoose to raise money for school supplies and projects.

They’re Fun. But Can STEM Camps For Girls Really Make A Difference?

The $100,000 gift from President Donald Trump, plus $125,000 from Steuart Walton, scion of the Walmart family fortune, enabled the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum to offer a high-end version of a growing phenomenon: summer camps that give young girls a chance to explore technology-dependent careers in which women are heavily underrepresented. The premise for the camps is that hands-on activities led by women already working in STEM fields will get girls excited about science and broaden their professional horizons. Educators say having role models and building self-confidence—the Smithsonian camp was called She Can—are essential precursors for girls to pursue a STEM career. Read the article featured in Science magazine.

The 2 Stages Of Successful Early STEM Education Revisited

I have been in education for 18 years and my strongest belief is that all children deserve a fresh start when they begin each school year. My classroom is a safe environment where students feel it’s acceptable to try, even if they’re not going to be successful the first time–and that certainly applies to STEM education. Read the article featured in eSchool News. Continue reading …

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Summer PD for Teachers in National Parks

At Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in Paterson, New Jersey, students work
on a physics activity as part of Batter Up!, an event—developed by TRT Christine Gish
and colleagues at Paterson’s JFK High School STEM Academy—that incorporates
science activities to teach about the Negro Baseball Leagues. Photo courtesy of Ranger Tyler Stone.

“I [couldn’t] believe I was getting paid for this,” says Eric Riemer, fourth- and fifth-grade science teacher at Park City Elementary School in Park City, Kentucky, of his experience this past summer as a National Park Service (NPS) Teacher Ranger Teacher (TRT). Riemer, who was a TRT at Mammoth Cave National Park in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, maintains that for TRTs, “a day at the office can be really fun!”

K–12 educators serving as TRTs spend 4–6 weeks learning about the  resources and educational materials available through the NPS and enhancing their teaching with NPS-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education resources and the use of primary sources and place-based learning. TRTs also take an online graduate course through the University of Colorado Denver, for which they earn three graduate credits in experiential learning, and receive a $3,000 stipend after completing the program. The graduate credits earned are in experiential learning because “the NPS has cultural resource– and natural resource–based parks, and participating teachers have science and social studies backgrounds. We needed a course that is relevant to both fields,” explains Linda Rosenblum, the program’s national coordinator.

TRT benefits STEM teachers because “they can develop relationships with parks in their geographic area, learn about educational programs for students, and engage with real-life scientific data,” she contends. Teachers and students can do citizen science activities, “gathering data a park can use in an ongoing resource management program” that involves monitoring climate change, wildlife, water quality, weather patterns, and other scientific areas, says Rosenblum. Continue reading …

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Ephemeral art exploring properties of matter, natural materials

Child stirs a bucket of water with flowers and leaves floating in it.I had fun this summer spending 4 days over 2 weeks “enriching” preschool teachers and children in their program by collaboratively exploring ephemeral art projects. Good discussion about when children’s making becomes art was part of our work together. Does mixing up a colorful mud-grass-flower-water “stew” or chopping (sculpting?) a rotting log with plastic trowels count as art? What do you think?

Children chopping at a rotting log with plastic tools.While experiences and subsequent discoveries are important, I don’t call it art unless the children are intentional about designing the look, smell, feel, or sound of it. Or if they identify some intentions afterwards (“It looks like a…”). I can see the science learning in children’s random and open exploration actions but I wouldn’t call these art. The open-ended work builds understanding as they make connections between prior experiences and accidental discoveries. In the stew the stones sink, flowers float, and the water gets more opaque as soil is added. Petals are easier to tear apart than stems, each contributing a different color and texture to the mix. As the rotting log comes apart, the inner color is lighter than the outside…”Why?” “I think it’s because the rain.” Continue reading …

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Ed News: If Students Aren’t Trying On International Tests, Can We Still Compare Countries’ Results

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 This week in education news, new study finds that students are blowing off international exams; San Francisco Unified School District begins rolling out new science standards and lessons across all elementary schools; districts and schools around the country are struggling to fill empty teaching positions with qualified staff; Carnegie Science Center debuts first-ever classroom for preschoolers; and female, black and Latino students took Advanced Placement computer science courses in record numbers, and rural student participation surged this year; and professional learning needs to be available to all administrators and educators interested in implementing makerspace classes that break the traditional teaching mold.

If Students Aren’t Trying On International Tests, Can We Still Compare Countries’ Results

Many students seem to be blowing off a major international exam, leading some researchers to argue that the results paint a distorted picture of where countries stand in education rankings. Worldwide, a high percentage of students either skip questions, spend insufficient time answering them, or quit the Program for International Student Assessment test early. As a result, a handful of countries fall lower in overall PISA rankings than they might if their students applied themselves, according to the provocative new study. Read the article featured in Education Week.

Science Refreshed In Elementary Schools This Year

In today’s world of information overload, it can be difficult to determine fact from fiction. That’s why we’re teaching critical thinking skills and scientific literacy–to prepare students to think like scientists and engineers, from kindergarten on. This year, we’re rolling out new science standards — and the lessons that helps students learn those standards — across all of our elementary schools. Read the article featured in the San Francisco Examiner.

Continue reading …

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Seasonal Connections to Nature in the Outdoor Environment

I love to ask teachers, “Who are our best scientists?” You can see them shuffling through the list of outstanding scientists in their minds. But, quickly their faces light up and they enthusiastically respond with “Kids are!” And, they are right! Children are great at asking questions, designing investigations with “What if…?” questions, collecting data usually in their pockets, and the other Science and Engineering Practices. Where are they the best scientists? Out in nature.

Whether in the schoolyard, backyard, or through a field study trip, place-based education is the key. To enhance these experiences to a deeper level, project-based units allow students to establish a personal connection and ownership in their learning which is so empowering.

Fall is a wonderful time to observe migration, deciduous trees losing their leaves, and to begin long-term observations such as decrease of daylight hours and the position of the sun in relation to the horizon. Winter is perfect for snowflake study, animal tracking, and animal behavior during winter months. Spring allows students to see insect lifecycles, spring migration, and plant growth.

Some examples of such projects include school yard gardens, clean-up the playground projects, plant identification books, insect study, and watershed study. My favorite is watershed study. We have been performing water quality testing on our local river for eight years. The students feel ownership of their data, and their river. Watershed study also allows students to see how all of the science work together to for this system. Continue reading …

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Body of experience

What are the most successful experiments and activities to do with students when covering the human body?
— K., West Virginia

Here are a few of my favorite demonstrations and activities. Look online or in the NSTA Learning Center for most of these.


Digestive System:

  • Peristalsis demonstration: Stand on your head and drink juice/water through a straw.
  • Stomach gurgling: Simulate how peristalsis pushes air through your digestive system when you haven’t eaten. Hold 1.5-2 meters of garden hose by both ends to form a “U.” Pour in 100 ml of water and blow into one end.
  • Digestion: Soda cracker pie tastes exactly like apple pie but is made with starchy crackers. Cooking breaks starches down into sugars just like amylase enzymes. This could be a great treat on a Friday, but be aware of any food allergies or sensitivities your students may have.
  • The Great Digestive System Time Trials: Students voluntarily eat small bowls of cooked corn. They anonymously report—in a note, on a wiki, or in shared spreadsheet—how long it took for the corn to…uh…reappear in a bowel movement.

Nervous System:

  • Onion/apple tasting: Students can design an experiment to check out how smell and taste affect each other.
  • Color blindness tests: Students are riveted and cannot believe the range of color vision evident in just one classroom. Three of my students discovered that they were color blind!
  • Two-point discrimination of touch: Two toothpicks glued at different distances apart on cards are gently touched to the skin to map the sensitivity of hands, feet, arms, and so on.

Circulatory System:

  • Blood pressure and heart rate experiments: Pairs of students design experiments on factors affecting blood pressure or pulse. Stay away from the typical “fit vs. unfit subjects” or “the effect of running on pulse.”

Hope this helps!


Photo credit:  Creative Commons via Pixabay

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Ed News: Summer Programs Increase STEM Learning Opportunities For Visually Impaired Students

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This week in education news, there is a math and science teacher shortage in Rhode Island; new report finds that most states’ requirements for license renewal, prioritize accumulating credit hours, rather than sustained, targeted professional learning; advancements in assistive tech and interactions with industry professionals help students with blindness pursue interests in STEM fields; recent study finds nearly 20 percent of teachers don’t have any input in their professional development decisions; NSF selects Dr. Karen Marrongelle as head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources; Michigan to withhold science test scores for two years; and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering whether to let school districts use federal money to buy guns.

Math, Science Teachers In Short Supply In R.I. Schools

East Providence High School hasn’t had a physics teacher in 2½ years. The district has had to offer the course online. Supt. Kathryn Crowley said it’s so hard for her district to find qualified high school math and science teachers that she “poaches” them from other districts, a practice that other school leaders privately acknowledge. Read the article featured in The Providence Journal.

Renewing A Teaching License Doesn’t Help With Professional Growth, Report Finds

Every teacher has to renew their teaching license periodically—and too often, the renewal process is a missed opportunity for professional growth, concludes a new report. Read the article featured in Education Week. Continue reading …

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StEMT: A New Process for Designing Meaningful STEM Lessons

A simple, practical, and methodological process for elementary and middle school teachers to implement meaningful STEM activities in the classroom that are not labor intensive, can be used with existing lessons, correlate with “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” and are much more than just a “cool” project.

This is what veteran science educators Drs. Milton Huling and Jackie Speake Dwyer set out to accomplish when they coauthored their book, Designing Meaningful STEM Lessons.

The book is based on a conceptual framework called StEMT, which was created by Huling. Dwyer was first introduced to it when attending a professional training being facilitated by Huling. When she saw the term being projected onto the screen in front of her, she assumed, rightfully so, that the word STEM had been misspelled. Continue reading …

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