Figuring out what seeds need to sprout

Child watering in an outdoor gardenDo seeds need soil to sprout? Many people would say yes. Preschool children may know, or at least are able to recite, that plants need “dirt,” water, and sunshine to grow. Left out is plants’ need for air—a developmentally appropriate omission. Although young children feel and use air, it isn’t until 5th grade that they are expected to be able to infer that air, a gas, is made of many small pieces of matter (PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter). Experiencing air through their breaths, feeling the wind, and filling balloons or making bubbles helps children build their understanding of the properties of a gas. 

As a solid, soil is much easier for children and adults to see in relationship to plants. As a solid it is often misdescribed as the “food” plants need to grow. Amazingly, plants build their bodies from carbon dioxide in the air using energy in sunlight.  

The properties of solids, liquids, and gases can be explored when children plant seeds in systems they design themselves to hold seeds and support their sprouting. Children make interesting choices when they are given an opportunity to create a system for growing plants from seeds. In the October 2017 Early Years column in Science and Children describes how green beans on the lunch menu prompted a closer look at other kinds of beans. The children designed planting systems that reflected their beginning knowledge of seed sprouting and their personal aesthetics. Some used soil, convinced that without it the seeds would not sprout. Others choose the kitchen sink approach, using soil, cotton balls, and lots of water. Seeds were buried under soil and laid on top of it. Water was the one material that all children chose. Yes, every seed sprouting system had some success.


Children later noted that the seeds they planted outside in the garden looked better, stronger, and eventually produced beans while those indoors soon grew tall and fell over.

As changes to the plants happened more slowly, children lost interest and stopped watering. With repeated seed sprouting experiences and discussion to reflect on the changes they observed, children may build an understanding of (most) seeds’ ability to sprout when kept damp, and identify other needs of plants.

 What kinds of materials do you think your children would choose for their seed sprouting system? 

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Science Teaching Stories: 140 Characters at a Time

In the world of Twitter we use 140 characters to tell wonderful and informative stories.  And, in the world of NSTA, stories about excellence and innovations in science teaching are abounding.  When joining the two worlds we make #NSTAchat—an answer to those who utilize social media to inform them about science teaching stories.

Click to Learn More About #NSTAchat

#NSTAchat began as a means to introduce “first timers” to NSTA area and national conferences.  It has grown to be a bi-monthly chat to not only learn about upcoming conferences but also to meet NSTA leadership, NSTA Press authors, NSTA award winners, and committees that are working to make science teaching better.  #NSTAchat enables “tweeters” to ask questions of those featured as well as provide resources found within the NSTA website.

Stories and resources from NSTA are featured every second and fourth Thursday of each month at 9 PM ET to enrich the teaching of science.  #NSTAchat is one way to support the NSTA mission of promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching.  “Tweeters” to the #NSTAchat not only learn about NSTA but they also build a network of science educators who are also striving to enrich the lives of their students.

Just as those who attend NSTA conferences can participate at different levels, #NSTAchat “tweeters” participate at different levels.  Tweeters can actively engage the guests through questions,“retweet” new knowledge to their followers or just follow along the Tweet thread.  The ultimate goal of #NSTAchat is to inform science educators about NSTA, it’s role in science education, and current issues in science education. 

So why should one participate in #NSTAchat?  #NSTAchat provides a direct link to what is happening in NSTA and the science education community.  It provides resources and contacts that “tweeters” can utilize.  It also supports those teachers who may teach in remote areas and do not have other science colleagues to consult.  So join us the second and fourth Thursday of every month and be part of #NSTAchat. 

Dr. Carolyn Hayes is a retired NSTA president (2015-2016). Dr. Hayes is a retired high school biology teacher from Greenwood, Indiana. Hayes earned a B.S. degree in biology from Indiana University in 1973, a M.S. degree in secondary education from Indiana University in 1976, and an Ed.D. in secondary education and biology from Indiana University in 2005. Follow Carolyn on Twitter @caahayes.

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

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Starting a Club

Students prepare to launch a high-altitude balloon with science payload.

I would like to contribute to the extra-curricular activities in my school, but I’m not sure what I can do. Do you have any suggestions? —T., Pennsylvania

Some of my most rewarding teaching experiences often centered around extra-curricular science clubs. The appeal of a club (for the teacher and students) is that it is not a formal class with the burden of marked assignments, reports, and so on. In general, you will get a natural grouping of people who at least are interested in the same thing. It is also a place that, if students do not want to participate, they don’t have to.

Clubs can have specific goals: robotics; high-altitude ballooning; science fairs. Others can be more open-ended and allow the students to choose their directions: “Science Olympics” or “Enquiring Minds” for example.

I think the trick to a successful club is to pick something that you are truly interested in. Second, don’t feel that you have to be the expert! Let the students have a say and help run things. I ran robotics clubs for years and when students came up to me and asked how to do something I would say, “I don’t know, I’ve never built a robot before! Where do you think we can go to find out?” Use the club as a shared learning experience where students will see you as a learner and can feel that they can make significant contributions. A club is also a low-risk environment for making mistakes during the learning process.

Hope this helps!

Photo:  Own work

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Ed News: A New Normal in STEM Teaching?

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This week in education news, top White House science adviser job still vacant; U.S. Department of Education awards $253 million in grants to expand charter schools; flipped learning still going strong 10 years later; Education Week conducted a preliminary review of states’ ESSA plans and finds a wide variation on a range of key requirements under the new federal law; grades in first year of high school can predict later academic success; the Santa Fe school board opposes New Mexico’s new science education standards; and for students with disabilities, tech tools can help provide new and engaging ways to access content in STEM.

A ‘New Normal’ in STEM Teaching?

Science instructors increasingly are moving beyond the lecture to more innovative — and effective — teaching methods. But professors with a taste for change often enact it alone, as their colleagues continue to lecture. The Association of American Universities wants to change that. In 2011, it launched its Undergraduate STEM Initiative to encourage systemic reforms to science education to improve teaching and learning, especially in first- and second-year courses. Read the article featured in Inside Higher Ed.

Trump’s Top Science Adviser Job Vacant Eight Months After Inauguration

President Donald Trump and his daughter-adviser have been going all out to tout the administration’s commitment to “high-quality STEM and computer science education” as a means of boosting the U.S. economy. But Trump has yet to choose a top science adviser, who would play a crucial role in turning the White House horn-tooting into reality. Read the article featured in Newsweek.

Continue reading …

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Off to the STEM Races

Building race cars made of food and powered by potential energy stored in a rubber band is one of the hands-on, inquiry-based activities in the Roads, Rails, and Race Cars after-school program, held in schools around Nebraska. Photo credit: Mid-America Transportation Center

When students build race cars and compete in races, they can learn science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts, are more likely to retain what they learned, and have fun in the process, educators have found. Building and racing CO2-powered dragsters— miniature race cars propelled by a carbon dioxide cartridge—“creates a lot of excitement and anticipation in students. When I tell students that [there] is going to be a competition, that sparks a lot of students to want to try and make the best car possible,” says Matt Hall, a fifth-grade teacher at Manchester Middle School in Manchester, Michigan.

The project began two years ago when Amcor, a global supplier of plastic packaging that has a local office, gave the school a $2,500 grant to fund a science project. Hall and the other fifthgrade teachers “decided to do CO2 cars. It lined up with what I was teaching in fifth-grade science, in a forces and motion unit,” Hall explains. “When I was in high school, we built CO2-powered dragsters, and it was a memorable project for me. I liked designing something and building it and seeing it in 3D.” Continue reading …

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A“Fair Test”

Photo Credit By dotmatchbox at flickr

I’m starting to plan some formal assessments but, because it’s my first time, I’m not exactly sure if I’m creating a test correctly. Do you have any advice? —L., Nebraska

The notion of a fair test is an important tenet in science and we strive to teach our students how to develop unbiased data collection for the purpose of making sound conclusions about phenomena. This should also extend to the science teacher—developing fair, unbiased assessments that allow you to make a sound conclusion of what your students have learned. Here are just a few ideas on formal assessments that I have used and a few suggestions to help you along:

Try to build some success for all your students. Work from easy to hard questions.

  • Fill-in-the-blanks: place the blank at the end of the sentence.
  • Multiple Choice: Avoid “None of the above” or “All of the above”
  • Assessments should not be a punishment. This includes ‘snap’ quizzes.
  • Don’t surprise students with questions completely different from what they have seen before. (I can discuss exceptions to this in another blog.)
  • Do not try to trick students with double negatives, complicated wording, etc.
  • Set one copy of a test aside to take notes on how the test went: mistakes, ambiguous wording, etc. Fix mistakes as soon as possible or you’ll forget. Record how long it took for the first, median, and the last tests to be handed in and adjust the length accordingly.

Hope this helps!


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Hello everyone!

Wow, do I have big shoes to fill! Mary Bigelow is stepping down as NSTA’s original Ms. Mentor after years of advising teachers across the globe. She has demonstrated a noteworthy commitment to helping the science teaching community with thoughtful, sage advice on a vast array of topics. And now I’m taking over. Wow.

As I started writing my initial blogs, I was reminded of my first day of teaching. The head of the science department (and my former biology teacher!) put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Now that you’re here, you’ll really learn how to teach.” In my guided tour of the inner workings of the school he pointed out everyone’s filing cabinets in the science prep area. “In here, you’ll find everything you need—tests, labs, assignments, diagrams, notes. If you can’t find something—just ask! We’re here to help.” I immediately got the sense of community as I embarked on my career. From this initial exchange I took up the torch and committed myself to sharing, mentoring, running workshops and supporting my colleagues in any way I can.

Now that I have retired, writing an advice column feels like a natural progression in my journey as a science educator. I just hope that I can reach the standard set by Mary and provide you with advice that will be helpful on your own journey in our teaching community.

Kindest regards and…just ask! I’m here to help.
Gabe Kraljevic

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Challenging Our Brightest Thinkers

Although I encourage all of my students to consider a career in the sciences, I know it is probable that only the most persistent, passionate, and brightest will chose such a career path. I’ve been fortunate to teach many such students. This past May, a former student of mine earned the Best in Mathematics Award at the prestigious INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair. Such students are present in all of our classes and thus it is incumbent upon us to foster, nurture, and sustain student interest in engineering and the sciences. Many of these students are gifted; they are the kids who ‘get it’ after one explanation, who don’t need to review in to order pass tests with stellar grades, and who probably don’t need to do the majority of the drill and practice activities designed to develop comprehension of course content. These are the kids who finish everything early. While some may quietly read a book until the class catches up, others may drive you crazy with their antics and off-task behavior. Although you may be tempted to utilize these students as tutors, I caution you against this practice. All students have a right to learn, but tutoring does little extend or enrich learning; it merely reinforces what the student already knows.

Something that I’ve had success with in the past is requiring these students to participate in our school’s science fair. Although this can be a daunting prospect (for both the teacher and the student), tremendous growth can occur when students are scaffolded through the process. Probably the most difficult aspect of the science fair project is selecting the topic—but this is critical if we are to challenge our brightest thinkers. Choice allows our students to pursue a topic that they may otherwise not be able to study as part of the standard curriculum—especially critical when dealing with those students who have a focused and specific interest. Once the topic is selected, students need to engage in researching their topic so that they fully understand the real-world implication of their results. Designing a fair test, collecting and analyzing data, and drawing valid conclusions based on data are rigorous processes that will challenge most students while deepening their understanding of the nature of science—and of the disciplinary core content they investigated. There are numerous websites and materials available to help you guide your students through the steps involved in planning and carrying out a project. Continue reading …

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Retooled, not retired

I did not have a formal mentor when I was a new teacher. As I struggled, several colleagues and an administrator must have seen some potential and offered me advice and support. I was glad to return the favor during my career as a classroom teacher and administrator by mentoring and providing professional development. However, when eligible for retirement, I was not ready to give up my role as a science educator. I saw this advice column/blog as a way to retool rather than retire!

Interacting with teachers through their questions (or informally over coffee at a conference or meeting), reflecting on issues of interest, and sharing concerns of new teachers as well as career-changers has been a rewarding opportunity.

However, after 10 years and 400 MsMentor blogs, it’s time to pass the baton to another. Thanks to all those who submitted questions, added comments, and shared resources through the blog and NSTA Reports.

Once again, I’m retooling not retiring. I still write professionally, and I’ll continue as an online advisor in NSTA’s Discussion Forums. I’m involved in local environmental groups, citizen science projects, and informal science organizations.

Helping students learn about the world around them as a science teacher is a noble calling. We have a responsibility to model our own interests while engaging students in STEM and environmental topics as they develop into informed residents of our communities who enjoy science as part of their lifelong learning.



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President Trump Calls for $200 Million Boost for STEM Education

Last week President Trump issued a presidential memorandum calling for a $200 million boost to STEM education and computer science in K–12 schools. The memorandum,  signed during an Oval Office ceremony attended by Ivanka Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is intended to help make STEM education a bigger priority for schools.

“My administration will do everything possible to provide our children, especially kids in underserved areas, with access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering and math,” Trump said during the ceremony.

To focus on STEM and computer science the Department of Education will be asked to create a priority for these areas in existing discretionary federal grants, to be determined by ED, to the tune of $200 million. Grants that emphasize female and minority students in STEM/computer science will be given additional priority. The Administration is expected to announce the priorities soon.

Education Secretary DeVos was also tasked by the President to explore administrative actions” that would enhance computer-science education.”

As you will recall, former President Obama also called for a push to include more coding and STEM in the school curriculum, but the initiative was never funded. Continue reading …

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