Coaching a colleague

I coach teachers at an elementary school. One teacher is trying to improve his science instruction (one of the school goals), but he’s struggling with classroom management and organization during class activities. I’ve shared some ideas, but I’m looking for more. —S., Pennsylvania

Many teachers did not experience hands-on science as students and may be unsure how to create planned and purposeful opportunities for their own students. If science is the only time in which students are expected to work in groups, with hands-on materials, or with less structure, they may think of science as free time or not as important as teacher-directed lessons.

In addition to observing the teacher, notice what the students are (or are not) doing and how the classroom is arranged. Ask the teacher questions like: What went well—and why? What were the greatest challenges? What do you think about…? Did you notice today when…? What would happen if…? What works well for you in other subjects? His responses and your observations could lead to an action plan that could include strategies such as (and these were among those suggested to me by a mentor when I was struggling!):

  • Begin the activity or investigation by stating the purpose, outcomes (e.g., report, graph, drawing, summary, notebook entry), and how it connects with the learning goals or expectations of the unit.
  • Establish routines so students know what kinds of behaviors are expected and acceptable.
  • Prepare and label materials in advance and have designated places for them to be accessed and returned.
  • Assign and explain group roles before starting the activity.
  • Stop an activity when students engage in unsafe behaviors.

Above all, encourage the teacher to give himself time to persevere and to reflect on each activity as part of a continuous effort to improve.



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Ed News: The Search For A Middle Ground Between Teacher And Administrator

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This week in education news, should teachers stay in the classroom or move to an administrator role; President Trump orders hard look at federal reach on K-12 policy; the nation’s elementary school children still receive thin and infrequent science instruction; DeVos reiterates school choice agenda and suggests scrapping the Higher Education Act; and teachers’ concerns lead to changes in California’s testing contract.

A New Wave Of Bills Takes Aim At Science In The Classroom

In Idaho, lawmakers removed references to climate change from the state’s science standards. In Alabama and Indiana, they passed resolutions urging support for educators who teach “diverse” views on climate change, evolution and human cloning. And in Florida, the legislature on Friday adopted one bill that would give educators and students more freedom to express religious beliefs in school, and a second that would give residents new power to oppose classroom materials they dislike — including science textbooks. Click here to read the article featured on PBS Frontline.

The Search For A Middle Ground Between Teacher And Administrator

It’s a question that all teachers ask themselves — or in many cases are asked by friends and family — stay in the classroom and continue to teach or move to an administrative role? For educators in the United States, moving up to a principal or other school leadership position is often the go-to path in order to advance their careers and make more money. The dilemma is that a large number of teachers have little interest in leaving the classroom. Click here to read the article featured in Education World.

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The 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo is the Place to Be for Upper Elementary Educators

Any and all upper elementary educators looking to build their repertoire of STEM knowledge would benefit from attending the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo.  The Expo will be held in Kissimmee/Orlando, Florida from July 12-14. The event promises to meet the needs of educators just beginning their journey into the STEM world and those who may be teaching at fully developed STEM institutions. Because the forum is organized by grade level strands, teachers will be able to focus on sessions, discussions, and presentations geared to their students’ specific needs and interests. Organizing by grade level will help upper elementary educators who would like to learn some middle level concepts or strategies as well as those would may want to learn some early elementary concepts and strategies. The Expo gives you full control of how you’d like to experience it. 

Whether you’re drawn to literacy integration, are looking to maximize the ‘M” of mathematics in STEM, or are curious as how the engineering design thought process can be ignited with art, upper elementary educators will find over 30 different hands on workshops, nearly 20 presentations, as well as many other panels and sessions to attend at the STEM Forum, all of which are presented by leaders in STEM education. Sessions like Where It Stops, Nobody Knows: ELA Through STEM are great for teachers who want to incorporate literacy in their STEM classrooms, and Designing with Electrical Circuits are sure to capture a students imagination. There is no doubt that the event will provide attendees with the latest information on STEM content, resources, teaching strategies, and research.  While there, educators and administrations are encouraged to network with each other, STEM leaders, informal educators, as well as policy makers from around the nation and the world building unprecedented collaborations in STEM education. With such high quality and specialized offerings, how could Upper Elementary educators not attend the STEM Forum and Expo?

Sandra Kellerman is a fourth-grade teacher at Lyman Elementary School, where she uses STEM-related projects such as making rafts from popsicle sticks to get her students engaged in STEM. Her top priority is to educate conference attendees on the importance of STEM in classrooms with limited resources and funding. She is currently on the steering committee as the upper elementary strand leader for the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo. 

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

Future NSTA Conferences

2017 STEM Forum & Expo
Kissimmee/Orlando, July 12–14

2017 Area Conferences

Baltimore, October 5–7
Milwaukee, November 9–11
New Orleans, Nov. 30–Dec. 2

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Why are we doing this?

I have some chemistry students who ask “Why do we have to learn this?” How can I address this other saying “you’ll need it in college.” —D., Delaware

Why are we studying this? What good is this?

It’s easy to answer student questions like these with “because it will be on the test” or “because it’s in the textbook,” but this usually doesn’t satisfy the student. As you noted “you’ll need this someday” is equally frustrating because information is readily available electronically, and we can’t predict what careers and interests students will have in the future.

Some students enjoy science, and their interest is independent of class activities. Others are skeptical and may need to be convinced that a topic is worth learning. Teachers can make science interesting and relevant by sharing their enthusiasm and using thought-provoking investigations or activities, multimedia and visuals, a variety of instructional strategies, cooperative learning, and opportunities for students to use their curiosity and creativity.

As you plan a unit, consider the goal or performance expectation. What content is essential? How can I use a variety of practices to make it interesting? How does the unit connect with or build on what students already know? Does it provide background for future learning? How does it relate to real-life events or other subject areas? How can students personalize this information?

It may help to introduce each unit with essential questions focused on a big idea or theme. During each lesson, revisit the questions, connecting any new content or experiences. If the questions are posted in the classroom or in the students’ science notebooks, they are a constant reminder of why students are learning about the topic. Eventually, students may come up with their own questions and learning goals.



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Live! And recorded, music and nature

Screen shot of 4 NPR Tiny Desk Concert videosHow is the experience of listening to, attending to, live music different from listening to a recording? I can be very moved by recorded music, moved to sing along or dance. A particular piece of recorded music can become a favorite, and listening to it is like wearing your favorite pair of jeans because they fit your shape so well.  Live music is never exactly that pair of jeans but it can be the experience of that pair of jeans when you try them on for the first time and, oh wow, they are just what you needed. Steve Guttenberg, who writes about audio, discusses the ways recorded music differs from live and asks, “What do you think? Is recorded music better than live music?” For me, all the ingredients in a live experience combine to make it more, more powerfully stirring—the sound,  expressions of the artists and other sights, feel of the location, smells, and maybe tastes.

The same stirring as when I blow on the spherical dandelion head, feeling my cheeks stretch out with the force of my breath and that same force pushes the tiny seed parachutes off the seed head, into the air, carrying my wish with them. Being outside is a sensory immersive experience teaching us about the elements of weather events, the sounds and smells of our environment, and how we have to exert force to make changes. 

A dandelion seed head with drops of dewUsing technology, Neil Bromhall takes us to a detailed view of this familiar plant over time with his time lapse videos, “Time lapse Dandelion flower to seed head” and “Dandelion flower and clock blowing away time lapse .” 
Look at the way the plumed seeds or pappus open as the dew dries off, something we might never sit still enough to watch happen in real time. For really close up, but still, photographs that allow us to see the intricate details of how seeds are produced, visit Brian Johnston’s page, “A Close-up View of the Wildflower “Dandelion” (Taraxacum officinale). He also shared an Emily Dickinson poem (with vocabulary that is challenging and exactly, Dickinsonian, right).

I am happy to be alive in a world where I can access nature directly with clothing technology that makes it comfortable, and to access nature in a different way through other technologies shared by other nature enthusiasts and naturalists. 

The authors of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Jon Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown, advocate for us to use nature as a living teacher to allow children to “soak up the language of plants and animals as naturally as any of us learned our native language.” I like the way they require one to get to know the people we mentor and “Look for their edges: the edge of their comfort zone, the edge of their awareness, the edge of their knowledge, the edge of their experience. Then, you can stretch and pull them to a new edge, and then another, deeper and deeper into a sense of comfort and kinship with the wildness of the natural world.” Their animal senses exercises, Owl Eyes, Deer Ears, Raccoon Touch, Dog Nose, and Fox Walk, are practiced and used to expand our personal observation abilities. 

The Coyote’s Guide describes how using a “sit spot,” a special place in nature where one can be “comfortable with just being there, still and quiet. In this place, the lessons of nature will seep in.” Educators Karen Dvornich, Diane Petersen, and Ken Clarkson write about having children record their sit spot experience and observations in a science notebook and later contribute the data to a citizen science program.  

If you are lucky to have in-person or through-technology connections to a local naturalist such as Alonso Abugattas, the Capital Naturalist who posts informative videos taken during first hand experiences in nature, you can use the information to plan your program’s outdoor experiences in nature.

Ants building ant hills on brick sidewalkWhether you express excitement along with your children as they observe a group of ants building along a sidewalk crack or help them use the Coyote’s Guide animal senses exercises to make observations from a sit spot, you are connecting them to live nature, connections they may later follow up on using technology-recorded nature that extends their senses. And offering both recorded music and live singing will enrich your children too!

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Legislative Update: Congress (Finally) Approves FY2017 Budget

Although we are now more than half way through FY2017, as expected both the House and Senate passed, and President Trump signed into law, the bill for FY2017 appropriations before the May 5 deadline that would have closed the federal government.

Here are how STEM-related programs fared in the spending bill:

  • ESSA Title IV, Part A, Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants: $400 million (more on this program below)
  • ESSA Title II Teacher Quality State Grants: $2.055 billion (vs. $2.25 billion in FY16)
  • Computer Science for All: $0 (vs. $100 million proposed)
  • STEM Master Teacher Corps: $0 (vs. $10 million proposed)
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers: $1.191 billion (vs. $1.166 billion in FY16)
  • Perkins/CTE: $1.135 billion (vs. $1.125 billion in FY16)

For fiscal year 2017, Student Support and Academic Enrichments Grants (Title IV, Part A of ESSA) will be funded at $400 million, a fraction of the ESSA authorization level of $1.65 billion. With the low funding level, Congress changed the distribution for this program for this year only: money will go directly to the states and states have the option to distribute the funds via a competitive grant program to districts. (They could allocate by formula only if districts would get at least $10,000.) States have until September 30, 2018 to expend funds.

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Ed News: Helping Parents Understand The Next Generation Science Standards

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This week in education news, Achieve releases a series of parent guides that explain how science instruction is changing and why; California administers pilot test for new science standards; science funding spared under congressional budget deal; Florida bills would give citizens the ability to question teaching materials used in schools; teachers receive help for creating lessons with drones; and Nebraska unveils new draft science standards.

Helping Parents Understand The Next Generation Science Standards

So far, there’s been little talk about how parents have reacted to the Next Generation Science Standards. But states are preparing to give students tests aligned to the NGSS—next spring, in many places. And as testing pressure mounts, so might questions from parents about the new ways their students are being taught. Achieve, the group that led the development of the science standards, is working to head off misconceptions about the standards. The group recently released a series of parent guides that explain how science instruction is changing and why. Click here to read the article featured in Education Week.

Pilot Science Test Underway in California, Despite Dispute With Federal Officials

The pilot test for California’s new science standards is underway at schools across the state, despite a long-brewing dispute with the federal government over whether students should be tested on the old or new standards. California is one of 19 states to adopt the new standards, and among the first to administer a pilot test. In 2016, the state asked for a federal waiver to stop giving the older, pencil-and-paper science standardized test, which was based on standards adopted in 1998, in favor of the new test. Click here to read the article featured in EdSource.

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STEM Sims: Data Visualization

STEM Sims: Data Visualization


STEM Sims provides over 100 simulations of laboratory experiments and engineering design products for integration into STEM classroom instruction. One particular simulation found on this site, Data Visualization, stimulates the imagination of students by having them analyze a graphic representation of Napoleon’s 19th Century invasion of Russia. Using data provided in a 1869 graphic representation by Charles Minard, students are able to make decisions and investigate Napoleon’s military campaign. Moreover, Data Visualization is aligned with national (NGSS) standards (see below) and is compatible with state standards as well.

  • MS-PS4.C – Information Technologies and Instrumentation
  • MS-ESS2.D – Weather and Climate



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Teaching About Science in the News

Tenth graders in Kathryn Kennedy’s science class at Prairie Seeds Academy in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, discuss current events related to a Bioethics unit. Photo credit: Kathryn Kennedy

“To be a good science teacher, it’s important to keep on top of the latest news and innovations in science,” says Dean Goodwin, grades 9–12 biology and environmental science teacher at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. “If any of this can be related to topics we have just covered, or are about to cover, or is just an amazing piece of science news, I share [it] with my classes…My aim is to ensure that students understand that science is not at all static, but we are continually learning and expanding our knowledge in science…It also helps to separate some of the misinformation about science that seems to abound in some areas of the media…The students question, and critically think, about what is presented.”

Goodwin says he aims to “[get] students energized to differentiate between science fact and science fiction” by comparing “what pops up on Facebook” to legitimate science news sources like the National Science Foundation. Sometimes he has students design and conduct their own experiments based on ones they’ve read about in the news—such as the 2013 experiment by ninth graders in Denmark to test the effect of cellphone radiation on a plant—and compare their data with the data they read about. “I want to get students to think and behave like scientists,” he explains. “I want them to have the courage to [test a seemingly] crazy idea. This is what scientists do.”

Goodwin has designed—and will teach next year—two trimester elective courses that incorporate current events. In Science Today, students will research science news from journals, websites, television, radio, and social media and analyze the authenticity of the news sources. They’ll discuss the science behind the news and learn how to differentiate between real science and junk science. Continue reading …

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Focus on Physics: The Delightful Catenary Curve

Figure 1. A. Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. B. St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

When teaching how tension and compression relate to geometrical structures such as bridges, arches, and domes, I show a picture of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (Figure 1A), completed in the 14th century. I point out the elaborate buttresses that keep the walls from pushing outward while supporting its weight. Architects of the day had not yet learned how to hold up a very large, massive building without external propping. This was accomplished in the 17th century in the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (Figure 1B).

Why, I ask, is St. Paul’s Cathedral free of such buttresses? Aha, inside its famous dome is an inner “secret dome” that provides structural support. To understand this, let’s first investigate the roles of tension and compression in structures.

I stretch a length of rope taut, explaining that the stretching force we call tension acts in a direction parallel to the direction of the rope. When I let the rope sag between my hands, tension vectors within the sagging rope continue to align with the rope. The curved shape of the sag is determined by this alignment of tension vectors. Likewise for a sagging chain or sagging cable.

A rope, chain, or cable supported at its ends and hanging only by its own weight takes the shape of a special curve called a catenary. I sketch a sagging

Figure 2. Tension between links in the chain align with (are parallel to) the curve of the chain. The curve is a catenary.

chain on the board and show that tension vectors between links of the chain are everywhere parallel to the curve with no components of tension perpendicular to the curve (Figure 2). The chain ends can be held at different distances apart, making the curve deep or shallow. As long as the chain supports only its own weight, it’s a catenary.

If a sagging chain or cable supports weight that is distributed uniformly in a horizontal direction, as is approximately true in a suspension bridge, then the shape of the curve is a parabola, the same curve followed by a tossed ball. The curved cables of a suspension bridge or suspended roadway are approximately parabolas. Only if the cable supports only its own weight—such as sagging clotheslines, power lines, and strands of spider webs—is the shape a catenary. Continue reading …

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