The Mixed Blessings of Substitute Teachers

How often each year does a substitute typically teach your classes? 0.5%=Never. 23.9% Once or Twice. 46.8% Three to Four Times. 28.6% Five or More Times.

Like all educators, science teachers rely on substitutes to lead their classrooms when they have to take a day (or more) of leave. In a recent anonymous NSTA Reports poll, 46.8% of participants reported needing a substitute for their classroom three or four times a year, with 28.6% reporting they depend on substitutes five or more times annually and 23.9% only once or twice a year. All reported leaving lesson plans for substitutes ahead of a planned absence, and 75% report maintaining “emergency” lesson plans for an unplanned absence. Most (77%) report that substitutes usually followed the plans.

Do the substitutes usually follow lesson plans? 23%=No. 77%=Yes.

Nearly 87% say they take steps to prepare their classrooms for a substitute ahead of a planned absence. Educators say they leave seating charts, set up labs, check the room’s organization, “label everything,” lock up all lab equipment, or “hide materials that may be stolen or damaged.” Eighty-four percent reported preparing their students for a substitute: many by reviewing class rules, expectations, and agendas.


Few (8%) report substitutes typically have a background in the subject matter, and a majority (65%) don’t get to approve or screen the substitutes that will teach their classes.

Would you like to take part in our anonymous poll on on how educators respond when student experiments have unexpected results or educators’ experiences polling students about their classes?

Here’s what science educators are saying about the challenges of having a substitute:

Having them teach new content is scary, especially since each class coming in that day has its own atmosphere for learning. I’m afraid things will not be taught with the same passion that I teach them with.—Educator, High School, Indiana

You can’t leave a lesson and expect it to be taught, but at the same time, it’s hard to give up valuable teaching time.—Educator, Elementary, Washington, D.C.

Abuse and neglect of my workspace [has occurred].—Educator, Middle School, Maryland Continue reading …

Posted in NSTA Reports | Tagged | 4 Responses

What’s Ahead for Science and STEM Education in the Trump Administration?

With the election now in the rear view mirror, what’s ahead for education and science education in the new Administration?

Short answer, it’s too early to tell. During the campaign, education was largely ignored, so the education priorities for the new Administration are still a work in progress. Both the House and Senate remained in Republican hands, making it easier under a one-party rule to advance key Republican priorities under the new President-elect.

Politico is reporting that key policy plans for the first 100 days in the new Trump Administration would include scraping regulations from the Obama Administration on climate change, immigration, Wall Street, and restrictions on gun sales; proposing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild highways, tunnels, bridges and airports; repealing Obamacare, backing out from trade deals, such as the TPP; and building a wall at the border.

The transition team is in overdrive, and a favorite parlor game in Washington D.C. this time of year is speculating on players on the new Administration team. President-elect Trump has vowed to “drain the swamp,” but the Trump transition team is apparently leaning toward veterans from the Reagan and Bush presidencies to help craft policy and fill key positions.

In education, several names have been floated for Ed Secretary, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, Gov. Scott Walker, William Evers, and Gerard Robinson.

(NSTA spearheaded efforts among nine STEM education groups and created a transition document addressing how the federal government must continue to make strategic investments in K–12 STEM education. Read NSTA Executive Director David Evans blog and the transition document for STEM education, which was recently sent to the Trump transition team.)

Here are the issues that are emerging and what we are watching:

President-elect Trump has voiced support for eliminating the Department of Education and expanding school choice by creating a $20 billion block grant. One to watch is the school choice legislation—first introduced in 2014 by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), current chair of the Senate education committee (and author of the Every Student Succeeds Act)—that would allow states to create a $2,100 scholarship from existing federal funds that would follow the children to the school of their choice. Continue reading …

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How many “labs?”

5229139935_f4b54c053c_mI’m a first-year biology teacher. How do I decide how many labs I could or should do each week. My colleagues have different ideas about this.  —L., South Carolina

Sometimes the word lab is used to describe any activities students do in groups in science class including investigations, experiments, projects, teacher demonstrations, laptop or tablet activities, simulations, games, small-group discussions, and group writing assignments.

While these activities can be useful learning strategies, let’s assume you are referring to studying a phenomenon or answering a question through investigations, experiments, projects, or constructing and using models.

Some of these studies may take less than a class period, while other investigations may require more time or even a long-term commitment spanning several days, weeks, or months. Many teachers often start with an activity prior to presenting content to provide students with a context. 

In terms of learning science, the quality of the activities is more important than the quantity. The type and number of activities depend on the learning goals, student interests, and whether an activity can be done safely in your classroom with the materials and time you have.

Doing an activity for its own sake without a meaningful context or without student input, follow-up, or reflection leads to questions about what students are learning and whether they truly understand the relationships and connections among concepts, practices, and content. (I once overheard a teacher saying “I keep my students so busy they don’t have time to think.”)

So…I don’t have a definitive answer to your question. But I would advise against using “labs” as an incentive for good behavior or take them away as a consequence for unrelated behavior. Of course, if students are engaging in unsafe or dangerous behavior during the activity, you will have to deal with that situation immediately.

Posted in Ms. Mentor | 1 Response

The Green Room: Losing Sight of Our Stars

Making Your Teaching More Environmentally Friendly

Los Angeles at night

Los Angeles at night

The more people there are, the more lights we use. The more lights we use to illuminate our buildings and streets, the brighter the Earth becomes at night.

Author David Owen discussed the increase in this light pollution over the past 50 years in a 2007 New Yorker article. “The stars have not become dimmer; rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see. Air pollution has made the atmosphere less transparent and more reflective, and high levels of terrestrial illumination have washed out the stars overhead—a phenomenon called ‘sky glow’” (Owen 2007).

Many resources can help inform your students about light pollution. The United Kingdom’s Telegraph newspaper has a gallery of images. James Madison University (JMU) professor Paul Bogard details in a book (2013) the environmental and human health effects of light pollution and the importance of darkness. The John C. Wells Planetarium on the JMU campus provides supplemental information, including a video, on its website.

Various organizations and municipalities are working to minimize light pollution sources. For instance, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) “works to protect the night skies for present and future generations,” offering information and a video online. Another group, Dark Skies, Inc., was recently featured in the New York Times for its efforts to reduce light pollution in Colorado (Healy 2016).

Classroom activities
Light pollution is an interesting topic for students. You can lead an evening field trip of star-gazing, but there are other options, too. The resource guide from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific has links to many books, articles, websites, and activities dedicated to light pollution. Some of the activities come from Globe at Night, an organization which raises awareness of light pollution and encourages people to measure their local night-sky brightness.

In addition, your students can manipulate a global light pollution map online by adding layers and exploring any location on Earth. From the American Museum of Natural History comes the “Light Pollution: Beyond the Glare” activity in which students watch an introductory video and complete a graphic organizer. Taking at least 50 minutes of class time is PBS’s “Which Way to the Ocean?” lesson plan. Using clips from the 2012 PBS film The City Dark, this thorough activity demonstrates the effects of light pollution on nesting loggerhead turtles.

Finally, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) produced a series of activities about light and light pollution in 2015, the International Year of Light. Pick and choose among all of the options on the NOAO website.

Amanda Beckrich ( is the Upper School assistant director, International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program coordinator, and an environmental science teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, South Carolina.

Bogard, P. 2013. The end of night: Searching for natural darkness in an age of artificial light. Boston: Little Brown and Company.
Healy, J. New York Times. 2016. Colorado Towns Work to Preserve a Diminishing Resource: Darkness. August 12.
Owen, D. The New Yorker. 2007. The dark side: Making war with light pollution. August 20.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of The tst_nov16_covScience Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

Get Involved With NSTA!

Join NSTA today and receive The Science Teacher,
the peer-reviewed journal just for high school teachers; to write for the journal, see our Author GuidelinesCall for Papers, and annotated sample manuscript; connect on the high school level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server); or consider joining your peers at future NSTA conferences.

Posted in The Science Teacher | Leave a comment

Dear President-Elect Trump: Make STEM a National Imperative

The presidential election last week surprised everyone, delighted some, and confounded quite a few.

Wherever you landed on this spectrum post-election day, as teachers, there is one thing that we can all agree on: that we must work even harder now to ensure that our students—all students—have the necessary tools and the opportunities to develop critical thinking skills so they can make informed decisions.

We know that what you do will probably get a lot harder in the years ahead, with expected challenges to standards and key science concepts such as climate science and evolution. Working together, we must make it clear that we are teaching a nation of citizens how to think like scientists to solve problems and understand how the natural world works. We need to make sure all students have the tools to assess what is reported on the news, to process medical information, and to understand the challenges ahead.

Effective STEM education will also prepare students for the jobs President-Elect Trump has talked so much about. In your classroom right now sits the future workforce and the next generation of engineers who will improve our standard of living in the years ahead and ensure our national security with technologies we cannot even begin to imagine.

But for this to happen, the federal government must continue to make strategic investments in the K–12 STEM education critical to the foundation of our future workforce, our national security, and our science- and technology-literate society.

Several months ago at the STEM Forum in Denver, teachers and teacher leaders told us what they would like to see in the new Administration. With this information in hand, I brought together the executive directors of nine education organizations to craft this transition document for STEM education, which was recently sent to the Trump transition team. Take a minute to read this document and tell us what you think.

Science teachers, it’s time to put on our capes and get to work. NSTA will be with you, every step of the way.

NSTA Executive Director David EvansDr. David L. Evans is the Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Reach him via e-mail at or via Twitter @devans_NSTA.

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



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Focus on Physics: The Moon Is Falling!

Sometimes it seems like everything is in free fall—the stock market, the value of your home, even your outlook for progress in the world. And now you learn this disturbing fact: The Moon is falling! And falling directly toward Earth! But you needn’t be alarmed, because it’s been falling like this for billions of years.

Tangential velocity
A falling Moon shouldn’t be scary because as it falls, it also travels “sideways” with enough speed to keep it from getting closer to us. We call this sideways motion tangential velocity. With sufficient tangential velocity, the Moon and all artificial Earth satellites fall around rather than into our planet.

Continue reading …

Posted in The Science Teacher | 2 Responses

New NSTA Infographic Explores How Today’s Students Learn Science

As a member of the NSTA communications team, I often field questions from a wide variety of audiences—teachers, parents, school and district leaders, business leaders and reporters—about the exciting new developments in science teaching and learning promoted in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Framework for K-12 Science Education. For sure, there is a transformation occurring in science education and all stakeholders need and want to know what it all means.

girl-hairNSTA’s newest infographic—How today’s students learn SCIENCE—helps all audiences better understand some of the important shifts of the NGSS.  Presented in a fun, comic-book style, it showcases science and engineering practices in action, such as developing models, planning and carrying out investigations, and designing solutions using engineering and technology. For example, in one panel, a young girl wonders why her hair stands on end when she touches a Van de Graaff generator. Observing, posing questions, and making sense of phenomena are important scientific practices of the NGSS, and as Joe Krajcik said in his blog, “Making sense of phenomena and designing solutions drives the teaching and learning process.”

Girl testing waterThe infographic is the second in a series on the NGSS and is available now on the NGSS@NSTA Hub. The first infographic explored the reasons why it was time for new science education standards.  Additional infographics will appear in the coming months and will explore various elements of the NGSS and the support needed to implement them in schools and districts around the country. Find all infographics on the NGSS@NSTA Hub.

NSTA launched the infographic series as a way to support teachers, schools and district leaders, parents, business leaders, and other stakeholders, as they transition to a new way of teaching and learning science. Seventeen states, the District of Columbia, and numerous districts around the country have already adopted the NGSS and are making steady progress on building awareness of the standards, helping teachers understand the changes needed in classroom instruction, identifying and developing classroom materials, mapping out curricula, and more.


Cindy Workosky is a Communications Representative for NSTA.Author image C Workosky


Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resources, professional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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

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Equity in Science Education Begins in Prek

Welcome to my colleague Lauren Allen who co-authored this blog post. 

Lauren Allen is currently an administrator focused on STEM Integration in the District of Columbia. While originally from South Carolina, she earned a BS in Biology with an emphasis in Molecular Biology from Hampton University and a MS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University.  Lauren serves on the leadership team for DC STEM Network and a group leader the 100Kin10 Fellowship Program, focused on supporting active STEM learning in grades P-3. She taught middle school science for six years and has worked in variety of science administration and educational positions.

Child scoops up blue water.All young children are “science” kids. In addition to the traits children are born with, their experiences shape their development (NAS). With many opportunities to engage in science explorations and investigations, their understanding grows and they develop  critical thinking skills. Being immersed in an exploration is the best way for young children to learn about the world. Science investigations are powerful experiences in which children use and build their literacy and math skills alongside the practices of science. How can we can make sure that all children get involved in those immersive science experiences where they use their skills to pursue a question that interests them?

At the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) national conference, many early childhood educators from varied programs were eager to learn best practices in science education. We discussed the National Science Teachers Association’s position statement on science in early childhood that states, “At an early age, all children have the capacity and propensity to observe, explore, and discover the world around them.” This NSTA position statement was endorsed by the NAEYC.

Teachers in a professional development session.

Teachers work together observing beetle larvae.






The NAEYC’s position statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (2009) provides a framework for best practice to promote excellence in early childhood education. It is also grounded in research. The statement highlights three challenges in early childhood education: “reducing learning gaps and increasing the achievement of all children; creating improved, better connected education for preschool and elementary children; and recognizing teacher knowledge and decision making as vital to educational effectiveness” (NAEYC Pg 2).

Teacher discusses a tally chart of smells with child.Solutions for these challenges all involve access to professional development, support, and growth for educators. Panel discussions at the May 2016 event “Fostering STEM Trajectories,” produced by New America’s Education Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, highlighted that the well-being and preparation of early education teachers play a major role in student outcomes. Training, staffing structure, and resources all impact the teacher’s ability to incorporate science, technology, engineering and math in the classroom. Teachers of children 0-8 years old need better preparation to understand and meet the needs of all young children and their families and improved support to ensure the continuity of developmentally appropriate expectations for young children’s learning and behavior. Support for early childhood educators in the form of increased wages could reduce turnover, and promote additional education in child development (Shulte and Durana 2016). Additional education can happen within existing settings if funding is provided for additional hours for professional development (including hiring substitutes). Professional development and personal reflection focused on differentiation, assuring that all children can participate, and behavior management, to prevent expulsion of preschoolers (Gilliam), will build our nation’s next generation workforce’s capacity and propensity to observe, explore, and discover the world (Zero to Three). 

Teacher & child observe beetle larva.Early childhood educators in all areas and settings in the profession can help our nation lift up tomorrow’s leaders when given the tools and resources needed to successfully differentiate and actively engage early learners in science, technology, engineering and math practices. Teachers must be sensitive to children’s cultural and other differences, and be willing and have the skill to adjust instruction to meet children’s needs (NRC). Removing barriers to make learning personalized and relevant help close learning gaps by providing access to deeper learning in these content areas. According to Deborah Phillips, editor of “Neurons to Neighborhoods”, studies have shown that disparities in math and science develop early and can impact high school progress and student achievement in these subject areas.

If we truly want to improve the educational experiences of young learners, we must stop limiting them. We must support teachers in science teaching and let go of limited mindsets and assumptions regarding young learners and their abilities to “do science”. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson when asked for advice on how to get kids interested in science commented, “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down…Get out of their way. Put things in their midst that help them explore” (Big Think). We must prepare the learning environments that allow children the time, space, and class structures to explore, play, argue, and experiment. Early learners need to be engaged in active learning using the world around them and have engaged adults at their sides to help them reflect on their experiences. We must empower early educators in building a foundation in science for our next generation.


Big Think. May 13, 2013. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Want Scientifically Literate Children? Get Out of Their Way.

Gilliam, Walter S., Angela N. Maupin, Chin R. Reyes, Maria Accavitti, Frederick Shic. 2016. Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? New Haven, CT: Yale University Child Study Center.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 2000. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (NAEYC). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 Adopted 2009.

National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association. 2014. Position Statement: Early Childhood Science Education

Schulte, Brigid and Alieza Durana. September 28, 2016. The New America Care Report

The ZERO TO THREE Policy Center.


Fostering STEM Trajectories: Bridging ECE Research, Practice, & Policy. 2016.

Posted in Early Years | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

#NSTA16 Portland: Come and Get Your Swag!

At NSTA’s Portland conference today at the membership booth, we’re giving away tickets to our LA conference next spring, tweet shirts (while supplies last), and gift cards. And that’s what you can win before you even step into the exhibit hall. Below is a sampling curated from Twitter of what our exhibitors are giving away (iPads, white boards, birdfeeders… to name just a few). So if you’re onsite, head to the exhibit hall and see what kind of fun you can have and swag you can score!















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

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Science 2.0: When Students Become Digital Citizens

Modern science learning requires the use of digital tools and a shift in teaching philosophy and pedagogy. The backbone to this shift rests in a skill that we’ve not yet addressed: digital citizenship.

Last month, we wrote about the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) Empowered Learner standard ( This month, we discuss the Digital Citizen standard where “students (will) recognize the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of living, learning, and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal, and ethical.” While this might seem like a lofty goal, we can make sure that students fulfill the requirements of this standard by meeting its four performance indicators, which require students to:

  • “cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and are aware of the permanence of their actions in the digital world”;
  • “manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online”;
  • “engage in positive, safe, legal, and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices”; and
  • “demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property” (ISTE 2016) (italics added).

As science teachers we must remember that our students’ digital footprints, or “digital exhaust,” referring to data collected on their travels across the digital landscape, will exist long after they leave the classroom. We refer to this as permanence.

To safeguard students’ digital privacy and personal data, it is important to read the Privacy and Terms of Use conditions for websites on which they compose and post content. Teachers should be aware of privacy laws such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the Family Education Right to Privacy Act, which we discussed in an earlier column (Smith and Mader 2014). Students must understand how to change the privacy settings on their profiles to prevent others from accessing their content. Even with the most robust security settings, however, content can still leak out into the public area of the digital world. Thus, they should be continually reminded of the importance of reviewing their own content.

Next, teachers can engage students in activities that promote positive, safe, legal, and ethical online behavior. The activities can occur before, during, and after formal instruction.

Before instruction, teachers can use word clouds, graphic organizers, and podcasts to allow students to share what they want to learn from a unit’s explorations. During instruction, students can moderate each other’s discussions and provide feedback using the social platform Todays
Meet ( This is an excellent way to talk with students about constructive criticism and the appropriateness of their conversations. After the science lesson, students can engage in deeper discussions about their content mastery through discussion boards such as Schoology or Canvas or by critiquing other students’ work with tools such as Padlet or VoiceThread.

A long-standing tradition in our classrooms is the concept of UCC (user-created content)—the idea that students should create their own artifacts, digital content, and media, instead of resorting to Google. UCC gives them an understanding of using and sharing intellectual property. In this type of classroom culture, students create their own media for their products and ask permission, or even “pay” using points, to use another’s work in the class.

Science teachers must create a classroom culture that prepares students for a world of transparency and permanence. The skills that students develop through the Digital Citizen standard will benefit their lives far beyond the classroom walls.

Ben Smith ( is an educational technology program specialist, and Jared Mader ( is the director of educational technology, for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. They conduct teacher workshops on technology in the classroom nationwide.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). 2016. The 2016 ISTE standards for students. Arlington, VA: ISTE.
Smith, B., and J. Mader. 2014. Science 2.0: Protecting students’ online privacy—by law. The Science Teacher 81 (9): 8.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

Get Involved With NSTA!

Join NSTA today and receive The Science Teacher,
the peer-reviewed journal just for high school teachers; to write for the journal, see our Author GuidelinesCall for Papers, and annotated sample manuscript; connect on the high school level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server); or consider joining your peers at future NSTA conferences.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all. Learn more about the Next Generation Science Standards at the NGSS@NSTA Hub.

Posted in Science 2.0, The Science Teacher | Leave a comment