Dreaming of spring and preparing to garden with young children

Maple tree flowers.Daffodil bud opening in the snow. Before the weather really warms up in your area, take children for a nature walk and together document through drawing or photography the plants that are beginning to bud out with leaves or flowers. Spring doesn’t begin at the moment the first daffodil blooms—the flowers of a maple tree may be budding months before. The creeping change of season is made visible by observation and documentation done in a systematic way, or at least weekly over a few months. Change continues as spring weather gives way to summer heat—keep observing and noting the new changes by making a brief stop at particular plants as you go out to the playground or to the carpool line. These brief observations may lead to investigations into the relationship between plant growth and the amount of sun it receives or what insects are doing when they visit or live on a plant.   

You may be planning a garden with your class, or already be planting one, depending on your local weather. I have praised the sugar snap pea many times for its ease of planting and for being of interest to children. The seeds are familiar to most children who may be surprised to find out that the peas on their plates are seeds, seeds that could grow into a plant if they had not been cooked for eating. After planting pea seeds children may wonder, what other food items are seeds? And how do seeds sprout and grow? Indoor and outdoor plantings make the growing process visible. Indoors a discussion about the growth of the classic “seed in a bag” can reveal children’s understanding of the needs of plants. Outdoors, even a large pot can sustain a small crop of edible plants if you want to start small. The KidsGardening website has information on gardening with children and the US Department of Agriculture’s zone map of plant hardiness can help you decide when to plant. 

Poster of children's comments about sprouting success (or not) of seeds.When children are given the responsibility of planning a system for plant care, the plants become more important to them. “Plant waterer” or “Garden care” can be added to a job chart. Children might suggest that each child get a turn to carry the heavy water jug out to the garden pot, or that every child can use a spray bottle indoors.

Many programs have children plant in pots to give to parents as a Mothers’ Day gift. How about starting some herb seeds, such as spring onion or cilantro, now so the growth is lush by May 12, 2019? If you leave children’s names off the pots, and be sure to plant a few extra pots, there will be enough for every family even if some don’t thrive because they are over or under watered.

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E-book Invites Young Readers to Discover How a Fish Fossil Exists in an Egyptian Desert

After devoting 25 years to the teaching profession, Mary Hanson was seeking “out of the box professional development opportunities.”

“I was at the point in my career where I was looking for (more than) just getting another master’s degree or license,” said Hanson, who teaches fourth grade for the Whitehall (Wisc.) Memorial School District. She applied to participate in a federally-funded grant project that sought to equip elementary school teachers with practical strategies for integrating literacy with the NGSS in their classrooms.

Hanson was accepted into the program (Using Children’s Literature to Teach Science), which was run out of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and the experience not only expanded her skill, but broadened her professional network. Hanson learned through Shelley Lee, one of the program’s coordinators, that NSTA was seeking new authors to add to its publishing roster.

“Being an author was always something that I wanted to do,” Hanson confessed. “It’s been on my bucket list since I was a kid. So, I looked up more information on the NSTA website, I started sending emails, and there I was, on my way to becoming an author.”

Hanson admits that she initially saw her idea getting published as a “regular book,” but changed her mind after personally experiencing one of NSTA’s eBook+ Kids interactive e-books.

“I realized that this format was not just going to be the process of making my book available online,” she explained. “You have to experience an NSTA eBook+ for Kids to fully understand it. Once I did, I started seeing how I could arrange lessons to support the e-book’s learnings in my classroom, via my Smartboard, via interactives. I told myself, ‘I can do this!’”

Hanson’s interactive e-book, Fish Out of Water, focuses on earth science, a subject she is passionate about and loves teaching.

“It’s mind-blowing thinking about the planet that we are on and what’s literally going on under our feet while we go along with our daily lives,” she said. “Just think of the huge amount of time that the earth has been here and what’s been happening all along! And then think about the short time that humans have been on the planet and how it’s changed ever since. Kids get really excited learning about things they’ve never thought about before.”

Fish Out of Water takes students on an expedition to a paleontological site in the Egyptian dessert. Led by 10-year-old Kat, a student paleontologist, who communicates with her readers via video chat, students will discover just how a fossil fish came to exist in such a dry, arid place; help Kat identify the age of the fossil; and learn how fossils can be used to understand the earth’s surface and how/why it changes over time. Kat’s expedition is like a puzzle, Hanson explained, one that students work to complete as they progress throughout the book.

In compiling her content, the author drew from real-life experiences like the time she took her own sons to visit Yellowstone National Park.

“The water was bubbling up because the crust is thin,” Hanson recalled. “We walked over a bridge that was right over the caldera. We could smell something coming from inside the earth!

“I’ve always had a strong need to understand things, especially the planet. I always want to know more and then share what I learn with others!”

Science, social studies, and writing, three subjects that Hanson enjoys teaching most, were brought together in her e-book, which is specifically written about one, 4th-grade science standards: Code 4 ESS1-1.

Even before the Wisconsin Department of Education formally adopted the NGSS, Hanson said that her rural, progressive school district enthusiastically embraced the standards and set out to revamp its entire science curriculum.

“We’ve been working for a few years in our district on rewriting our curriculum to meet the NGSS, and we think it’s pretty good,” Hanson said. “At first it seems like there is so much: Crossing-cutting concepts, core disciplinary ideas, connections to be made with both literature and math standards. But once you learn how to read the standards and understand how they work, it’s not so bad.”

The writer has another e-book in the works which will be based on an upcoming trip to Iceland.

“My favorite part of earth science is plate tectonics,” Hanson said. “In Iceland, you can see the North American and European tectonic plates pulling apart. Most of the time, this activity occurs underneath the ocean, so you cannot see it. That’s what makes Iceland so special.

“My next book will follow my character Kat to Iceland where she will help her friend Alfred, a student geologist, crack a mysterious case.”

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Engaging Young Learners in the Practices of Science – Starting with Questions about Earthworms

Margaret Egan, photo by Allie LaRue

Photo by Allie LaRue

Welcome to guest blogger Margaret Egan who has dual roles at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, VA: Outdoor Learning Coordinator and S.T.E.A.M. Teacher. She is a National Board Certified teacher with master’s degrees in both science and education, and has worked as a naturalist and environmental scientist before becoming a teacher. This background facilitates her efforts to weave meaningful age-appropriate curriculum-based content into a wide variety of learning experiences through Tuckahoe’s Discovery Schoolyard. Outdoor learning provides opportunities to engage children in S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art, math) activities, and to nurture their sense of environmental stewardship. Discussing how animal adaptations have inspired human innovation, exploring patterns, carrying out science investigations, and planting gardens are examples of engaging experiences that foster critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills. 

Child looking for earthworms in the school yard.Many times, I have taken groups of young students (Pre-K through early elementary) outside only to have learning activities sidetracked by the discovery of earthworms! These gentle little creatures become the focus of students’ attention, generating excitement and conversation. Over time, I have come to view earthworms as a wonderful starting place for various types of learning. While instruction of this type can seem unstructured, it is not aimless. According to the NSTA position statement on Elementary Science Education, “High-quality elementary science education is essential for establishing a sound foundation of learning in later grades, instilling a wonder of and enthusiasm for science that lasts a lifetime.”

Content related to core science concepts such as food chains, ecological relationships, and scientific investigation is taught at increasing levels of depth and detail through the grades. Content information is more meaningful to students when they have that first-hand experiential foundation, and have maintained their sense of wonder. Studying earthworms through both relatively unstructured discovery learning experiences and highly structured lessons provides ideal opportunities to engage students in the practices of science and engineering identified as essential in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and A Framework for K-12 Science Education.

1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)

2. Developing and using models

3. Planning and carrying out investigations

4. Analyzing and interpreting data

5. Using mathematics and computational thinking

6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)

7. Engaging in argument from evidence

8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

The learning process described in the NGSS Framework combines concept learning with practice in the context of investigation and problem-solving. The eight practices are meant to be accessible at some level to all students, starting in kindergarten and growing in complexity through the grades.  They may overlap and interconnect but tend to arise sequentially in the course of investigations. Thus “asking questions” is a natural place to begin. Classroom discussion often leads to student-generated questions such as those below, suitable for investigation and related to the NGSS Practices, listed below.

Two children use magnifiers to look at earthwormsWhat is an earthworm? Students can be guided to make detailed observations, and to use specific and descriptive language. Guidance may include encouragement to be specific and avoid using words that mean different things to different people. Rather than describing a worm as weird, cool, or icky, a scientist might say wiggly, pink, or wet.  As students inevitably discover a variety of wonders, such as worm eggs, centipedes, and grubs, opportunities abound to encourage critical thinking related to classification. Questions such as, “Does it have legs?” “Does it move like a worm?” and “Did you find it in the same place as the worms?” help students to notice the characteristics of living things and use them to make distinctions. Students can gather information about the characteristics of various groups of animals and engage in evidence-based argument about which group worms belong to, based on appearance and behaviors. Teaching students to add “because” to their statements is a simple but powerful way to encourage evidence-based reasoning, such as “I think this worm is a baby because it is smaller than my fingertip.”

How does an earthworm move? Making models is a great way to explore this question. Simple worm models may include an accordion-folded strip of paper, the bendy section of a straw, or a rubber band. Comparing students’ models to real worms, and analyzing differences, allows students to make decisions about possible improvements to the models.  

Are there different types of earthworms? Students will likely encounter earthworms with varying characteristics, such as large, small, green, or pink. Keeping data on the number of each type found can be as simple as making tally marks with chalk on a nearby paved surface. Math and computational thinking can be applied to the data as students analyze the differences in the numbers of worms in each category. Guiding questions help students apply knowledge and reasoning to construct explanations, and to argue for them using evidence. Such questions might include: Do all the worms move in the same way? Do they have the same type of rings on their bodies? Did you find them in different places? Do you think they all eat the same type of food?     

Where are earthworms? I have found that students will enthusiastically and with great focus dig in various spots, gathering information about where most worms can be found. They use their information to construct explanations, for example saying that worms are near plant roots for food or a pile of leaves for warmth. This question also provides a chance to practice measurement and mathematical thinking as students gather and evaluate the number and size of worms and how deep in the soil they are found. For young children, measurement can begin when they make comparisons; by first grade students typically can use rulers to generate their data.  Comparing the location of worms during warm months vs cold is an engaging starting place for planning and carrying out an investigation. 

Can worms tell light from dark, and do they have a preference? A simple experimental set-up involving a plastic plate (and water spray bottle to keep it moist), and a piece of dark paper to cover one side can serve as a model for light vs. shaded areas that a worm might encounter in its natural habitat. As students carefully place worms in the center of the plate, they can gather data about their behavior, which will prompt further science practices, including analysis and communication of findings. 

Child closely observing earthworms at a desk indoors.What does an earthworm need?

This question encourages young students to apply their observations in making inferences in relation to a larger science question, “What are the needs of living things?” which they will return to in later grades. One of my most rewarding experiences as a teacher occurred when I took first graders outside in late fall to try to figure out why earthworms were less prevalent in soil at that time of year. While I thought students might conclude that the worms had simply gone deeper, I was awed by the number of inferences students generated. For example, “Maybe the worms moved closer to the plant roots,” “Maybe the worms laid eggs then died,” and “Maybe the worms moved closer to the school building where it is warmer,” were ideas generated by students. They enthusiastically tested their suppositions by looking for worms in various locations. 

Inferring arises naturally from observation, and the differences between these two skills is something students typically explore in upper elementary or middle grades. For younger children, practice with inference comes naturally when they have a high-interest subject, and can be encouraged with guided inquiry. Specific questions, such as, “Why is the earthworm wiggling?” or  “Why is that worm smaller than the others?” help students to connect their observations to possible explanations.  Going a step further, the article, “What is a Good Guiding Question?” (Traver 1998) states, “Choosing the right questions can lead learners to higher, more meaningful  achievement.” 

During earthworm investigations, communication will take on many forms, from informal chatter while digging in soil to formal in-class reporting of experimental findings. Communication is facilitated when students have a high-interest subject that they care about. 

Working with earthworms also provides chances to model and practice empathy and kindness. Occasionally, a student may express fear or reluctance to work with worms. In this case, it is important for the teacher to provide alternatives, such as allowing that student to be an observer and data recorder, and never forcing a student beyond their comfort zone. This situation provides classmates opportunities to be kind and helpful to the fearful student. 

Of course, an attitude of kindness towards the animals encountered in soil studies, such as worms and insects, is important too. It is also in keeping with NSTA position statement guidance, which recommends, in part, “Espouse the importance of not conducting experimental procedures on animals if such procedures are likely to cause pain…” Once students understand, for example, that worms must be kept moist and returned to their homes, they are usually eager to ensure the worms’ safety. 

Many students will have heard that it is fine to cut a worm in half because the two parts will just regrow. Showing them that worms are complex animals, with muscles, hearts, and nerves – in some ways similar to people – helps to dispel this misconception. The NRC publication How Students Learn (Chapter 11) includes the statement, “Learning is an active process. We need to acknowledge students’ attempts to make sense of their experiences and help them confront inconsistencies in their sense making.” 

Earthworms may be easy to find in a garden bed or patch of schoolyard. For safety, it is best to check out the area first with an eye out for dangers such as thorny plants or poison ivy. For indoor learning, keeping a classroom vermicomposting bin is not difficult and makes a great starting point for lessons on food webs. Knowledge of the proper set-up and maintenance requirements, and some “starter worms” of the right species (different than those found outside) are keys to success (see Resources).

One factor that makes earthworm studies very doable, is that the materials needed are simple reusable items such as plastic trowels, plastic plates, and magnifying lenses. In my experience as a science, STEAM, and outdoor educator, I have found few things that compare with earthworms for sparking wonder and fully engaging students in the practices of science. 



Traver, Rod. 1998. What is a Good Guiding Question? Choosing the right questions can lead learners to higher, more meaningful achievement. Educational Leadership. March 1998.Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 55(6): 70-73. https://mtpyph.weebly.com/uploads/9/0/6/9/9069240/traver_-_good_guiding_question.pdf 


University of Illinois Extension. Urban Programs. The Adventures of Herman. 

This is a wonderful, rich, kid-friendly source of information on earthworm biology, very useful for launching discussion of worms as organisms that sense and respond to their environment. https://extension.illinois.edu/worms/  

Children’s Books:

Cronin, Doreen. 2004. Diary of a Worm. London: Joanna Cotler Books.

Glaser, Linda. 1994. Wonderful Worms. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press.

Himmelman, John. 2001. An Earthworm’s Life. Chicago, IL: Children’s Press.

Pfeffer, Wendy. 2008. Wiggling Worms at Work. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


Appelhof, Mary, & Joanne Olszewski. 2018. Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.

National Research Council (NRC). 2005. How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/10126/how-students-learn-history-mathematics-and-science-in-the-classroom 

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Supporting Classroom Implementation of Investigations and Design for All Students

Previous blogs on this series have focused on describing the Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12: Investigation and Design at the Center report’s conclusions and recommendations on the importance and role of investigation and engineering design in students learning science. Those blogs have highlighted the changes that must take place in the teacher-student interaction to better place investigations and engineering design at the center of the instructional process. However, those changes cannot happen in isolation inside each teacher’s classroom. Moving instruction from traditional teaching methods to practices that engage students in learning science and engineering using natural phenomena and engineering design challenges requires an adjustment in the way that the education system supports teachers.

This describes the report’s findings about how the system can support those changes in instructional practices that are called forth in the report. The report defines the system as made off human components as well as instructional resources, physical space, technology and time for instruction. Other important parts of the system are the school, district, regional, state, and national policies and practices that support teacher’s work as well as the perspectives and priorities of the local community. Consideration of all these key factors of this very complex system (see Figure 1) is critical to guarantee a safe and effective teaching and learning environment.

Continue reading …

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Engaging in Authentic Research

High school students participating in Rutgers University’s Waksman Student Scholars Program spend a year conducting research projects in molecular biology and bioinformatics—the computational analysis of biological data—with their teacher and scientists.

Looking for an opportunity for you and your students to do authentic scientific research? Then programs like Rutgers University’s Waksman Student Scholars Program (WSSP) might be for you. “Since 1993, we’ve been conducting the [WSSP], a year-long program that engages high school teachers and their students in an authentic research project in molecular biology and bioinformatics [the computational analysis of biological data]. Each year, the program begins with a summer institute, then continues back at each school, when additional students contribute to the investigations,” explains Sue Coletta, a senior science education specialist with Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology in Piscataway, New Jersey.

The WSSP began with six schools and 18 students. “Now more than 50 schools and 1,400 students [are participating] this year alone,” says WSSP Project Director Andrew Vershon, a professor in the Waksman Institute and Rutgers’ Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. The program has “spread beyond New Jersey to other locations: Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California,” Vershon reports. Schools in those states and in Hawaii and Pennsylvania are also now active in WSSP, doing projects like the 2017–2018 cohort did: “analysis of the mRNA population of Landoltia punctata, a duckweed…to determine which genes are expressed in this organism, and how they compared with expressed genes from other species,” according to the program’s website (https://wssp.rutgers.edu).

Typically, schools apply for WSSP. “We get a commitment from the school and the teacher,” Vershon notes. “Sometimes the science supervisor identifies a teacher” who would be a good candidate, he adds.

The program begins with a two- to three-week summer institute at Rutgers for the teachers, who each bring with them one or two students. “We go over DNA sequencing, background, experiments, and the rationale [so that teachers] learn how to conduct the experiment,” Vershon relates. “They learn how to fit the experiments into their schedules and integrate the program in their setting, how to manage a class of 12 to 24 students to conduct experiments.” During their first two years, teachers receive a stipend for the summer program, he adds.

Teachers and students then do the project with other students back at their schools in a classroom setting or in after-school clubs during the academic year. “We [support the teachers by providing] some reagents and loan participating schools the equipment needed to conduct the experiments,” explains Vershon. “Some of the equipment is very expensive and not common to high school settings.”

Participating schools are responsible for supplying consumables, such as tubes and pipettes. “We make sure schools are aware of the [monetary] and space commitment and the need for computers [for] computational modeling programs,” he relates. “There’s a lot of database searching involved, using databases that scientists worldwide use.”

Students use molecular biology laboratory protocols to isolate and analyze DNA samples. The samples are sequenced, and students determine whether the sequences are similar to genes from other organisms using online programs. As they carry out the work during the year, “we stay in contact with the students, teachers, and schools. Six follow-up meetings are held during the school year, and teachers can bring up to 10 students [with them] to each meeting,” says Vershon.

During these meetings, “teachers can troubleshoot together,” and teachers and students “learn what other schools are doing. It’s like a graduate student seminar [because students] present [their work] to the group, [have an] exchange of ideas and findings,” Vershon points out.

Students who discover new findings have their results published. “The students can actually contribute to science, and the materials they’re contributing are available to scientists for their own research,” Vershon relates. “Our goal is to have every participating student be able to publish a DNA sequence analysis on the databases that are maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.” He estimates 90% of students participating in classes are able to publish, while “68% to 70%” of students in after-school clubs have their findings published.

“The year ends with the annual WSSP Forum [Poster Session], when teams present their findings,” says Coletta, and “students [get to] see themselves as members of a community of practice,” she concludes.

Astronomical Research

For teachers of astronomy, IPAC at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has offered the NASA/IPAC Teacher Archive Research Program (or NITARP) since 2009. (IPAC provides infrared data processing and analysis support to NASA’s long wavelength observatories.) NITARP partners groups of U.S. educators with mentor astronomers to do year-long research projects using NASA data from space- and ground-based telescopes, says NITARP Director Luisa Rebull, a research scientist for Caltech/IPAC. After the project concludes, participants are asked to provide professional development based on their experiences to colleagues in their school districts.

While ideally, teachers should have some experience using astronomy data in the classroom, Rebull notes that most participants “have never done real scientific research, or even in some cases, worked with real data.” To teach the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), she contends, “teachers have to step up their game, do real science with real data and real tools…This is a gap in teacher education.”

NITARP is “very popular and highly competitive…We typically have nearly five times as many teachers apply as spaces available,” reports Rebull. Applications become available in the spring and are due in late September to allow teachers time to work on them over the summer. (To learn more, visit https://nitarp.ipac.caltech.edu.)

Most participants are high school teachers, but teams have included middle level, community college, and informal educators. Teachers can involve their students in NITARP throughout the project. Teachers, students, and scientists collaborate remotely via conference calls and online.

NITARP is unusual because the program funds three trips. Participants attend two January meetings of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the first in conjunction with an initial NITARP workshop and the other a year later to present their research findings in a science poster session. Educators produce two posters: a scientific poster that educators defend along with the scientists, and an education poster “to jump start their reflection on what they learned and how it will affect their teaching,” Rebull explains.

Teachers also visit Caltech in Pasadena, California, in the summer to work on the data with their team. NITARP funds the attendance of teachers and two of their students at the Caltech meeting and the second AAS meeting.

Often teacher alumni raise their own funds to attend additional AAS meetings after their project ends “because it’s so much fun that they want to come back and keep learning,” Rebull reports.

“NITARP helps teachers tackle a seemingly impossible project,” she maintains. “We help them feel comfortable with not knowing everything [at the start]. Scientists are used to [this, so we tell teachers], ‘It’s okay to [not know everything]: It’s part of being a scientist.’”

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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

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Ed News: We Must Restore Respect to the Teaching Profession

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This week in education news, new legislation introduced in ban animal dissection in California schools; House passes the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act; teachers need to have a voice; professional development is a term that many educators have come to hate; first independent review to weigh whether new science curriculum series are truly aligned to a set of national standards was released; Education Secretary Betsy DeVos trying to redefine public education; basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is auctioning off four of his NBA championship rings for STEM education; and virtual and augmented reality educational applications can help students build computer science skills.

Building Bots and Confidence

On a blustery winter afternoon in a school gym that had seen better days, Shemar Watkins, 11, and three friends huddled over a pile of Legos, learning how to fail. The lesson wasn’t going well. Shemar and about two dozen children at Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, a struggling, mostly African-American school in Charm City, had formed small teams to build “battlebots” — simple, battery-powered devices made from Lego bricks. The goal: Win a king-of-the-hill competition to prove which team had the best bot. Read the article featured in The New York Times.

Groundbreaking Bill Introduced to Ban Animal Dissection in CA Schools

California could become the first state in the nation to ban the dissection of animals in K-12 schools if a bill just introduced in the state Legislature were to pass. Assembly Bill 1586, called the Replacing Animals in Science Education (or RAISE) Act would encourage schools to adopt newer teaching methods such as 3-D computer modeling programs to teach biology. Read the article by the Public News Service.

Continue reading …

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Why We Shouldn’t Keep “Bugs” in a Drawer

Guest blogger Monica Dolan is the STEM Curriculum Coordinator at The Children’s Center at CalTech where she works as a liaison between the administration and the teaching staff to ensure curriculum plans are consistent with the center’s conceptual STEM based approach. This early childhood program sponsors an annual Early Childhood STEM conference, ECSTEM. Monica also works closely with the teachers documenting children’s work and reviewing data to suggest possibilities of direction, and maintains and runs the outdoor STEM lab. Monica has a Master’s Degree from Pacific Oaks College and has worked as a teacher in early childhood for fifteen years, currently also working with local colleges presenting workshops on implementing STEM activities and environments within a classroom and teaching a course on STEAM. Welcome Monica!

At The Children’s Center at Caltech we have an outdoor science lab for the children, located in the heart of our preschool yard.  When the lab was being built we were clear with the architects that we did not want locks on the drawers and cabinets so the children could access materials as needed.  

Isopod, also known as a roly-poly or pill bug, on a hand.One of the most popular spaces in the lab is the Microscope Viewing Station.  At this space the drawers are filled with bug viewers, magnifying glasses, tweezers and small lab gloves.  The children access these materials daily and run onto the yard to collect bugs, flowers, leaves, dirt, sticks and anything else they find particularly interesting that morning.  It is not unusual that children will fill a bug viewer with Pill Bugs (a.k.a. isopods, or roll-polies) and observe how they move throughout the morning.  When it was time to go inside, these bug viewers, and their contents of live Pill Bugs, would be placed into the drawers, shut and left there, ultimately to die! 

The staff found it very important to discuss with the children how to respect living things.  We spoke with the children about finding insects and other small animals, and observing the habitats in which they were found.  We spoke about returning living things to their natural habitats so they don’t die.  We also looked closely at these spaces in nature so that we could create artificial habitats within our classrooms providing the opportunity to study living creatures for longer periods of time.  We included food, water and vegetation to support the ecosystems.  

The more opportunities we provide to learn about nature, the more children take care of it.  Humans share a symbiotic relationship with nature. Through working together the children have learned to create balance. 

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folder icon  Safety

Preventing Science Laboratory Fires

Most science and STEM laboratories contain chemicals and electrical wiring that could cause smoke or fires. For this reason, the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 45 (section 6.3) standard, in accordance with NFPA 10, requires portable fire extinguishers to be installed and maintained in science labs.

The Department of Health and Safety at Tufts University offers the following safety recommendations to prevent electrical fires, open-flame hazards, and fires caused by flammable and combustible liquids.

1. Do not overload electrical equipment.
2. Static electrical sparks can ignite flammable liquids and gases.
3. Electrical devices that produce sparks such as motors.
4. Do not use extension cords for permanent wiring.
5. Do not link one power strip to another (daisy chain).
6. Do not use plug removal as a substitute for an on-off switch.
7. Do not store flammable or combustible solids or liquids in a standard refrigerator or freezer.
8. Lab made electrical devices must be approved by a competent electrician prior to use.
9. Do not drape electrical cords over light fixtures or other heat producing equipment.
10. Remove from service all frayed or damaged electrical cords.
11. Replace all three wire plugs with a missing or damaged grounding prong.

Open Flames

1. Use sparking tool to ignite fires rather than matches or butane lighters.
2. Check gas hose connections to ensure they are tight and not leaking. Soap solution is simple to make and use: Look for bubbles.
3. Do not use Tygon or plastic tubing to connect burners to gas outlet. (Use Bunsen burner flexible tubing designed to meet the American Gas Association’s test standards.)
4. Flammable gases and vapors travel distances quickly; avoid producing clouds of vapor that can ignite and flashback to you.
5. Never leave open flames unattended for any length of time.
6. Do not use open flame or other high heat source within 6 feet of a container of flammable liquid.
7. Use open flame in a fume hood whenever possible. Remove all flammable and combustible liquids from the fume hood. Storage of these liquids as reagents or chemical waste is not allowed. Continue reading …

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Engineering in early childhood continues

child digs a hold in the sandEngineering was celebrated last week but it continues to happen spontaneously, and with teachers’ support, in early childhood settings. Engineering happens when young children try to solve a problem by designing and testing a solution. They use a stick to dig and sculpt a hole, maneuver a block to stand on to reach a desired object on a shelf, or drape a cloth over a table to create a “house.” They try first solutions and re-design some aspects, and we hope they will persist until they solve the problem to their satisfaction. See Hoisington and Winokur’s examples of engineering in early childhood programs and how to prepare the environment in their September 2015 article in Science and Children.

The “Approaches to Learning” domain in many early childhood standards references persistence and other approaches such as curiosity, eagerness, initiative, creativity, inventiveness, initiative, active exploration, reasoning, flexibility, reflection, and problem solving (Resources). Take a peek at the Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects (NAE and NRC) written by the Committee on K-12 Engineering “to determine the scope and nature of efforts to teach engineering to the nation’s elementary and secondary students.” The report describes a set of three general, aspirational, principles for K-12 engineering education (pages 4-6). Continue reading …

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Using Social Media and Technology to Encourage Students’ Evidence-Based Discussions

Teachers often aspire to help their students become more involved in a community of practice. In my classroom, members of the community are my students, as well as students in other classrooms and professional scientists. In this blog post, I will show how using science and engineering practices with technology can give students the tools and confidence they need to engage others in evidence-based discussions as part of a community of practice.

The way scientists talk to one another is through evidence. Continue reading …

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