STEMcoding project releases “Physics of Video Games” Hour of Code activity

Until recently, the world’s most popular K12 computer science website,, did not have any physics-focused coding activities. This was the case until Professor Chris Orban of Ohio State University initiated an effort to develop coding tutorials for physics teachers to learn code. Below is a link to describe his work on this project:

Perhaps the best way to understand what Professor Orban has developed is to look at the “The Physics of Video Games” Hour of Code video tutorial below:.

Another perspective is to examine the STEMcoding project (, which was just released on The direct link to the video tutorial is at . The “Physics of Video Games” coding activities are intended for absolute beginner programmers in grades 9-12 and they were designed with significant feedback from high school physics teachers. All activities are 100% chromebook compatible. The STEMcoding project, which was recently selected for the AIP Meggers award, is led by Prof. Chris Orban from Ohio State University and Prof. Richelle Teeling-Smith from the University of Mt. Union.

Once you take the time to explore this project, I think you will find it very useful for high school teachers. Since we all know that video games are of interest for most high school learners, having teachers examine how physics can be understood within video games offers educators great potential to motivate students to learn physics. In summary, this is a winner!

For more information including (mostly online) summer professional development for teachers (from any STEM discipline) please contact Prof. Chris Orban at

Edwin P. Christmann is a professor and chairman of the secondary education department and graduate coordinator of the mathematics and science teaching program at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

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Build the Science Department: Stories of Success

How can your science department become a site for developing teachers’ professional learning?

Building the Science Department: Stories of Success by Wayne Melville, Doug Jones, and Todd Campbell, features authentic accounts of teachers invested in reforming science teaching and learning. From the authors of the NSTA Press guide Reimagining the Science Department, this book offers stories told in teachers’ own words to provide advice and insight into strategies for building and improving a science department.

The book was conceived with the intention of sharing the stories of teachers who had negotiated reforms, challenged their own teaching practices, changed their classrooms, and transformed their departments.

The first part of the book focuses on scientific activity as represented in A Framework for K–12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and looks at how scientific activity can be used to “frame the work within science departments and how it aligns with contemporary visions of science teaching and learning.”

The second part of the book features teacher vignettes that address the various parts of a professional learning framework: context, content, activities, and processes. Each vignette is accompanied by commentary that unpacks key points and messages, and includes questions designed to challenge teachers to improve their instructional practices and align these practices more closely with current reform initiatives. As the authors note, one teacher alone cannot achieve the vision and aim of the Framework and NGSS; instead, teachers must work together as a department to collaborate, learn together, and move the department forward as a unit.

The book discusses some of the cultural issues that serve to maintain the status quo in science teaching. “The current reality is that school science has not changed much in the past century and is struggling to engage and retain students in many parts of the Western world,” the authors state.

Traditionally-taught school science, rather than engage young people, turns them away from the field; therefore, in order to reform science education, deeper and more authentic professional learning will be required. What’s being offered to teachers now isn’t good enough. “If we are being honest, the value of much professional learning that occurs in schools can be questioned. The reason for this pessimistic view is that much professional learning fails to address teachers’ learning needs, the context of their work, or the ways in which adults learn,” the authors state.

By exploring real-life examples from both new and veteran teachers, Building the Science Department can help science teachers identify gaps in their knowledge and experience, and start to build departments that will be able to meet the needs of diverse teachers interested in creating curricula and teaching practices that will engage their students and help them to achieve.

To learn more, read the sample chapter “The Content of Professional Learning.”

This book is also available as an e-book.

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Quick Lab and Activity Assessments

I would like to include a rubric when students are completing various labs and activities in science. Could you share any examples?
– A., Iowa

I have found that checklists, in particular, are good assessment tools during a lab. The objective is to quickly assess and record student performance while still monitoring the lab as you circulate the room and answer questions.

Most textbooks and lab manuals include generic checklists and rubrics for assessing lab skills and maintaining safety. Streamline the checklist by incorporating it with a class list. I would often copy checklists on colored paper and carry it around on a clipboard. You can align it with curricular goals by listing the specific learning outcomes. A ‘checklist’ doesn’t have to be tick-boxes – it could be a Likert-type scale or a quick numbering system (as simple as 1-2-3). Incorporate space for comments.

A quick search of NSTA’s The Learning Center came up with a few sample chapters that might be useful:

4Teachers ( offers a pretty good checklist generator with some built-in items that you can select, edit, and augment. (After you select the appropriate grade level under the Science heading, check out the option for Experimental Research.) I would even give students the checklists to self-assess after cleanup.

This same website also has an excellent rubric maker: This website revolutionized the way I teach because I could generate an assessment rubric for almost any type of activity I could think of: reports, posters, brochures, public service announcements, videos, and more. I would never have considered doing debates in biology if it weren’t for this website. As for your specific needs: under the Science heading there is a Lab Report item that contains some lab safety assessment options. Group work rubrics can be generated as well.

Hope this helps!

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Discovery bottles: Learning moments for children and adults

“Discovery bottles” are one way to allow children to use small objects without putting them in their mouths. These bottles for open-ended exploration can be constructed to relate to many different science concepts and topics. Other bottles are made expressly for helping children calm themselves as needed. See the Early Years blog post of September 17, 2009 or Sandy Watson’s 2008 article, “Discovery Bottles,” about using bottles filled with different materials as tools for science explorations. (Watson, Sandy. 2008. Discovery Bottles. Science and Children. 45(9): 20-24) Of course there is only “discovery” when children are first playing with the bottles and later when they talk about what they observe and think about it. None of the Discovery Bottles I’ve made have ever held children’s interest for more than a few months. Pass them on to another classroom or child care provider when your children have finished their discoveries.

Child care providers at a professional development session showed how important open exploration also is for adults. I was presenting about using Discovery Bottles to engage infants to eight year olds. I shared examples of using bottles filled with water and objects to play with and roll, and to observe water flow, air bubbles, magnification, color change (looking through colored water), floating and sinking objects, counting the number of objects, identifying shapes of objects, and for soothing oneself. Then each participant made their own to use for a purpose they chose and later described.

One provider and his spouse made a bottle half filled with water and just one cube made from thick art foam. He intended it to be a way to explore the level of a surface, to see how the cube floated when the bottle was laid sideways on different surfaces. Unexpectedly the cube stuck to the side of the bottle when he rotated the bottle, rather than staying afloat in the water. He wondered why the cube stuck there, wondering if static electricity was involved.

The water-filled bottle with a foam cube sticking to the inside and another one sticking to the outside.We talked with the small group at the table, then rubbed the bottle on our hair and tested to see if another cube of art foam would stick to the outside of the bottle. It did not. We talked about how the inside was different from the outside of the bottle and they identified water as being present inside. So he wet the outside of the bottle with water and put a cube onto the wet outside. Since the cube stuck in the water on the outside of the bottle he said he thought it was something about the water that made the cube stick to the bottle. We talked about how water sticks to our hands when we wash them and that children also experience this. There is a word for that phenomenon, “adhesion.” Knowing a word doesn’t help us understand why a phenomenon happens, but it does give us a quick way to talk about it. The ‘why’ can come much later, after children have had many experiences observing the properties of different states of matter and building structures out of many smaller parts, when children encounter the fact that matter is composed of atoms and molecules in middle school.

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A Learning Trajectory for Sensemaking in Science

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer teachers the opportunity to consider teaching science in a new way. We help students engage with, wonder about, and make sense of natural phenomena, which closely resembles how scientists perceive the world and do their work. By observing phenomena, scientists generate questions, predict outcomes, and generalize results to develop shared knowledge. Using NGSS, and with the teacher’s help, students also work to build shared knowledge.

But the NGSS present another opportunity that is nested within shared knowledge-building: the opportunity to teach sensemaking. Because shared knowledge-building is a collaborative effort, it requires students to interact with one another and make sense of one another’s ideas. To productively engage with other students’ ideas for understanding phenomena, students must do three things: Make their own idea clear and comprehensible, understand their classmates’ ideas, and figure out how to compare their ideas.

These tasks are harder than they seem; even adults find them challenging! When a colleague processes a shared experience very differently than you do, consider how hard it can be to regard his or her viewpoint as equally credible as your own.

Our understanding of what others say is heavily influenced by both our expectations and prior knowledge. When students have ideas that are very different from what is expected and what is already known, teachers must provide support so the ideas can be comprehended and considered potentially valid and sensible. Collective sensemaking is particularly challenging for ideas contributed by English language learners (ELLs), or by students with social or cultural perspectives that diverge from the rest of the classroom community. Their ideas may be differently constructed or developed from resources unfamiliar to students accustomed to mainstream white middle-class norms promoted in the classroom. In these situations, teacher supports require more thoughtful and purposeful preparation. Continue reading …

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Asking Questions and Defining Problems by Making Cultural Connections

My goal for students in my eighth-grade middle school science class is to enter high school with the absolute certain knowledge that they can “do” science. They know that when presented with the inevitable problems and questions of everyday life, they have strategies to analyze, interpret, and sort evidence to make good decisions. My role is to provide a framework for students to develop those strategies. The NGSS practice of asking questions and defining problems is the first of the techniques I use in my classroom.

Continue reading …

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Science for All Students: A Teacher’s Perspective

Like many classrooms around the country, my diverse fourth-grade classroom consisted of regular education students, special education students, English learners, gifted students, students receiving free and reduced-cost lunches, and students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The science and engineering practice of developing and using models affords all students access to science learning.

As one of the writers of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and member of the NGSS Diversity and Equity Team, I became familiar with the research on effective teaching strategies described in NGSS Appendix D. I learned that the effective teaching strategies leverage support of science learning for specific demographic groups. But how could I incorporate all the strategies in my unit and lesson plans for my diverse classroom? Since some strategies overlapped across demographic groups and some students overlapped across demographic groups, I focused on those overlapping strategies (noted in italics in the lesson description below):

  • Promote place-based learning in a community context;
  • Use authentic, relevant activities;
  • Use language to do science, as NGSS practices are language intensive;
  • Provide multiple modes of representation, including both linguistic (i.e., oral and written language) and non-linguistic modes (e.g., drawings, graphs, tables, symbols, equations); and
  • Leverage students’ funds of knowledge from their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Continue reading …

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Ed News: Attracting, Retaining Qualified & Diverse Faculty Is A Prerequisite To Building The Field

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This week in education news, Girls Scouts launch $70 Million STEM initiative; new study reveals that some Latinos believe science education may have a negative impact on the religious faith of their children; the more education that Democrats and Republicans have, the more their beliefs in climate change diverge; Nevada may add math and science requirements to graduate high school; and after school STEM programs inspire kids to keep learning.

Attracting, Retaining Qualified And Diverse Faculty Is A Prerequisite To Building The Field

As we try to digest how to get more women and underrepresented minorities into STEM fields, or really any other type of career, experts often say that one key factor is that students see in themselves a future through the people they look up to. In other words, it’s difficult for a girl from a diverse background to see herself getting into a computer science field, when the demographics of her class and her professor is the complete opposite of anything she’s ever known. Read the article featured in Education DIVE.

Girl Scouts Launches $70 Million STEM Initiative

Girl Scouts of the USA has announced a national fundraising initiative in support of a new program aimed at closing the gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Read the article featured in Philanthropy News Digest. Continue reading …

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folder icon  Safety

7 Safety Guidelines for Guest Presentations

Although guest presenters can offer real-life science experiences to students, they may not be familiar with the safety practices that need to be in place to create safer learning experiences. In October 2012, for instance, two fourth graders were rushed to a hospital during a science demonstration involving dry ice and salt. As part of the demonstration with the science education company Mad Science, students placed items in their mouths, reportedly resulting in corrosive burns in one child’s mouth and throat.

As a licensed professional, the teacher carries the bulk of the legal responsibility with student injuries during a demonstration. Thus, science teachers need to keep safety in mind when planning a guest presentation. The following seven strategies will help teachers prepare for the event and establish safety guidelines and expectations for guest speakers.

1. School policies. Contact school administrators to determine if there are any policies in place governing the use of guest speakers in your classroom or science laboratory.

2. Announce the activity. Let the school’s main office know about plans to have a guest speaker, including the time, date, location, and topic. Also, invite building administrators, the department head, and fellow colleagues to the presentation.

3. Choose a reputable source. Know who you are inviting as a guest. Reach out to colleagues, parents, the local Chamber of Commerce, local colleges, and other reputable resources for guest speakers. Continue reading …

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Sub Plans for Physics

This is my first year of teaching physics and I can’t think of generic substitute plans for this class. Can you suggest some generic/emergency plans that could help me? 
– E., Michigan

One of the hardest things is to wake up knowing you can’t make it to work and you’re now scrambling to provide something for your substitute. Mary Bigelow recently posted an excellent blog post ( on preparing for substitutes. Since your question is specific to physics, I can add a little to her advice.

  • I advise against generic activities to “just keep students busy.” Concentrate on moving your lessons ahead.
  • The Physics Classroom ( has free downloadable worksheets along with online tutorials and quizzes that can address almost anything you’re teaching in physics (although I find them a little short on magnetism).
  • The National Science Digital Library has a searchable library of lessons, activities, simulations and more.
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an incredible number of videos on all subjects:
    – Multimedia library:
    – NSF YouTube Channel:
    Science 360 videos:

When showing videos, the students shouldn’t see them as a break from learning, particularly when there is a substitute teacher. You should always have some form of follow up or active component. An online search for graphic organizers to respond to videos will give you lots to choose from. Keep these on file.

Hope this helps.

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