Observe. Everything. Young children, Science Friday and walks in nature

A spider on a daisy flower.

Why is a spider hanging out on a flower? Two-year-old children observed this spider but haven’t yet asked a question about it. Give them time. #ObserveEverything

“Observation is that first step to discovery,” noted Ariel Zych, Science Friday Education Manager, in a audio segment about Science Friday’s Science Club citizen science challenge, #ObserveEverything.

Science Club notes that scientists such as Galileo, Darwin and Curie made careful observations which led to their discoveries. As individuals or as groups or a class, we are invited to do just that: observe everything and anything, and communicate our observation in one of many formats including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, YouTube, Email, and Tumblr! And, of course, we’ll communicate our observation to other students and parents.

All we have to do is:

  1. Observe everything until we notice something that interests you.
  2. Observe it methodically, in the same way, at regular intervals, keeping a record of our observations.
  3. Share our observations with the hashtag #ObserveEverything (see details at https://www.rebelmouse.com/scifri/Science-Club/ )

As I walked with a small class of two year olds (25-30 months old) for the first time through a tended garden near the school, I pointed out features of plants that I thought would interest them. We looked at a tree “thiiiisssss” tall with small leaves (willow oak) and a smaller tree (but still big to them) with big leaves (paw-paw). We used one gentle finger to touch the leaves and whole hands and bodies to hold the trunk. They spotted ants on tree bark, crows in tree tops, squirrels dashing to climb trees and bees going from flower to flower. A few children confidently said, “They’re getting pollen.” Most exciting was the observation of a small spider on a daisy flower. None of the children yet wondered why the spider was on the flower. With time and discussion, they will see a pattern of animals using plants to survive (NGSS K-LS1-1).

As we walked and observed, the adults often reminded the group about ways we can be good stewards of this garden tended by others:

  • Walk on the grass or the mulch paths.
  • Use our eyes to see, our nose to smell, and a gentle finger to touch (most things).
  • Pick up leaves from the ground, not off a plant because it is still using them.
  • Stop and “freeze” if you see an animal so you can watch it for a while without scaring it away.

See articles such as “A Day at the Beach, Anyone?” by Anthony Fredericks and Julie Childers (Science and Children July 2004) and other NSTA posts (here and here) for suggestions on preparing for field trips.

We observed everything! I wonder what observation, and maybe questions, we’ll post next time?

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How Can Science Teachers Use the NGSS to Support English Language Learners’ Construction of Knowledge?

word cloud for Miller blogThis era of AYP (annual yearly progress) and the pressure to meet AMAOs for English Language Learners (ELLs) has fueled our current focus on academic language goals, often framed as vocabulary or discrete elements of grammar. But this narrow focus can result in missed opportunities to seek out and build on student-centered cultural and linguistic resources. Teachers need to focus on developing and honing their pedagogical skills to solicit student ideas and link students’ cultural experiences to the classroom. When we’re able to do that, science class becomes the optimal place to build on the prior understandings and language skills and language-rich practices that all of our students have developed at home and in their communities.

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The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) offer a way to start the journey of reflective teaching and raise the bar of science learning for all students. Appendix D—All Standards, All Students is accompanied by seven case studies of diverse student groups and addresses what classroom teachers can do to ensure that the NGSS are accessible to all students. The introduction states: “The chapter highlights practicality and utility of implementation strategies that are grounded in theoretical or conceptual frameworks. It consists of three parts. First, it discusses both learning opportunities and challenges that the NGSS present to student groups that have traditionally been underserved in science classrooms. Second, it describes effective strategies for implementation of the NGSS in the classroom, school, home, and community. Finally, it provides the context of student diversity by addressing changing demographics, persistent science achievement gaps, and educational policies affecting non-dominant student groups.”

I was honored to have taken the lead for Case Study 4: English Language Learners and the Next Generation Science Standards and provide the classroom vignette. In this unit, I engage ELLs with three-dimensional learning, in part, by bridging home and community with school. I use a homework assignment to validate the science knowledge in the home and develop comprehensive understanding of the science ideas, which compels a new driving question.

I have students take the Driving Question, “Is all soil the same?” to their families as an “interview.” The students solicit their families’ experiences with soil and write down the interview responses to share with the class. As a result of the homework, many students, especially those whose families have expertise in gardening, have deep, thoughtful conversations with their family. All of the ELL students strengthen their content-specific vocabulary in their home language, and they have an opportunity to bridge the content and vocabulary learned in school with their experiences at home. For example, newcomers from Gambia and Senegal are able to make sense of the science discussions in English after the translated homework is sent home and discussed in the home language.

The extra effort to connect home and school sends a message about the high value placed on home and cultural knowledge and experiences. The students feel validated and so do their family members. One Hmong parent, Mrs. Xiong, a vegetable vendor at a farmers’ market, offers to come into the classroom and share her expertise. She speaks through the school interpreter: “It’s raining in Laos pretty much all the time so the soil is pretty much rich. It rains so much the forest holds everything together and holds the nutrients. It doesn’t wash out. Over there we don’t have sandy soil. In this area, I was so surprised to see corn growing in rows in the sandy soil.” The class is fascinated by Mrs. Xiong’s description of fertilization techniques in her home country. After presenting families’ interviews about soil to their classmates, the students frequently bring up specific comments made by members of their family. It seems that the homework assignment is a small but powerful catalyst for inclusion.

The students write the evidence from their interviews onto sentence strips and include the evidence on the class’ Evidence Wall. This is powerful for some students, who see their parents’ words elevated to the same height as the evidence from shared readings! The students then analyze the data. The class discusses the similarities among the data and look for patterns, getting out a large world map. Everyone is unanimous that soil is different around the world. This discussion leads to the next Driving Question: “Is the soil the same in different places in our neighborhood?” The students spend the next three weeks engaged with the new driving question, collecting soil and analyzing it in three different locations around the school.

The ELL case study, soon to be published in the NSTA book, All Standards, All Students: Next Generation Science Standards in the Classroom, inspires teachers to attempt some new approaches for teaching science that will lead to success for their underserved students. As ELLs engage in sense-making with others around them, they draw from the experiences and conversations they have in their home, in their home language. When teachers tap into these experiences and discussions, they open the door to amazingly rich conversations and collaborative sense-making. Through the changes brought on by the NGSS, combined with creative teaching, we will see more of our students viewing STEM as a viable option for careers and grasping the value of science for understanding the world around them. By making purposeful connections to home and community resources, teachers of ELLs can take advantage of opportunities that engage students–transferring knowledge, practices, and crosscutting concepts across languages and home and community experiences.

Today’s Guest Blogger

Emily MillerEmily Miller is a practicing teacher and a lead writer for the NGSS Diversity and Equity Writing Team. She has taught science as an ESL/ Bilingual Resource science specialist at a Title 1 urban school for 16 years. Emily has used the NGSS in her own diverse classroom and improved and refined teaching to the standards with her students. She is consulting with the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research to develop teacher tools to promote sense making and language learning for ELLs in science. Email her at emilycatherine329@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note

Coming soon from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA): Look for the NSTA press publication, NGSS for All: Reaching Every Student, expected out in 2015. The book will include the seven case studies from NGSS Appendix D as well as additional chapters on interpretations and applications of the case studies for K-12 classrooms and in professional development.  To view the case studies, visit the NGSS@NSTA Hub. You can also view them on the official NGSS website. Also read a related journal article authored by Emily and her colleagues, Hedi Baxter Laufer and Paula Messina. The article, NGSS for English Language Learners: From theory to planning to practice appeared in the January 2014 issue of Science and Children.


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

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Highlights from the Hall: #NSTA14 Richmond October 16–18

Richmond conference logoWe’re just days away from the first NSTA area conference of the year. We’ll be making ourselves at home at the Greater Richmond Convention Center in Richmond, Virginia, from October 16-18, and we invite you to join us as we Celebrate Science Inside and Out!

Brendan MullanWe kick things off on Thursday morning (October 16) with keynote speaker Brendan Mullan at 9:15am. Mullan, 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, national champion of the 2012 U.S. FameLab science communication competition, and director of the Buhl Planetarium and Observatory at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, PA, will talk about Selling the Science Story. Attendees will learn about new avenues in SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and the types of 21st-century skills that he thinks students will need to become “interstellar archaeologists.” After the keynote, conference attendees will have an exclusive opportunity to meet Mullan in the Exhibit Hall at the National Geographic booth # 223. Our staff can’t wait to meet him personally and to thank National Geographic for sponsoring his appearance.

program preview coverProgramming-wise, we’ve hand-selected and vetted more than 200 unique sessions, workshops, and presentations resulting in a diverse range of professional learning opportunities with something for everyone—from classroom teachers to administrators and informal educators at all age levels and interests. You can check out all the sessions online via the Session Browser, or view the program preview (pdf).

We would like to recognize and thank our outstanding Exhibitors who have lots of exciting hands-on activities in store for you. We have more than 80 unique exhibits to visit and have put together a list highlighting the must-see activities that will take place in the Exhibit Hall over the course of the conference. But the list just shows a few, so to better plan your visit and see which goodies you’ll want to take home to your school, review all of the Richmond Exhibitors by taking a spin around the online floorplan, which includes a roster of exhibitors, a description of what they’ll be featuring, and where they’re located in the Exhibit Hall.

literacy celebration flyer (pdf)As part of this special conference, NSTA is hosting a Celebration of Literacy and Science, which will be on Saturday. Eight nationally renowned authors will discuss their books, meet and greet attendees, and host book signings and readings throughout the event. The event is FREE to all attendees and families who would like to join us on Saturday morning. More details are available online.

We know you’ll enjoy the conference, and we hope you’ll share your experience with us. NSTA will be holding a “groupie” photo contest via Twitter (because science teachers share so much—even their “selfies” tend to be shared with their colleagues). If you’re onsite, please use hashtag #NSTAGroupie to tweet us pictures of the conference. Participants will be entered to win drawings taking place onsite on Friday and Saturday, and prizes include airline vouchers, NSTA gear, and gift certificates to the onsite Science Store.

image of a phone with the conference appFor the latest conference information, download the Richmond Conference App. If you’re not already registered, there is still time to join us and you can register online 24/7.  We’re excited to see you next week!

Today’s guest blogger is Jason Sheldrake, Assistant Executive Director, National Science Teachers Association. For question about the Richmond exhibits, please contact Jason at jsheldrake@nsta.org; or contact Jeffrey LeGrand, NSTA Exhibits and Advertising Associate, at jlegrand@nsta.org.

2014 Area Conferences on Science Education

Richmond, VA – October 16-18

Orlando, FL – November 6-8

Long Beach, CA (in collaboration with CSTA) – December 4-6

2015 National Conference on Science Education

Chicago, IL – March 12-15

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

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How Can NSTA Help Me Teach Science to Students With Special Needs?


This past summer, NSTA member Naomi Beverly participated in the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. Since then, Beverly says that she has gone to the NSTA website and the NSTA Learning Center almost every day to participate in discussions with other science teachers, research lesson plan ideas, and increase her science content knowledge. Beverly, who teaches science to third-grade special education students, calls her NSTA membership and access to the NSTA Learning Center a “blessing.” “I get high-quality professional development at my own pace,” she says.

Beverly: I access the Learning Center so much. I enjoy using the SciPacks, SciGuides, and the Science Objects. Those are really helpful to me, because my undergraduate degree was not in education. So, I’m missing a lot of science content. I received a master’s degree in special education and the science content support I receive from NSTA allows me to properly teach science to my students. Otherwise, how could I help out some of the lowest-performing kids with the greatest needs when I don’t have a solid content base?? Through my NSTA membership, I can study the science content and fill in any gaps in my understanding.

I find quality lesson plans with tons of activities in the Learning Center. So, I don’t have to rattle my brain and try to recreate the wheel. A lot of the activities are hands-on, as well, which is so important when teaching students with special needs. Some of them fall below grade-level in reading, so they really benefit from participating in interactive activities and visual simulations that engage them. NSTA provides those activities.

For instance, I have used content from the Science Object, “Science of Food Safety: Understanding the Cell’s Importance” in my classroom. The module includes a really cool simulation that I show my students on how quickly bacteria can replicate. Just seeing that simulation and having that interactive experience is valuable to them. Now, if I ask those students “How long does it take a bacterium to replicate?” they know the answer and remember that simulation.

We’re focusing on habitats right now. Ocean habitats, for example, include plankton and other organisms that can be too abstract for my third-grade students with special needs to understand at first. They don’t have the vocabulary and the real-world experience. Showing them something interactive on the computer, though, helps. I’m going to incorporate what I’ve learned in the Coral Reef Ecosystems SciPack in my class. My students will be able to see what happens to the health of a reef when conditions change (for example, if the reef isn’t getting enough sunlight). Those sort of simulations that expose students to science and vocabulary are really valuable.

(Note from NSTA: “Science for All” is a key goal of science education. NSTA provides strategies and resources for making science accessible for all students. Not a member of NSTA? Learn more about how to join.)

Jennifer Henderson is our guest blogger for this series. Before launching her freelance career as a writer/editor, Jennifer was Managing Editor of The Science Teacher, NSTA’s peer-reviewed journal for high school science teachers.

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Any questions? Good.

I need suggestions on encouraging students to tell me when they don’t understand something. I ask my classes if they need any help, but no one seems to have any questions. The next day, it’s as if they never heard of the topic before! —A. from Nevada

Questions are good, but sometimes people don’t have questions or concerns until later, after they’ve “digested” the material and try to recall, use, or apply it. I did a workshop with another instructor on a technology tool for teachers and administrators. The workshop was hands-on and based on the needs of the participants. The workshop seemed to go well, and the participants gave it high ratings. But there were very few questions.

My co-instructor called me a few days later. The help desk was now getting questions from the participants. She was very upset because she thought she had done an ineffective job. I reassured her that we had done a good job during the workshop, but once the participants were on their own, they realized their knowledge was a little shaky. Or their confidence disappeared without support standing right next to them. Or they ran into unforeseen glitches. My colleague had been very supportive and so the participants felt comfortable contacting the helpdesk. I suggested that if the participants did not see the value of the tool, they would have given up.

Continue reading …

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My Name Is Teshia and I’m an NSTA Groupie

images on a clothesline showing NSTA staffYes, my name is Teshia Birts, and I’m an #NSTAGroupie—I have been for four years now.

I became an #NSTAGroupie when I joined the NSTA staff as Senior Manager of Chapter and Associated Group Relations back in October, 2010. I was immediately hooked because that was just in time to go to my first NSTA conference, where I met some of the most creative and interesting people I know.  The network I began to build at my first conference was strengthened and enhanced as I worked with NSTA’s nearly 300 component organizations (state/province chapters, associated groups, and student chapters).  And now my role has evolved, as I recently accepted the role of Senior Director of Membership Development and Chapter Relations where I will continue to work with chapters and associated groups, and will add member development and engagement to my list of responsibilities.

This is an awesome opportunity for me—I have loved science since I was a child and studied mechanical engineering during my undergraduate studies.  This was in large part due to the outstanding science teachers who fed my curiosity.  I am now honored to count many NSTA members among my friends, and I am eager to continue to support this important profession.

NSTA’s role has always been to provide that support, and that won’t change. But we do have exciting new plans in store to connect with our members, so we can learn how best to serve YOU!  We also want to facilitate members engaging and connecting with one another.  We know our members (and science teachers in general) love to share – they write articles in our four peer-reviewed journals; they share ideas, challenges and solutions on our 17 topic-driven listservs; they network during our five conferences; and those are just some of the ways they network and learn from one another.

Networking and learning bring me back to the experiences that made me an NSTA groupie in the first place—and much of that began at our conferences.  And  at those conferences, I haven’t seen many ‘selfies’;  science teachers want to share and NSTA wants to as well, by getting to know you up close and personally.

So, in that spirit I am announcing a ‘groupie’ contest for our fall conference season!  Starting with our Richmond Area Conference on Science Education (taking place October 16-18), and continuing at our Orlando (November 6-8) and Long Beach (December 4-6) conferences, we will hold a Twitter contest using the hash tag #NSTAGroupie. Conference attendees who tweet a photo of themselves (preferably as part of a group) with the hash tag will be entered into a contest to win great prizes, including airline vouchers, NSTA gear, and gift certificates. For more information about the contest visit the NSTA Twitter Contest page. 

This will be the first of many ways I’ll be trying to connect you with the faces at NSTA, and we hope to see lots of your faces, too! I am so excited about my new role with NSTA and will be communicating with our members more over the coming months (and years).  I also look forward to hearing from you; please do not hesitate to reach out to me.  My contact information is listed below.

Teshia Birts, CAE
Senior Director, Membership  Development and Chapter Relations
e-mail: tbirts72@gmail.com
Twitter: @teshiabirts

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NSTA Legislative Update: What’s Ahead for K-12 Education and CCSS Snapshot

Official Washington has slowed to a crawl with the midterm election just weeks away and the possible power shift in the U.S. Senate. This Ed Week blog has a great take on what’s ahead for education if the Republicans take control of the Senate.

In the House, the message that many parents and educators are tired of over-testing students has been received. Lawmakers recently introduced a bill that speaks to a growing bipartisan consensus around reducing federal testing requirements.  The Tackling Excessive Standardized Testing (TEST) Act, introduced last week and supported by the American Federation of Teachers, would allow states to choose an alternative testing regimen for students in grades 3 through 8.  The bill focuses only on math and reading and does not include science testing.  Read more.

Meanwhile last week, Vice President Joe Biden announced $450 million would be going to over 270 community colleges nationwide for CTE training grants, many focusing on STEM.

And finally, a new report from the Education Commission of the States captures a snapshot of where states currently stand in regard to the Common Core State Standards (CSSS). Read more.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director, Communications, Legislative, and Public Affairs at the National Science Teachers Association; and the Chair of the STEM Education Coalition


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NSTA’s K–12 Science Education Journals: October 2014 Issues Online

Patterns,  arguing from evidence, and ecosystem ecology—these are the themes of the October 2014 science education journals published by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Each issue is filled with articles written by science educators who’ve tested their ideas in the classroom. So take some time to enjoy the fall weather, and cozy up to the inspired ideas below. Explore conservation of matter in life sciences, learn how to find your school’s analemma, put new life in an old lesson, and more!

S&C cover from October 2014Science and Children

Establishing an understanding of patterns is important in childhood development. This issue of S&C is filled with ideas and resources you can use to help students make connections and understand the relationships that cause patterns.

Featured articles (please note, only those marked “free” are available to nonmembers without a fee):

Science Scope

Science Scope cover for October 2014Knowing how to argue from evidence when attributing an observed phenomenon to a specific cause is an essential skill for any scientist. We hope the articles found in this issue will help teach your students to accurately identify and explain cause-and-effect relationships, both inside and outside the classroom.

Featured articles (please note, only those marked “free” are available to nonmembers without a fee):

The Science Teacher journal cover for October 2014The Science Teacher

There can be no argument about the importance of ecosystem ecology to the modern science curriculum. Interdisciplinary by nature, the field involves chemistry, physics, biology, and Earth science and core ideas like energy, matter and its interactions, biodiversity, Earth’s systems and their related human impacts, and engineering solutions. The intricate interactions involved in even the simplest ecosystems can help students understand the messiness of science and the complex functioning of natural systems, fluxes, and reservoirs. Furthermore, the future of our planet depends on understanding and protecting vulnerable ecosystems.

Featured articles (please note, only those marked “free” are available to nonmembers without a fee):

Get these journals in your mailbox as well as your inbox—become an NSTA member!

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

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Play and exploration

I’ve been reading the literature on the value of play in learning. I do give my students unstructured activity time in science class, but I’m not sure they’re getting anything out of it. For example, I gave each group of students a board and several toy cars. They began playing with them, and when I later asked what they learned or discovered about motion, the silence was deafening! I know they had fun “playing” with the cars, but I wanted them to learn something, too. How can I make this a better experience?

—D., Idaho

Unfortunately, some students (and adults) look at fun and learning as mutually exclusive: If we’re learning, it can’t be fun, and if we’re having fun, we can’t be learning.

This dichotomy was illustrated in an action research study conducted by a colleague. He asked his students to list the most fun things they did in class. The fifth-graders mentioned science activities, role-playing, word games, drawing, working with their peers, computer simulations, and more. He then asked what class activities best helped them learn. He assumed the answers would be the same, although ranked in a different order depending on the student. He was surprised when most of the students said worksheets and tests. When he discussed these results with his students, they mentioned that the worksheets and tests were graded and they had to stay in at recess if they missed one. They concluded that these were more important than the “fun” activities since they were used to calculate their grades as a summary of their “learning.” Reflecting on the results, the teacher concluded he needed to be more explicit in describing the learning goals of the activities and debrief more with the students on what they learned or discovered.

Exploration (I prefer this term to “playing”) is an important part of science, regardless of the age of the students. It provides open-ended opportunities without the concern of finding a single correct answer. It provides students with common experiences and helps the teacher identify misconceptions. During the rest of the lesson, students can build on these experiences, although the teacher may have to remind students of what they did. For students who are used to being told exactly what to do and how to do it, this can be a new and perhaps frustrating experience as they wonder, “But what are we supposed to do?”

Continue reading …

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NSTA’s E-mail List Server: A Gold Mine of Help at Your Fingertips


MMYM_15minAs the rush of back-to-school finally dwindles, teachers of all levels now face day-to-day classroom management, assessments, and ongoing professional development. In addition to upcoming in-person conferences, NSTA Members from teachers to administrators need ways to reach out virtually for help from fellow members.

One of the most popular and accessible ways for members to get quick professional development advice and stay abreast of education trends is through the free NSTA’s E-Mail List Server. October is Connected Educator Month and there is no better time to connect with your fellow members online.

  1. Anytime answers

With more than 18 categories of discussion, the list server allows members to sign up for specific topics such as early childhood, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and pedagogy. No need to wait until regular working hours to pose a question or vet an idea.

  1. Established community

Developed more than 10 years ago, NSTA e-mail lists are stronger than ever. Exclusive to NSTA members, you can know that each voice on the lists is a member in the science education community. With each email, participants are instantly connected to expertise around the world.

  1. Etiquette and guidance

Like any professional community, NSTA asks for members to agree to rules for participation. Organic conversations are expected, yet topics should stay on topic. NSTA allows participants to unsubscribe at any time.

It’s not just participants who learn from these discussions. Did you know NSTA E-Mail threads have been considered the “PD gold mine” and have led to articles in NSTA publications such as NSTA Reports? Connect with other educators, connect with members, and connect directly with NSTA through the E-mail List Server.

More time?

Take your e-mail discussion to the next level by joining the NSTA Learning Center to connect with like-minded colleagues at various levels of experience. Join a community forum to learn and to share. You can always ask questions from online advisors, but you might be the one person with the answer for someone else.

Not a member of NSTA? Learn more about how to join.

Laura Berry of Cogberry Creative is our guest blogger for this series. Laura is a communications professional for the education community.

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