Connected Learning at #NSTA15: Emerging Contexts for Deeper Engagement

image collage from Sam Dyson's talk at the 2015 NSTA national conference

Featured speaker Sam Dyson invited attendees to join his personal hive in Chicago last month at NSTA’s National Conference on Science Education. Sponsored by the Shell Corporation, Dyson focused on connected learning and emerging contexts for deeper engagement. Set against the backdrop of a three-act play, Dyson modeled the importance of “connectedness” with a community of learners. Dyson’s first teaching experiences transpired in Johannesburg, Africa, where he admitted he did not know much about teaching, but picked up a few things while teaching in Chicago. Working now for the Mozilla Foundation in youth programming, Dyson brought a well-rounded perspective to his session; I was immediately engaged.

From “Oh No” to “Aha”

In Act I, Dyson revealed his first “Aha” moment in teaching, which interestingly came through his first “important failure.” He was facilitating a classroom demonstration about momentum, mass, and inelastic collisions. In the demonstration, the carts “stick together” when they collide as the approaching car overtakes the slower lead cart. Dyson thought his students had an adequate background to predict the outcome (that the carts moving along the same path would collide and stick together as they continued down the track). To Sam’s surprise, as the demonstration unfolded, one of his students refused to believe what he physically observed. Why? Because the student had no background knowledge, reference point, or tangible observations of this phenomenon occurring in his everyday life. Sam eloquently described this as a failed demonstration, but also as the one that created his “aha” moment. For the first time, he saw and understood deeply that the internal thinking and experiences that students bring to the learning environment undergirds future understanding. This discrepant event did not match the student’s sense making of his world. Dyson realized that teaching was not about what we know, but what we believe.

I wonder how many of us also think about our first “aha” moments early in our careers. Sam’s insight early into his career resonated with me, and I suspect many of you, too! We know that a student is not a tabula rasa, or blank slate, onto which we dump knowledge. As demonstrated by research in cognitive learning sciences about how people learn, we live in a dynamic world with rich interactions of science phenomena and engineering design solutions. We seek to make sense of these observations and form personal working theories and reasons for how these things occur in nature or are made by humankind. We form many of these known preconceptions internally, as part of our own “sense-making,” and as research shows, these preconceptions are deeply seated, resistant to change, and hard to overturn. But fear not, there are also research-based strategies to help learners challenge their own internal logic, face it head on, test it, wrestle with it, and see if it holds up! NSTA has several publications that may assist you across the K–12 spectrum. For example, author Page Keeley’s Uncovering Student’s Ideas in Science series draws upon this research and provides formative assessment questions (or probes) to make this internal student thinking visible. Working with teachers and classrooms, she has developed probes for elementary science, as well as physical, life, and Earth/space science. Page also partnered with Richard Konicek-Moran in an upcoming book titled Teaching for Conceptual Understanding in Science (coming off the NSTA Press any day now) that brings field-tested strategies teachers can use immediately in the classroom to empower students’ learning. Continue reading …

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Senate Releases Bipartisan Bill to “Fix” No Child Left Behind

Graphic saying "Although the bill does retain testing...

Senate education leaders released their bipartisan draft of the bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [No Child Left Behind (NCLB)] on Tuesday, April 7.

The bill, titled Every Child Achieves Act, cuts back on the federal footprint in education by providing more authority to the states and reducing the powers of the Secretary of Education. It retains the current federal testing requirement—students would continue to be tested in English and math in third through eighth grades as well as once in high school, and science tests would also be administered three times between third and 12th grade—but the language does away with the current NCLB accountability provisions and allows states to develop their own accountability systems. The bill also continues to provide federal funding to the states to support teacher and principal professional development and school wrap around services, but allows the state to decide how these funds would be spent.

Although the bill does retain testing for math and science, it does not treat STEM education as a national priority. It removes the Math and Science Partnership program (Title II B) and places no priority for STEM-related activities in the state grants provided for teacher programs. This is a huge disappointment to many in the STEM education community.

Mark up for the bill in the Senate HELP Committee is scheduled to begin Tuesday, April 14. At that time, we expect that many amendments—including an amendment on STEM education—will be introduced and considered by the HELP Committee. Stay tuned and watch for upcoming emails from NSTA for the latest news and information, and how you can be involved in the process to rewrite the nation’s federal education law.

Here are some of the highlights in the bill.

Standards: Continues the current requirement that States must adopt reading, math, and science standards aligned to college and career readiness. States can decide what academic standards they will adopt without interference from Washington. The federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core.

Testing: Annual testing is maintained. Students would be tested in English and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school; science tests would be required to be administered three times between grades 3 and 12. A pilot program would allow states to experiment with “innovative assessment systems” within the state.

Accountability: The bill maintains annual reporting of disaggregated data of groups of children, but ends No Child Left Behind’s accountability system. States would be responsible for determining how to use federally required tests for accountability purposes but will be able to determine the weight of those tests in their systems. States will also be required to include graduation rates, one measure of post-secondary education or workforce readiness, and English proficiency for English learners. States must meet some federal parameters, including ensuring all students and subgroups of students are included in the accountability system, disaggregating student achievement data, and establishing challenging academic standards for all students.

Teacher Evaluations: Would end federal mandates on evaluations and the federal definition of a “highly qualified teacher” and allow states to develop their own teacher evaluation systems if they choose to do so.

Math and Science Education: Eliminates the existing Title II.B Math and Science Partnership Program from Title II. Provides all Teacher Quality Funding to states through formula grants. Continue reading …

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The RSpec-Explorer is a small, portable spectroscopy camera that connects to a computer. It can be used for measuring spectra from light sources (including flames, screens, etc.) and for evaluating the emission signature from gas tubes.

The software package can be downloaded from, which offers a free 30-day trial before a license purchase is required. Once downloaded, the camera is connected to a computer via a USB cable. After the USB cable is connected, videos and images can be recorded/captured and saved. Subsequently, both the image from the camera and the corresponding spectra can be viewed simultaneously; from either the saved image/video file or from a live feed. In addition, images can be imported for spectral analysis and the files can be read in both .bmp and .jpeg formats.




Another nice feature is the ability of the RSpec-Explorer to handle FITS data files, which are common in the field of astronomy. Therefore, images captured by NASA’s Hubble telescope and other astronomy sources can be imported and analyzed by allowing you to import and export data points into the program for analysis.

YouTube Preview Image


The spectrograph is also highly customizable with a variety of features that allow the user to select a part of an image or camera view for analysis. Spectral data can be saved on the graph and overlaid with other emission spectra to cfor the sake of comparison. Another nice feature is the zoom features that allow you to get a closer look at different parts of the spectrograph. Once captured, the spectrograph can be saved or copied, and inserted into almost any document type. The camera automatically adjusts for different light inputs and reduces external light noise with several manual adjustments. The device can be calibrated for more precise readings as well.





Overall, the RSpec-Explorer is very easy to use—only minimal setup is required to begin displaying and analyzing spectra. In addition, the wide variety of options for calibration and customization of views gives this device the ability to do precision work. The device is sturdy and functioned well in a classroom setting. The estimated cost for the camera, tripod and software is $395, which make it an affordable choice for teacher demonstrations.

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, Corissa Fretz is a graduate student and a research assistant in the mathematics and science teaching program at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and Katherine Wingard is a graduate student and a research assistant in the mathematics and science teaching program at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania

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Planning Your Science Curriculum Using NSTA’s Quick-Reference Guides to the NGSS

covers of the 4 NGSS reference guides

Science teachers frequently ask for help using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in their work planning curriculum and instruction. As the curator of materials for the NSTA Press book series Quick-Reference Guides to the NGSS, I thought about how NSTA could best help with this broad task. The good news is, we have targeted this series to educators at specific grade levels (K–4, 5–8, 9–12, and K–12), so teachers can find the information packaged in ways that best fits their immediate needs.

The NGSS is made up of four basic parts:

  • Practices are the activities in which scientists engage in to understand the world (such as planning an investigation or constructing an explanation).
  • Core ideas are useful in understanding the world (such as the laws of motion, phases of the moon, and inheritance of traits).
  • Crosscutting concepts, such as patterns and systems, are not specific to any one discipline but cut across them all.
  • Performance expectations describe what students should be able to do at the end of instruction. They are specific combinations of the three dimensions upon which the NGSS are built—practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.

When planning instruction, it is important to integrate the three dimensions because the research that prompted the writing of the NGSS (as described in an earlier document called the Framework for K–12 Science Education) indicates that the most effective lessons are those that combine the three dimensions. Because the performance expectations combine the three dimensions, some educators have mistakenly assumed that the performance expectations describe exactly what teachers are expected to do in the classroom. This is not the case! Students need to engage in multiple practices to master the goals of the NGSS, so teachers should develop their own combinations of core ideas and crosscutting concepts for each lesson they teach; they are not limited to the particular combinations of practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts described in the performance expectations. The NGSS gives teachers the flexibility to plan learning experiences that best meet their style of teaching and their students’ needs.

Practical Planning

Page 92 of the elementary guideTo streamline your planning and guide you in selecting practical combinations, each book in the Quick-Reference Guide series has tables customized for a particular grade or level. A kindergarten teacher, for example, can find all of the performance expectations for Kindergarten on pages 92 and 93 of the for elementary school guide (and these are also included in the K–12 guide). The relevant elements of the disciplinary core ideas are listed alongside each performance expectation. All of the practices on which a kindergarten teacher would need to focus are listed on pages 88 and 89 of the guide, and all of the crosscutting concepts he or she would need are on page 90. Thus, everything a kindergarten teacher would need to have at hand in planning lessons is in a set of tables on six pages.

For example, imagine Kathy, a kindergarten teacher who is focused on performance expectation K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.” In planning a lesson, Kathy wants to be sure that her students can use their understanding of the needs of organisms to make explanations about events they experience in the world around them (what scientists call phenomena). Continue reading …

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Professional development strategies

teamworkI’ve been asked to conduct a science workshop for elementary teachers. Can you suggest fun activities for us?  —D., Illinois

I’m concerned about science professional development (PD) that consists of gee-whiz, dazzling “experiments” done by a presenter in front of an audience of teachers. I witnessed such a presentation once. The K-3 teachers all replicated the activity in their classrooms (whether or not it aligned with their grade-level curriculum or was appropriate for the age of the students). I wondered, ““And then what?”“

I hope you’ll do something different to support the teachers. Your workshop should enhance teachers’ knowledge and contribute to their ability to provide interesting and relevant science experiences in a planned and purposeful manner.

It would be helpful to ask about the status of elementary science in the school or district. Is science a “special” subject that meets briefly and infrequently? Is science an integral part of the curriculum? Do teachers have access to basic materials? Does the school library have a collection of science-related books? Is there a way for teachers to collaborate about science, either in person or online? Can you build on the teachers’ previous PD experiences.

Here are a few recent observations and suggestions from a similar question on an NSTA e-mail list:

Continue reading …

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The Power of Questioning: Guiding Student Investigations

“Children are full of questions every day: “Why? How does that work? Why? How do you know?” The science classroom is the perfect place to take advantage of this natural curiosity. Questioning cultivates student engagement and drives instruction throughout the learning process.”

questioningThis introduction to NSTA Press authors’, Julie McGough and Lisa Nyberg, new book The Power of Questioning: Guiding Student Investigations sets the stage for their model, Powerful Practices. The model takes questioning in the K–6 classroom to a new level while emphasizing the interconnected nature of instruction. Instead of having your students look for the answer, you allow them to raise other questions as they investigate the topic further.

This pedagogical picture book is color-coded to indicate the three components of the instructional model:

Questioning is printed in red.
Investigations are printed in blue.
Assessments are printed in purple.

These three aspects are linked, and it is important not to approach the model in a linear fashion. As the authors explain, “when thoughtful questioning is combined with engaging investigations, amazing assessments are produced—just as when red and blue are combined, purple is produced.”

Involving students in the Powerful Practices model requires that you know your students as individuals—each student’s way of understanding the world and way of participating in discussion—and as a group. This will help you create engaging questions and a collaborative environment that supports dynamic discussions, leading to purposeful learning that is applicable to the child’s world.

In the book, the authors ask and answer many questions themselves as they present the model:

Connecting Questions and Learning

  • Why is questioning a powerful learning tool?
  • Why is questioning important when linking literacy to learning investigations and authentic performance assessments?
  • Why does skill in questioning engage students in purposeful standards-based learning?

Developing Questioning Strategies

  • What types of questions do I need to ask, and when should I ask them?
  • What is wait time?
  • What is Depth of Knowledge?

Engaging Students and Teachers

  • How do I prepare for the Power of Questioning?
  • Who are my students, and how do they think?
  • How do I provide opportunities for all students to participate?

Building a Questioning Environment

  • How do I build a collaborative learning community to support questioning?
  • How do I organize resources to engage all learners?

Engaging in Purposeful Discussion

  • How do I implement the Power of Questioning?
  • How do I use questioning to engage students in purposeful discussions?
  • How do I connect discussions within a unit of study?
  • How does questioning create opportunities that lead to deeper investigations and authentic assessments?

The authors provide links and QR codes to videos and audio recordings related to content throughout the book. The first book in a new series, Powerful Practices, this book is also available as an e-book.

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

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Materials, safety, life science–Resources in “Science and Children”

Children painting on various materials using a thin and a thick consistency paint. Children I work with on a weekly basis have been exploring different types of materials as they work with them. Painting with thick or thin consistency paint (see the March 2015 Early Years column), running their hands through a pile of small stones before sending them through a tube, working with ceramic clay formulated for children’s use, and trying new kinds of play dough have provided them with experiences that involve testing the properties of materials. The children have also been making choices about which tool to use to achieve their purpose, measuring using informal units and making models to represent objects.

IMG_5261aChildren putting small stones through tubes.Children use craft sticks to incise ceramic clay.

I used the “Safety First: Safer Science Explorations for Young Children” by Ken Roy in the March 2015 issue of Science and Children to check my materials for safe use by children ages 2-5 years. Of course, the small stones were put away when the children who still “mouth” objects were in the room. Following the column advice, I kept damp paper towels in the area where clay was used to wipe up clay dust before it went airborne.  

A squash seed has sprouted.Alongside this exploration of physical properties and possibilities, we have been growing some squash plants from seeds the children excavated from inside the butternut, kabucha and pumpkin squash fruits. It’s a little early for our location to sprout seeds to put in the garden later unless you have an ultraviolet light to supplement the sunshine on the windowsill. We don’t and we may not have a garden space this year. But we can still explore life science concepts. The Early Childhood Resources Review in the print and digital February 2015 issue of Science and Children describes “Tools of Science Inquiry That Support Life Science Investigations.” 

I think I’ll make a basket of these items to have at hand for our nature walks and playground time.

Logo of NSTA Learning CenterThe NSTA Learning Center Early Childhood Forum is a great place to post a question asking other educators about a standard, lesson plan or concept. Create an account, and join in the conversations. As I tell the children, “Scientists don’t always agree, and that’s okay. We keep trying to learn, together.” 


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Climate Change and the Anthropocene

graphic saying Science and the STEM Classroom looks at climate change and the anthropocene

This past winter was extraordinary for many parts of the United States. New England saw unprecedented amounts of snow, while the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, famed for skiing, saw barely any. Lower-than-average snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada over the past several years have created California’s serious drought situation. In Delaware, where I live, we mostly escaped large snow events but temperatures have been below normal and there have been snow flurries in much of the state at the end of March, which are both unwelcome and unusual.

Paleoclimatology Data

Severe droughts, floods, frequent tornadoes, polar vortices, strong monsoons, and record snowfalls are all hallmarks of extreme weather. Scientists think that extreme weather is linked to climate change. There’s also strong evidence that human activities are contributing to extreme weather and probably to climate change. It is true that extreme weather events have been a fact of life on Earth for millions of years. But it is also true that extreme weather events appear to be increasing in both severity and frequency. We know this because of the range of paleoclimatology data available to us.

Paleoclimatology is a field that has ancient roots, beginning with Egyptian recorded observations of drought and flood cycles along the Nile River. The Egyptians marked these events because the Nile floods deposited fertile soil on the fields along the river where much of their food was grown. Evidence is now mounting that a severe drought may have been responsible for the collapse of the Old Kingdom, 4000 years ago. Evidence of similar conditions has been found for Mesopotamia, another ancient civilization, where cities were abandoned at approximately the same time and soil deposits indicate a drought that may have lasted 300 years. A thoughtful review of several recent books by historians on climate change, economics, politics, and human geography can be found here. The books describe the rise and fall of numerous civilizations as a result of changing climate.

How does paleoclimatology inform our current understandings of climate events? Current computer models that are used to predict weather and longer-term climate are populated with the results of paleoclimatological studies. Much of the data gathered in such studies comes from the use of climate proxies to infer what conditions were like thousands or even millions of years ago. Some of these proxies include calcareous organisms such as diatoms, foraminifera, and coral; ice cores, tree rings, and sediment cores.

Sediment cores contain pollen and other evidence of climate and weather events over time. Palynology is the study of pollen in the fossil record. Pollen can tell us what kinds of plants lived in the study area at a particular time. Because certain kinds of plants are adapted for certain kinds of climate, scientists can track climate change over long periods of time by inference using plant pollen. Continue reading …

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NSTA Legislative Update: Negotiations Continue on ESEA Rewrite

text-based graphic for NSTA legislative updateBipartisan negotiations continue between the two education leaders in the Senate. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have issued a statement that they indeed intend to release their bill to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) the week of April 13 (Congress is now off for their two week Easter break). Both are committed to a bipartisan process for the bill, but Senator Alexander has indicated that addressing early childhood programs in the ESEA—a huge priority for the Administration and Senator Murray—will be difficult. At the center of negotiations are the issues of accountability and testing. STEM advocates are continuing to work with offices on both sides to get STEM-specific funding and programs included in this Senate bill.

In the House, Chairman John Kline is working to whip up more Republican support for his ESEA bill, the Student Success Act, after the bill was pulled from the floor following the loss of support from key conservative groups who thought it did not go far enough to erase the federal footprint from K-12 education. On March 24, the Washington Post reported that Kline was still a few votes short to pass the bill.

The bottom line is that STEM is becoming increasingly lost in both House and Senate legislation to reauthorize this federal education law.

Now is the time for educators to contact their members of Congress immediately, and ask them to make STEM education a national priority. At the Legislative Action Center of the STEM Education Coalition website, you can send a letter to your elected representatives, asking them to

  • Maintain a strong focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
  • Continue the focus on math and science as required elements of any state’s accountability system.
  • Provide states with dedicated funding to support STEM-related activities and teacher training.

We need your help getting this message heard and to get as much support as possible for science and STEM education. Please take a moment to write to your elected officials, and send this message to your networks.

And finally, the White House Science Fair was last week. In case you missed it, here is a link to get you caught up. During the event, the President announced new corporate pledges made under the Educate to Innovate initiative. Congratulations again to the teams from ExploraVision and eCYBERMISSION who participated in this year’s White House Science Fair!

Stay tuned and look for upcoming issues of NSTA Express for the latest information on developments in Washington, DC.

Jodi Peterson is Assistant Executive Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. e-mail Jodi at; follow her on Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

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

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Presentation options

millerblog504One of my goals is for students to communicate what they’re learning in science through presentations. For many of my students, traditional oral reports are overwhelming. I’m looking for authentic, less stressful alternatives.    —T., Oregon

One year, I assigned every student a 5-8 minute oral report on a science topic that interested them. I thought I was doing a good job by sharing a template and rubric for the presentation and providing class time for students to prepare. It took several class periods for all of the presentations, and even then some students were not ready. There was a comment sheet for audience members to fill out, but I wasn’t sure the students were engaged enough to justify the time and effort.

So I revisited the original purpose of the assignment to provide opportunities for students to communicate and share what they were learning. This is an authentic goal; most scientists write reports and give presentations at conferences, to potential sponsors, and to the public. It also can be an effective assessment strategy and aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards Science and Engineering practice of “Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.”

From my own experience as a presenter, I knew many presentations are done as a team or panel. Most include visuals and use different formats. Some are straightforward lectures; others have activities for participants or opportunities for discussion. I questioned which was most important for my middle schoolers—using an assigned format or engaging in the process of communicating their interests and enthusiasm.

I asked my students how to make this a better experience. They were brutally honest! They wanted to have a choice of formats, work with a partner, and use their creativity. I learned that for some students (for example, English language learners and those with anxiety issues) getting up in front of the class may not be a positive experience, but they still have a lot to share.

So the following year, during a unit on invertebrates, students did presentations in their choice of format, demonstrating something they learned or were excited about. I realized the variety of media and formats made it impossible to use a traditional rubric. But my students did not disappoint!

Continue reading …

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