Why are we doing this?

I have some chemistry students who ask “Why do we have to learn this?” How can I address this other saying “you’ll need it in college.” —D., Delaware

Why are we studying this? What good is this?

It’s easy to answer student questions like these with “because it will be on the test” or “because it’s in the textbook,” but this usually doesn’t satisfy the student. As you noted “you’ll need this someday” is equally frustrating because information is readily available electronically, and we can’t predict what careers and interests students will have in the future.

Some students enjoy science, and their interest is independent of class activities. Others are skeptical and may need to be convinced that a topic is worth learning. Teachers can make science interesting and relevant by sharing their enthusiasm and using thought-provoking investigations or activities, multimedia and visuals, a variety of instructional strategies, cooperative learning, and opportunities for students to use their curiosity and creativity.

As you plan a unit, consider the goal or performance expectation. What content is essential? How can I use a variety of practices to make it interesting? How does the unit connect with or build on what students already know? Does it provide background for future learning? How does it relate to real-life events or other subject areas? How can students personalize this information?

It may help to introduce each unit with essential questions focused on a big idea or theme. During each lesson, revisit the questions, connecting any new content or experiences. If the questions are posted in the classroom or in the students’ science notebooks, they are a constant reminder of why students are learning about the topic. Eventually, students may come up with their own questions and learning goals.


Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fontplaydotcom/504443770/

Posted in Ms. Mentor | Tagged | 3 Responses

Live! And recorded, music and nature

Screen shot of 4 NPR Tiny Desk Concert videosHow is the experience of listening to, attending to, live music different from listening to a recording? I can be very moved by recorded music, moved to sing along or dance. A particular piece of recorded music can become a favorite, and listening to it is like wearing your favorite pair of jeans because they fit your shape so well.  Live music is never exactly that pair of jeans but it can be the experience of that pair of jeans when you try them on for the first time and, oh wow, they are just what you needed. Steve Guttenberg, who writes about audio, discusses the ways recorded music differs from live and asks, “What do you think? Is recorded music better than live music?” For me, all the ingredients in a live experience combine to make it more, more powerfully stirring—the sound,  expressions of the artists and other sights, feel of the location, smells, and maybe tastes.

The same stirring as when I blow on the spherical dandelion head, feeling my cheeks stretch out with the force of my breath and that same force pushes the tiny seed parachutes off the seed head, into the air, carrying my wish with them. Being outside is a sensory immersive experience teaching us about the elements of weather events, the sounds and smells of our environment, and how we have to exert force to make changes. 

A dandelion seed head with drops of dewUsing technology, Neil Bromhall takes us to a detailed view of this familiar plant over time with his time lapse videos, “Time lapse Dandelion flower to seed head” and “Dandelion flower and clock blowing away time lapse .” 
Look at the way the plumed seeds or pappus open as the dew dries off, something we might never sit still enough to watch happen in real time. For really close up, but still, photographs that allow us to see the intricate details of how seeds are produced, visit Brian Johnston’s page, “A Close-up View of the Wildflower “Dandelion” (Taraxacum officinale). He also shared an Emily Dickinson poem (with vocabulary that is challenging and exactly, Dickinsonian, right).

I am happy to be alive in a world where I can access nature directly with clothing technology that makes it comfortable, and to access nature in a different way through other technologies shared by other nature enthusiasts and naturalists. 

The authors of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, Jon Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown, advocate for us to use nature as a living teacher to allow children to “soak up the language of plants and animals as naturally as any of us learned our native language.” I like the way they require one to get to know the people we mentor and “Look for their edges: the edge of their comfort zone, the edge of their awareness, the edge of their knowledge, the edge of their experience. Then, you can stretch and pull them to a new edge, and then another, deeper and deeper into a sense of comfort and kinship with the wildness of the natural world.” Their animal senses exercises, Owl Eyes, Deer Ears, Raccoon Touch, Dog Nose, and Fox Walk, are practiced and used to expand our personal observation abilities. 

The Coyote’s Guide describes how using a “sit spot,” a special place in nature where one can be “comfortable with just being there, still and quiet. In this place, the lessons of nature will seep in.” Educators Karen Dvornich, Diane Petersen, and Ken Clarkson write about having children record their sit spot experience and observations in a science notebook and later contribute the data to a citizen science program.  

If you are lucky to have in-person or through-technology connections to a local naturalist such as Alonso Abugattas, the Capital Naturalist who posts informative videos taken during first hand experiences in nature, you can use the information to plan your program’s outdoor experiences in nature.

Ants building ant hills on brick sidewalkWhether you express excitement along with your children as they observe a group of ants building along a sidewalk crack or help them use the Coyote’s Guide animal senses exercises to make observations from a sit spot, you are connecting them to live nature, connections they may later follow up on using technology-recorded nature that extends their senses. And offering both recorded music and live singing will enrich your children too!

Posted in Early Years | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legislative Update: Congress (Finally) Approves FY2017 Budget

Although we are now more than half way through FY2017, as expected both the House and Senate passed, and President Trump signed into law, the bill for FY2017 appropriations before the May 5 deadline that would have closed the federal government.

Here are how STEM-related programs fared in the spending bill:

  • ESSA Title IV, Part A, Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants: $400 million (more on this program below)
  • ESSA Title II Teacher Quality State Grants: $2.055 billion (vs. $2.25 billion in FY16)
  • Computer Science for All: $0 (vs. $100 million proposed)
  • STEM Master Teacher Corps: $0 (vs. $10 million proposed)
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers: $1.191 billion (vs. $1.166 billion in FY16)
  • Perkins/CTE: $1.135 billion (vs. $1.125 billion in FY16)

For fiscal year 2017, Student Support and Academic Enrichments Grants (Title IV, Part A of ESSA) will be funded at $400 million, a fraction of the ESSA authorization level of $1.65 billion. With the low funding level, Congress changed the distribution for this program for this year only: money will go directly to the states and states have the option to distribute the funds via a competitive grant program to districts. (They could allocate by formula only if districts would get at least $10,000.) States have until September 30, 2018 to expend funds.

Continue reading …

Posted in Legislative Update | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ed News: Helping Parents Understand The Next Generation Science Standards

News Roundup banner

This week in education news, Achieve releases a series of parent guides that explain how science instruction is changing and why; California administers pilot test for new science standards; science funding spared under congressional budget deal; Florida bills would give citizens the ability to question teaching materials used in schools; teachers receive help for creating lessons with drones; and Nebraska unveils new draft science standards.

Helping Parents Understand The Next Generation Science Standards

So far, there’s been little talk about how parents have reacted to the Next Generation Science Standards. But states are preparing to give students tests aligned to the NGSS—next spring, in many places. And as testing pressure mounts, so might questions from parents about the new ways their students are being taught. Achieve, the group that led the development of the science standards, is working to head off misconceptions about the standards. The group recently released a series of parent guides that explain how science instruction is changing and why. Click here to read the article featured in Education Week.

Pilot Science Test Underway in California, Despite Dispute With Federal Officials

The pilot test for California’s new science standards is underway at schools across the state, despite a long-brewing dispute with the federal government over whether students should be tested on the old or new standards. California is one of 19 states to adopt the new standards, and among the first to administer a pilot test. In 2016, the state asked for a federal waiver to stop giving the older, pencil-and-paper science standardized test, which was based on standards adopted in 1998, in favor of the new test. Click here to read the article featured in EdSource.

Continue reading …

Posted in Education News Roundup | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

STEM Sims: Data Visualization

STEM Sims: Data Visualization


STEM Sims provides over 100 simulations of laboratory experiments and engineering design products for integration into STEM classroom instruction. One particular simulation found on this site, Data Visualization, stimulates the imagination of students by having them analyze a graphic representation of Napoleon’s 19th Century invasion of Russia. Using data provided in a 1869 graphic representation by Charles Minard, students are able to make decisions and investigate Napoleon’s military campaign. Moreover, Data Visualization is aligned with national (NGSS) standards (see below) and is compatible with state standards as well.

  • MS-PS4.C – Information Technologies and Instrumentation
  • MS-ESS2.D – Weather and Climate



Continue reading …

Posted in NSTA Recommends: Technology, The STEM Classroom | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching About Science in the News

Tenth graders in Kathryn Kennedy’s science class at Prairie Seeds Academy in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, discuss current events related to a Bioethics unit. Photo credit: Kathryn Kennedy

“To be a good science teacher, it’s important to keep on top of the latest news and innovations in science,” says Dean Goodwin, grades 9–12 biology and environmental science teacher at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware. “If any of this can be related to topics we have just covered, or are about to cover, or is just an amazing piece of science news, I share [it] with my classes…My aim is to ensure that students understand that science is not at all static, but we are continually learning and expanding our knowledge in science…It also helps to separate some of the misinformation about science that seems to abound in some areas of the media…The students question, and critically think, about what is presented.”

Goodwin says he aims to “[get] students energized to differentiate between science fact and science fiction” by comparing “what pops up on Facebook” to legitimate science news sources like the National Science Foundation. Sometimes he has students design and conduct their own experiments based on ones they’ve read about in the news—such as the 2013 experiment by ninth graders in Denmark to test the effect of cellphone radiation on a plant—and compare their data with the data they read about. “I want to get students to think and behave like scientists,” he explains. “I want them to have the courage to [test a seemingly] crazy idea. This is what scientists do.”

Goodwin has designed—and will teach next year—two trimester elective courses that incorporate current events. In Science Today, students will research science news from journals, websites, television, radio, and social media and analyze the authenticity of the news sources. They’ll discuss the science behind the news and learn how to differentiate between real science and junk science. Continue reading …

Posted in NSTA Reports, The STEM Classroom | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Response

Focus on Physics: The Delightful Catenary Curve

Figure 1. A. Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. B. St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

When teaching how tension and compression relate to geometrical structures such as bridges, arches, and domes, I show a picture of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (Figure 1A), completed in the 14th century. I point out the elaborate buttresses that keep the walls from pushing outward while supporting its weight. Architects of the day had not yet learned how to hold up a very large, massive building without external propping. This was accomplished in the 17th century in the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (Figure 1B).

Why, I ask, is St. Paul’s Cathedral free of such buttresses? Aha, inside its famous dome is an inner “secret dome” that provides structural support. To understand this, let’s first investigate the roles of tension and compression in structures.

I stretch a length of rope taut, explaining that the stretching force we call tension acts in a direction parallel to the direction of the rope. When I let the rope sag between my hands, tension vectors within the sagging rope continue to align with the rope. The curved shape of the sag is determined by this alignment of tension vectors. Likewise for a sagging chain or sagging cable.

A rope, chain, or cable supported at its ends and hanging only by its own weight takes the shape of a special curve called a catenary. I sketch a sagging

Figure 2. Tension between links in the chain align with (are parallel to) the curve of the chain. The curve is a catenary.

chain on the board and show that tension vectors between links of the chain are everywhere parallel to the curve with no components of tension perpendicular to the curve (Figure 2). The chain ends can be held at different distances apart, making the curve deep or shallow. As long as the chain supports only its own weight, it’s a catenary.

If a sagging chain or cable supports weight that is distributed uniformly in a horizontal direction, as is approximately true in a suspension bridge, then the shape of the curve is a parabola, the same curve followed by a tossed ball. The curved cables of a suspension bridge or suspended roadway are approximately parabolas. Only if the cable supports only its own weight—such as sagging clotheslines, power lines, and strands of spider webs—is the shape a catenary. Continue reading …

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

Early Childhood and Lower Elementary Teachers Need to Attend the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo

Come join us at the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo. It is the event where early childhood and lower elementary teachers need to be. It is a unique event where you will find a great deal of focused ideas on how to engage, nurture, and teach what our little ones are already so curious about. Science, technology, engineering, and math is all around our students and they have a natural love for figuring out how things work and why. The STEM Forum is a wonderful opportunity for educators in the early years to find resources that will help build your knowledge on integrating STEM into your lessons as well as give you some great fun ideas you can take immediately back to the classroom and use the next day. 

As early childhood and lower elementary teachers we tend to focus on making sure our students are first learning and practicing their foundational skills like, the alphabet, numbers, reading, and writing and perhaps forget the importance of STEM to our students’ futures. We need to teach them how to be those innovative thinkers, problem solvers, and creators of the future and it all starts with us! With a strong understanding of STEM and how to go about presenting it to young learners that is exactly what you as a teacher can do for your students. Attending the conference will give you many opportunities to find ideas that you can use in planning your literacy blocks, but also effectively integrating science or engineering into some of those already great lessons. There are so many books that lend themselves to science and engineering. Some of the sessions at this year’s STEM Forum will focus on how to use science and engineering with literature as well as give you some activities to try with your own students.  Presenters are educators, like myself, that have come to share what has effectively worked for them. They bring along great resources and knowledge that they have used or found helpful in developing their lessons that they are more than happy to share with other educators.

Our young students deserve to explore and allow their natural curiosity to guide their learning. As early childhood and lower elementary teachers our job is to focus that natural curiosity and assist them in making important connections about the world and their place in it. So please, come and join us at the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo. You will not believe how many excellent and focused sessions for young learners you will find that will assist you in becoming a well-rounded STEM educator. We hope to see you there! 

Adriana Guerra began her teaching career at E.P. Foster STEM Academy 12 years ago.  She was a presenter at the 5th Annual STEM Forum & Expo in Denver, CO and is currently on the steering committee as the early childhood/lower elementary strand leader for the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo.  She received my bachelor’s degree from University of Southern California, her Master’s degree from Bradley University and her teaching credentials from California Lutheran University.

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

Future NSTA Conferences

2017 STEM Forum & Expo
Kissimmee/Orlando, July 12–14

2017 Area Conferences

Baltimore, October 5–7
Milwaukee, November 9–11
New Orleans, Nov. 30–Dec. 2

Posted in Conferences | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legislative Update: FY2017 Funding, Vouchers and More

First up—guidance you do not want to miss: Last week, the U.S. Department of Education issued a seven page memo detailing possible uses of federal funding through ESSA to support STEM education. The must-see document has helpful examples of how states, schools and districts can leverage ESEA, IDEA, and Perkins Funds for STEM education. The letter can be found here.

Congress and the FY2017 Budget

The budget grabbed all the attention last week, as the Continuing Resolution (CR) for FY2017 programs official ran out on April 28 amid the ensuring drama over whether to shut down the federal government, actually fund FY2017 programs (we are now halfway through FY2017), extend the CR for another week, fund the wall, and finish a health care bill (Congress choose to extend the existing CR for another week).

Late Sunday night (April 30) POLITICO reported that a funding agreement was in place through the end of September.  It appears that funding for Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) Title IV block grant program for fiscal year 2017, authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, will be at $400 million this year, a fraction of the ESSA authorization level of $1.65 billion. With the low funding level, Congress changed the distribution for this program: money will go directly to the states and will be a competitive grant program lead by the states (this year only), instead of a formula program to all schools. More on the Title IV program here.

Continue reading …

Posted in Legislative Update | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Keep PD sessions focused

Recently, there was a question about what to do when students were off-task. I conduct many professional development programs, and I could use some ideas to keep adult participants on-task! —T., Virginia

As a presenter, it’s frustrating to see participants grading papers, texting, or reading the news. But in all fairness to our colleagues, their inattention may stem from experiences with compulsory professional development (PD) sessions that were “sit ‘n’ git,” conducted by drop-in presenters who were not familiar with the school’s culture, had no teacher input into the content, or held afterschool when everyone was tired.

I shared your question with a colleague with whom I have held many PD sessions. We agreed that in addition to well-planned content, it is important to engage the participants with effective strategies they can apply in their classrooms:

  • Greet participants as they come in, making a personal connection. Share a summary of your own classroom experiences during the introduction to establish rapport.
  • Describe the purpose and goals of the session. Ask what the participants what they would like to get from the session. Record their responses and debrief the list at the end.
  • Avoid trivial ice-breakers, especially if the teachers already know each other. Instead, use bell-ringers, such as responding to a focus question or a brief reading. Refer to their responses during the session.
  • Provide an agenda, indicating when there will be breaks to check e-mails or texts. Start and end the session on time.
  • Move around and make eye contact.
  • Use gallery walks or turn-and-talk for sharing ideas.

Relax and realize, as an administrator told me, some people aren’t happy unless there’s something to complain about. One of our workshops was rated low by a participant because “I don’t like tomato on my sandwich” that was in a provided lunch.

Posted in Ms. Mentor | Tagged | Leave a comment