Teacher as scientist

4427417055_18a59e8b68_mI have a degree in biology and teach high school. Although I love teaching at this level, I miss doing real scientific work myself. Any suggestions on how I can still stay engaged and current in science? —T., Illinois

Although we teach a variety of topics, teachers have areas of special interests. And as we teach unfamiliar topics, we may discover new interests. Social media is a good way to find out more about ways to continue and expand on your interests. Some options you could explore include:

  • Participating in programs from universities or government agencies that help teachers contribute to investigations over the summer and to partner with researchers. Your alma mater or a nearby college/university may have such a program.
  • Attending programs and presentations at universities, museums, medical centers, parks, or science centers to update your knowledge and foster connections with researchers and other science professionals.
  • Volunteering your expertise and expertise at nature centers or museums.
  • Inviting scientists to your classroom to share their experiences and expertise and perhaps work with your students. Some science partnership projects with higher education facilitate these interactions.
  • Reading science journals and publications, many of which are available online. Share with your students.
  • Using summer and term breaks to visit museums, science centers, national parks, and so on. If you let the staff know ahead of time you’re a teacher, you may get the red carpet treatment with an in-depth or behind-the-scenes tour.
  • Contributing to continuing investigations through citizen science projects (see the SciStarter website for projects in which both you and your students can participate) 

As science teachers, we have an obligation to model lifelong learning for our students. And they enjoy finding out about our “secret” lives and interests and passions.

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Four New Books for Young Scientists

Studies show that science is students’ favorite subject when they enter school for the first time. Why? Kids are curious and creative. They love asking questions based on their observations. They love discovering everything. When kids are young, the world is wonderful, magical, and full of possibilities.

NSTA Kids, a division of NSTA Press, recently released four new books to inspire kids’ imagination and encourage them to ask questions about the world around them.

Quiet as a Butterflyquietasabutterfly by Lawrence F. Lowery is part of the I Wonder Why series designed to help students in grades K-3 to explore their senses. Sounds take center stage in this story. “One day, I listened. I listened to all the sounds I heard. I listened, and I wondered,” the narrator says. He contemplates sounds including birds singing, roosters crowing, and his mother humming, while also wondering about things that move about without making a sound like butterflies, caterpillars, and ladybugs.

Fragrant as a Flowerfragrantflower by Lawrence F. Lowery from the I Wonder Why series explores the connection between smell and memories. A boy explores the city, reliving a story that his father had told him about the smells of his childhood. “My dad likes to tell stories. One story he tells is about his walk around town when he was my age. He had fun exploring smells,” says the narrator. From the pastry shop to the tire shop, from fresh asphalt to old shoes, each scent tells a tale.

Look and Seelookandsee is the third new book by Lawrence F. Lowery from the I Wonder Why series. “Scientists learn by observing, comparing, and organizing the objects and ideas they are investigating. Children learn the same way,” the book’s introduction states. “Our senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste—provide our brains with information about our world.” In this delightful book, young readers can practice making observations and comparisons and looking for patterns. 

Next Time You See a Cloudnexttimeyouseecloud by Emily Morgan offers a note to parents and teachers about how to use the text.  This book should be used in tandem with real-life observation. “Go outside on a day when you see white clouds against the blue sky. Lie down on the ground together and observe the clouds. Notice their different shapes and sizes and the directions in which they move. Use your imagination to see different forms. Talk about what you observe and share what you wonder.” Morgan’s book explains how clouds form, how they move, and why they look the way they do.

Captivate young scientists with these fun and engaging new books that let them use their imagination and all of their senses to discover and learn. These books are also available as e-books.


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Suggestions for a lab update

4018106328_d97e79bc1b_mI have a chance to contribute to the design of the science classrooms in a middle school. What should be on a “must-have” list? —S., Connecticut

I would strongly recommend using the NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities. This publication has a chapter on safety guidelines (including material storage), sample floorplans, Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, and even suggestions for “green” labs. It has chapters on the planning process, photographs, checklists, and discussion-starters.

Check on the recommendations or requirements from your state department of education and your local building codes. Consider the age level of your students and the type of activities and investigations in your curriculum.

The first priority should be safety features such as showers, eyewash stations, fume hoods, air exchange, fire extinguishers and blankets, sanitizing equipment for goggles, master shut-off switches for utilities, adequate and uncluttered workspaces, and unobstructed exits from the lab.

Other science teachers offer their advice:

  • Include more storage space than you think you’ll need. Drawers and cupboards should be lockable.
  • In addition to lab stations, get flat student desks or tables that can be pushed together for cooperative work and projects.
  • You can’t have too many electrical outlets throughout the room.
  • It is helpful to visit labs and talk to the teachers at other schools when planning a new lab space.
  • Have a small refrigerator for making ice or chilling materials (but not for lunches!).

It’s better to work out the details first rather than having to go back and correct any mistakes or omissions. Include your administrators in any design discussions. From my own experience, architects, contractors, or administrators may try to skimp on features you recommend. Be adamant about student safety and ensuring the facility meets the learning needs of science students.


Update: S has followed up with “We met with the architects today and that book was very helpful.”

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7 Ways to Get Funding to Attend an NSTA Conference

woman holding a piggy bank and text that says "7 Ways to Get Funding to Attend an NSTA Conference"

If you’ve ever been to an NSTA conference, you know you go home SO pumped up by what you saw and learned there that you want desperately to go the NSTA National Conference and/or the 6th Annual STEM Forum & Expo! Unfortunately, you know there is no way that you can afford it, and you doubt you can get funding from your administrators to go to another conference. Well, maybe there is a way to find funding so you can attend an upcoming NSTA conference; I have a few tips and tricks to share that might help you.

Tip #1: Check the Date

The NSTA National Conference does fall within the same fiscal year as our area conferences, so it might be harder to double dip on the professional development budget this school year. However, take a closer look at the STEM Forum & Expo’s dates: July 12–14, 2107. This is actually the start of the NEW budget year for the 2017–2018 school year. Carefully point this out to your administrator and remind them that you are asking for the FIRST professional development opportunity of the new school year. There will definitely be money available at the start of the fiscal year. You may find it helpful to bring a justification letter to share. Download one for the National conference here, and read more about the PD you’ll get at the STEM Forum & Expo here.

Tip #2: Present at an NSTA Conference

I know you might be saying to yourself “I could never get up in front of others and talk about my classroom,” but I am here to say you can! Each and every one of us has one great idea, fabulous project, or fantastic unit of study that will help our fellow colleagues improve their teaching. When you approach your administration about funding for an NSTA Conference or the STEM Forum & Expo, you are giving yourself professional credibility when you say “I am presenting at the NSTA __________ conference.” Your service to your colleagues goes a long way when asking for funding. It provides your school and school district with a way to promote something good to your local school board and to the larger community by way of your school/alumni newsletter, local television news or newspaper. Come on you can do it. Find out more about submitting session proposals here. The next round is due December 5, so don’t wait.

Tip #3: Apply for an NSTA Award

The annual NSTA Awards and Recognition Program recognizes exceptional and innovative science educators. This awards program helps to raise awareness of the outstanding work being done in science classrooms around the country each year. With 20 different awards, there are many options to apply for in the program. Make sure you follow the specific criteria for the award you are applying for. Be sure you read the details before submitting your application. Some awards come with a monetary gift that can be used toward expenses to attend the NSTA National Conference. In addition, award winners are celebrated at the Awards Banquet during the conference. It is a great way to let our colleagues and the world know of the outstanding work happening each and every day in your classroom. Continue reading …

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Ideas and inspiration from NSTA’s November K-12 journals

Educators at all levels  will find ideas on helping students with Meeting the Challenges of Communicating Science in his month’s Science and Children. Many of the strategies can be adapted for other levels.

Science and ChildrenThe Speaking, Reading, and Writing Connection to Science

This issue is a must-read for teachers of all levels. The lessons described in the articles include connections with the NGSS.

For more on the content that provides a context for these projects and strategies see the SciLinks topics Adaptations, Bird Adaptations, Invertebrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Mollusks, pH Scale, Solids Liquids and Gases, States of Matter

Continue for The Science Teacher and Science Scope

Continue reading …

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Positive environments: Early childhood education conferences

Two early childhood conferences I attended this month, a national conference and a local regional conference, were awash with sessions on science, STEM, and STEAM education. Although science education is my main focus, I enjoy attending conferences because in addition to the terrific learning experience, it always lifts my spirits. Something about large numbers of people who are working for a better future for others (children and ultimately our world), and who begin with the perspective of the child, gathered together creates a positive environment. I’m looking forward to attending and participating in a National Science Teachers Association conference in 2017.

naeyc_logoAt the 2016 national conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), I saw educators displaying the skills we hope to instill in our students—observing, wondering, co-operating with a group, talking about the evidence for their ideas (what they saw and did), analyzing data, considering alternative explanations, trying new ideas, and using literacy and mathematics skills. While they worked together they also were planning how to include all children in science investigations when they returned back to their programs.

A three-hour session was still not long enough for many participants! They wanted additional time to even more fully experience and absorb the work shared by presenters. I attended two such sessions. Dr. Beth Van Meeteren, Director, and Sherri Peterson, Program Assistant, from the Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education at UNI, presenting “Ramps and Pathways: A fun integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and Cindy Hoisington, Senior Curriculum and Instructional Design Associate, from the Education Development Center, Inc., presenting “Let’s talk about it: Science as a vehicle for promoting English language learning for dual language learners.” In both sessions there was much talk and a lot of hands-on exploration as we considered the value of, and how to, incorporate engineering re-design into education for children up to age 8, and how we can design science explorations to meet several needs of dual language learners.


Continue reading …

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Health Wise: Too Many Teens Have High Cholesterol


About one in five U.S. kids and teens ages 6 to 19 has abnormal cholesterol levels, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS 2015). And among the 16-to-19 age group, the number rises to more than one in four.

“[This] is concerning because high cholesterol levels are a major factor contributing to heart disease and stroke,” says Mary Lou Gavin, MD, a pediatrician specializing in weight management and senior medical editor at KidsHealth.org. “Research shows that cardiovascular disease has its roots in childhood.”

Cholesterol is a lipid, or fat. The body uses cholesterol to help digest fatty foods and form cell membranes and hormones (progestagens, glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids, androgens, and estrogens). The liver produces about 1,000 mg of cholesterol daily, which is enough for healthy functioning. Fruit, vegetables, and grains don’t have any cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol comes from:

  • dairy products (e.g., milk, cheese, and ice cream),
  • egg yolks,
  • meat,
  • poultry, and
  • seafood.

To travel through the bloodstream, cholesterol has to combine with proteins. The combination of cholesterol and proteins is called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad cholesterol,” are the primary cholesterol carriers. Too much LDL in the bloodstream can build up inside blood vessels. The buildup forms plaque—a hard substance that can cause blood vessels to become stiffer, narrower, and blocked. Plaque makes it easier for blood clots to form. A blood clot can cause a heart attack or stroke.

High-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good cholesterol,” on the other hand, carry cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it’s processed and sent out of the body. HDLs might even help remove cholesterol from areas of plaque. High levels of LDL increase heart disease and stroke risks. High levels of HDL can help protect the circulatory system. Here’s a mnemonic to remember good versus bad cholesterol: LDL starts with “l” for “lousy”; HDL starts with “h” for “healthy.”

Total cholesterol, based primarily on levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol, is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in the blood. The combination of high levels of LDL and low levels of HDL indicates an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC 2015), desirable cholesterol levels for adults are:

  • LDL = less than 100 mg/dl
  • HDL = 60 mg/dl or higher
  • Total cholesterol = less than 200 mg/dl

According to Gavin, desirable levels for kids and teens are:

  • LDL = less than 110 mg/dl
  • HDL = 40 mg/dl or higher
  • Total cholesterol = less than 170 mg/dl

Factors that can contribute to high cholesterol levels include:

  • eating foods high in fats, especially saturated and trans fats;
  • having a parent with high cholesterol;
  • being obese, related to diet and exercise; and
  • having diabetes.

The study by the NCHS shows that teens ages 16 to 19 were most likely to have high total cholesterol, high LDL, or low HDL (26.9% for ages 16 to 19 versus 21.0% for ages 6 to 19 overall). This is why your students should know about:

  • the need for screening to learn their cholesterol levels and
  • how a healthy diet and daily exercise can help improve cholesterol levels.

Classroom activity
Ask your students to write an essay addressing the following question: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends (AAP 2011) that all children be screened for high cholesterol at least once between ages 9 and 11 years and between ages 17 and 21 years. Why? Resources cited below are appropriate for their research.

Michael E. Bratsis (mbratsis@kidshealth.org) is senior editor for Kids Health in the Classroom (kidshealth.org/classroom). Send comments, questions or suggestions to mbratsis@kidshealth.org.

On the web
Article, video, quiz for students: http://teenshealth.org/en/teens/cholesterol.html, http://bit.ly/lipo-science-vid, http://bit.ly/cholesterol-quiz

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 2011. Physicians recommend all children, ages 9–11, be screened for cholesterol. http://bit.ly/2cgI1mQ
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2015. Cholesterol fact sheet. http://bit.ly/1pz0zxh
National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). 2015. Abnormal cholesterol among children and adolescents in the United States, 2011–2014 http://bit.ly/cholesterol-kids

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of The tst_nov16_covScience Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

Get Involved With NSTA!

Join NSTA today and receive The Science Teacher,
the peer-reviewed journal just for high school teachers; to write for the journal, see our Author GuidelinesCall for Papers, and annotated sample manuscript; connect on the high school level science teaching list (members can sign up on the list server); or consider joining your peers at future NSTA conferences.

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The Mixed Blessings of Substitute Teachers

How often each year does a substitute typically teach your classes? 0.5%=Never. 23.9% Once or Twice. 46.8% Three to Four Times. 28.6% Five or More Times.

Like all educators, science teachers rely on substitutes to lead their classrooms when they have to take a day (or more) of leave. In a recent anonymous NSTA Reports poll, 46.8% of participants reported needing a substitute for their classroom three or four times a year, with 28.6% reporting they depend on substitutes five or more times annually and 23.9% only once or twice a year. All reported leaving lesson plans for substitutes ahead of a planned absence, and 75% report maintaining “emergency” lesson plans for an unplanned absence. Most (77%) report that substitutes usually followed the plans.

Do the substitutes usually follow lesson plans? 23%=No. 77%=Yes.

Nearly 87% say they take steps to prepare their classrooms for a substitute ahead of a planned absence. Educators say they leave seating charts, set up labs, check the room’s organization, “label everything,” lock up all lab equipment, or “hide materials that may be stolen or damaged.” Eighty-four percent reported preparing their students for a substitute: many by reviewing class rules, expectations, and agendas.


Few (8%) report substitutes typically have a background in the subject matter, and a majority (65%) don’t get to approve or screen the substitutes that will teach their classes.

Would you like to take part in our anonymous poll on on how educators respond when student experiments have unexpected results or educators’ experiences polling students about their classes?

Here’s what science educators are saying about the challenges of having a substitute:

Having them teach new content is scary, especially since each class coming in that day has its own atmosphere for learning. I’m afraid things will not be taught with the same passion that I teach them with.—Educator, High School, Indiana

You can’t leave a lesson and expect it to be taught, but at the same time, it’s hard to give up valuable teaching time.—Educator, Elementary, Washington, D.C.

Abuse and neglect of my workspace [has occurred].—Educator, Middle School, Maryland Continue reading …

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What’s Ahead for Science and STEM Education in the Trump Administration?

With the election now in the rear view mirror, what’s ahead for education and science education in the new Administration?

Short answer, it’s too early to tell. During the campaign, education was largely ignored, so the education priorities for the new Administration are still a work in progress. Both the House and Senate remained in Republican hands, making it easier under a one-party rule to advance key Republican priorities under the new President-elect.

Politico is reporting that key policy plans for the first 100 days in the new Trump Administration would include scraping regulations from the Obama Administration on climate change, immigration, Wall Street, and restrictions on gun sales; proposing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan to rebuild highways, tunnels, bridges and airports; repealing Obamacare, backing out from trade deals, such as the TPP; and building a wall at the border.

The transition team is in overdrive, and a favorite parlor game in Washington D.C. this time of year is speculating on players on the new Administration team. President-elect Trump has vowed to “drain the swamp,” but the Trump transition team is apparently leaning toward veterans from the Reagan and Bush presidencies to help craft policy and fill key positions.

In education, several names have been floated for Ed Secretary, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, Gov. Scott Walker, William Evers, and Gerard Robinson.

(NSTA spearheaded efforts among nine STEM education groups and created a transition document addressing how the federal government must continue to make strategic investments in K–12 STEM education. Read NSTA Executive Director David Evans blog and the transition document for STEM education, which was recently sent to the Trump transition team.)

Here are the issues that are emerging and what we are watching:

President-elect Trump has voiced support for eliminating the Department of Education and expanding school choice by creating a $20 billion block grant. One to watch is the school choice legislation—first introduced in 2014 by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), current chair of the Senate education committee (and author of the Every Student Succeeds Act)—that would allow states to create a $2,100 scholarship from existing federal funds that would follow the children to the school of their choice. Continue reading …

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How many “labs?”

5229139935_f4b54c053c_mI’m a first-year biology teacher. How do I decide how many labs I could or should do each week. My colleagues have different ideas about this.  —L., South Carolina

Sometimes the word lab is used to describe any activities students do in groups in science class including investigations, experiments, projects, teacher demonstrations, laptop or tablet activities, simulations, games, small-group discussions, and group writing assignments.

While these activities can be useful learning strategies, let’s assume you are referring to studying a phenomenon or answering a question through investigations, experiments, projects, or constructing and using models.

Some of these studies may take less than a class period, while other investigations may require more time or even a long-term commitment spanning several days, weeks, or months. Many teachers often start with an activity prior to presenting content to provide students with a context. 

In terms of learning science, the quality of the activities is more important than the quantity. The type and number of activities depend on the learning goals, student interests, and whether an activity can be done safely in your classroom with the materials and time you have.

Doing an activity for its own sake without a meaningful context or without student input, follow-up, or reflection leads to questions about what students are learning and whether they truly understand the relationships and connections among concepts, practices, and content. (I once overheard a teacher saying “I keep my students so busy they don’t have time to think.”)

So…I don’t have a definitive answer to your question. But I would advise against using “labs” as an incentive for good behavior or take them away as a consequence for unrelated behavior. Of course, if students are engaging in unsafe or dangerous behavior during the activity, you will have to deal with that situation immediately.

Posted in Ms. Mentor | 1 Response