April brings “real science,” Citizen Science Day, and Earth Day

Citizen Science Day is April 14, and these projects are a wonderful way for young children to continue their science learning by being part of a larger science effort doing “real science.”  (For the record, I think the observations and thinking young children do is real science, the beginning of making sense of natural phenomena.) One citizen science project is the Pieris Project, named after the Latin name of the Cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae.

Cabbage white butterflyThe Cabbage white butterfly is the earliest butterfly I see, cherished by preschool teachers because it is relatively easy for children to observe its lifecycle. The green larva hatch out of eggs laid by the mother butterfly on plants you may be familiar with, broccoli, cabbage, collards, and kale, all in mustard family. Collard seedlings can be planted now to attract the mother Cabbage white butterfly to lay her eggs where children can see them. You will notice when the babies hatch because they eat holes in the leaves, the reason why this species is an agricultural pest. 

Two Cabbage white eggs on collards leaf. Plant the collard seedlings and check them daily for the tiny eggs. If you find an egg, the entire leaf can be cut from the plant and put in a vase for close observation indoors so all children can see it and the tiny, tiny caterpillar when it hatches and begins to eat. Additional collard leaves purchased at a grocery must be washed thoroughly to wash away any pesticides before being added to the vase as an additional food source. See more details in the April 2007 Early Years column or in chapter 23 of Science Learning in the Early Years. (NSTA Press 2016).

The SciStarter listing of this citizen science project says, “Please consider helping this important effort, because through your collections of this butterfly we can learn a great deal about the ecology and evolution of butterflies more broadly as well as how human activities (climate change, pollution, etc.) are having an effect on biodiversity.”

Your children will learn that people all over the world are working to help scientists learn. They may be too young to understand the details of this project that seeks to answer: 1) How has the cabbage white butterfly adapted (evolved) to the new environments it invaded? 2) Where did these butterflies (those found in the US) come from? and 3) How has the “phenotype” (color, shape, size) of the cabbage white butterfly changed as it has moved into new environments? But even two-year-olds aren’t too young to be interested in small animals such as butterflies.

 And they will learn about the animal-plant relationship, part of the Next Generation Science Standards, K-LS1-1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, 1-LS1-2 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, and K-ESS3-1 Earth and Human Activity.  

Earth as seen from space by the crew of Apollo 17

“Apollo 17: Blue Marble” taken by the crew of the final Apollo mission as the crew made its way to the Moon.

Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 and every day as we connect young children to the natural environment. Weekly walks over the same ground or city block will help children see the changes in nature and the human built environment as the seasons change. Where does the sunshine fall this week compared to where it could be seen last month? The shadows of buildings that blocked the sunlight in winter months may have shifted! Trees leafing out and bees and ants appearing are other examples of seasonal changes children may notice. Feeling like a part of nature, rather than apart from it, helps children begin to notice connections between their actions and what happens in the environment. 

One way we can make a small change in our practices to make the environment a healthier place is to begin using paper straws instead of plastic straws for children’s engineering and art projects. Plastic takes a long time to break down so the straws we use today will be around for years, in landfills or dispersed in nature where animals are endangered. Researchers at the University of California, Davis are investigating whether microplastic debris is toxic to marine organisms and if toxic impacts can transfer up the food chain.Poster showing sources of plastic and its presence in the environment, land and sea


Paper straws fall apart faster than plastic ones and that’s a good thing!

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Ed News: ESSA Pressures States To Assure All Students Have Good Teachers

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This week in education news, Wyoming and Idaho pass laws mandating schools to offer computer science classes; March for Science taking place April 14; NAEP scores in math and reading remain relatively flat; blind and visually impaired students can now conduct their own science experiments that might have been exceedingly difficult before; Joan Ferrini-Mundy named President of the University of Maine; and Utah State Board of Education approves plans to begin drafting new school science standards.

Wyoming, Idaho Laws Expand K-12 Computer Science Education

Two states, Wyoming and Idaho, passed laws mandating schools offer computer science instruction, with the goal of preparing students for the future workforce. Read the article featured in Education Week.

Ky. Can’t Push STEM Jobs While Cutting Education, Raising Tuition

Gov. Matt Bevin has stated that one of the goals of his Kentucky education reform is to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). As a Kentucky-educated computer scientist and team member of a group whose work was inducted into the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, I feel obligated to comment on Bevin’s plan, and why it’s an abject failure. Read the opinion piece by Mark Alsip featured in the Lexington Herald Leader.

March for Science: Scientists Are Back — And Ready To March

Supporters of science around the world will take to the streets on April 14 to send public officials a message that evidence-based policy decisions are important — and science cannot be ignored. Read the article featured in USA Today.

2017 NAEP Sees Almost No Growth In US Atudents’ Math, Reading Scores

The performance of U.S. students in reading and mathematics has remained relatively flat since 2015, according to the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress, released Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics. Read the article featured in Education DIVE.

ESSA Pressures States To Assure All Students Have Good Teachers

Every student, no matter their race or family income level, should be taught by an effective teacher, the Every Student Succeeds Act declares. Exactly how to define what makes an effective teacher and how to implement this ambitious goal has been left up to the states—and their track records on getting started have been mixed. Read the article featured in Education Week.

Study Reveals Teachers Don’t Have Enough Time For Peer Collaboration

Teachers in high-poverty schools collaborate just as much as teachers in low-poverty schools, researchers at the RAND Corporation recently found. However, teachers in both low- and high-poverty schools reported they didn’t have enough time to devote to collaboration. Read the article featured in Education Week.

Illuminating Science For Blind Students, With Help From Latest Tech Devices

As high school student in Los Angeles, Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, who is visually impaired, remembers what it was like when her classmates did a science project. They mixed chemicals and watched them change color, checked liquid temperatures using a thermometer and measured speed and velocity by racing toy cars down a ramp. Kwong couldn’t do much besides sit quietly and “robotically copy data from my non-disabled peers. … I definitely did not feel included. I felt like a second-class citizen.” Using digital Braille readers, “smart” pens affixed with thermometers, 3-D printers, audio textbooks and other innovations, Kwong and other blind and visually impaired students can now conduct their own science experiments and even pursue scientific careers that might have been exceedingly difficult before. Read the article featured in EdSource.

Teachers Still Haven’t Recovered Financially From The Recession

In recent weeks, teachers have been protesting, staging walkouts and marches in Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona. Teachers are upset about working conditions, pay and benefits, which in some cases have been stagnant or worsening for years. One major contributing factor is recession recovery — states have less funding per student now than they did in 2008. Read the article featured in the Kera News.

National Science Foundation Executive Named New President Of UMaine

A top executive at the National Science Foundation and leading science, technology, engineering and math expert has been named president of the University of Maine. Joan Ferrini-Mundy was selected after a national search, and succeeds Susan Hunter, who is retiring. Read the article featured in the Portland Press Herald.

The U.S. Doesn’t Have Enough STEM Teachers To Prepare Students For Our High-Tech Economy. 4 Steps Toward Addressing That Shortage

Now more than ever, a high-quality STEM education matters. The STEM fields cultivate curiosity and creativity while preparing students to reach their highest potential in work and life. They are also critical for personal and national prosperity: In the next decade, almost all of the 30 fastest-growing occupations will require intermediate or advanced knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics. Unfortunately, access to a high-quality STEM education is deeply inequitable, limiting opportunities for students while they are still in high school. Read the article featured in The 74.

Here’s The Best Way To Create Jobs And Growth In The US

Today, the biggest need of any startup is talent — creative, highly-skilled workers who can turn ideas into the next big technological revolution. To maintain America’s innovative edge, we need a two-prong policy approach of boosting STEM education and training for Americans to fill the jobs of the future, while fixing our high-skilled immigration system so that businesses can recruit the best people for these jobs today without harming U.S. workers. Read the article featured on CNBC.com.

After Past Sparring Over Hot-Button Topics Like Evolution And Climate Change, Utah Board Of Education Gives Go-Ahead To Draft New Science Standards

The Utah State Board of Education approves plans yesterday to begin drafting new school science standards, a process likely to touch on divisive issues like climate change and evolution. Read the article featured in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Stay tuned for next week’s top education news stories.

The Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs (CLPA) team strives to keep NSTA members, teachers, science education leaders, and the general public informed about NSTA programs, products, and services and key science education issues and legislation. In the association’s role as the national voice for science education, its CLPA team actively promotes NSTA’s positions on science education issues and communicates key NSTA messages to essential audiences.

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

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folder icon  Safety

Mercury: The Shining Health Hazard


At room temperature, elemental (metallic) mercury can evaporate to become an invisible, odorless toxic vapor. The warmer the air, the more quickly mercury vaporizes. Exposure to even a small amount can affect your health. Symptoms can surface within hours of exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to mercury can result in short-term symptoms (e.g., coughing, vomiting) and long-term symptoms (e.g., loss of appetite, memory loss).

The problem with mercury is that it keeps on recycling itself. It vaporizes, is absorbed by materials in the environment (e.g., carpet, cloth, wood, window fixings), and again vaporizes into the air. This means that mercury drops can continue to turn into vapors that are breathed in by students and teachers years after a spill. It keeps recycling unless there is an intervention.

To determine if there is mercury in the lab, either secure a mercury detection kit or have a commercial lab test the science lab for mercury. If the results come back positive, the school district will need to hire a mercury spill clean-up contractor. If there is a small spill from, say, a broken mercury thermometer, see “How to handle a mercury spill” below.

Where can mercury be found in schools?

For decades, science teachers have used mercury in demonstrations and lab experiments involving oxygen production, exceptionally strong cohesive forces, and more. Before the health concerns about elemental mercury were evident, it could be found in a number of sites at schools, especially in science labs (e.g., glass thermometers, pressure gauges, batteries). Beyond the science lab, mercury can be found in fluorescent lamps and light bulbs, thermostats, switches, latex paint (produced prior to 1992), old microwave ovens, high-intensity discharge lamps, and silent, mercury-tiltwall switches.

All mercury instrumentation and mercury compounds need to be removed from labs appropriately. There are mercury thermometer exchange programs at the local and state levels, commercial hazardous waste vendors, and science laboratory equipment/supply houses.

Alternatives to mercury

Alcohol or electronic thermometers should replace all mercury-filled thermometers. There are also accurate alternatives to mercury barometers, vacuum gauges, manometers, and sphygmomanometers (blood pressure gauges) that rely on electronic or digital gauges and aneroid gauges. Other less hazardous chemicals such as a copper catalyst or zinc formalin can be in place of mercury for science demonstrations and experiments.

How to handle a mercury spill

Should there be a mercury spill, its size will dictate the response. Prepare for a spill by determining the mercury cleanup protocol from your school’s administration or board of education. In addition, general mercury spill guidelines are available from numerous sources, including most state departments of environmental protection and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s guidelines provide information on cleaning up mercury spills, including what never to do after a spill, preparation for cleaning up a broken mercury thermometer, materials for cleaning up the spill, and specific instructions for cleaning up a spill.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at safesci@sbcglobal.net or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

NSTA resources and safety issue papers
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Getting the Ball Rolling

What are some of the best ways to start and facilitate a class discussion about science topics?

– B., Arkansas

I have used many different ways to get science discussions going. I think the key is to either “wow” them or provide them with some structure to get the ball rolling.

If you have a really good demonstration or discrepant event (such as a skewer through a balloon or an ammonia fountain) the students will perk up and take notice. Have them work in groups to figure out how it worked and then have a full class discussion of the answers.

Start a new topic with a What I Know–Want to find out–Learned (KWL) chart. Have students fill in the K column and at least two items in the W column, then share their work with a partner. They can challenge their partners’ knowledge or agree with them. They may even be able to answer their partners’ questions. Anything they learn goes in the L column. You can have students share their questions with the whole class. This launches the next phase of learning where they get their answers.

Graphic organizers can lead discussions—there is a variety online. Students start on their own and then share. I found a few online and have them in a collection in the NSTA Learning Center. (https://goo.gl/yZNHNB)

Hope this helps!


Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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The Pasco Wireless Weather Station: Like having your own weather satellite

For almost 2000 years, Aristotle’s ideas about weather were the industry standard. Although our hindsight confirmed that many of the theories Aristotle put forth in his work Meteorologica were in error, the depth and breath of his observations and inferences were truly impressive especially given his lack of instrumentation and the non-non-existant units that an instrument could produce.

While inferences are conclusions about the cause of an observation, when it comes to weather, we want to know the future, not just the present. Predicting weather, although wrought with more than it’s fair share of failures and punchlines, it is a staple of our daily routine.

Time and temperature are two foundations of our universe, with time being a measurement of change and temperature being a relative quantity of atomic motion. Pretty much everything else is wrapped up in those two concepts. But what about the details? The small stuff. The other stuff.

A foundational concept of geology, uniformitarianism, is to discern the past by observing the present. Water erodes land. Wind blows sand around. Ice cracks rock. And gravity tries to flatten everything out. Weather, on the other hand, is predicted by inferring what we think caused what we are experiencing now. This double-inference is especially tricky. Ideally though, with enough data points, we can know the future. Well, at least the short-term weather.

Three hundred years before Aristotle, the Babylonians tried to predict short term weather changes based on the look of cloud and other visible changes. And shortly after Aristotle penned his four tomes on weather theory, the Chinese constructed a 24-part annual calendar based on different weather types.

What was missing, and what kept archaic ideas alive for millennia was primarily the absence of instrumentation and quantitive measurements. Qualitative observations lacked both precision and comparative metrics, and without those it was difficult to generalize descriptions across geography and time.

Breakthroughs were made with the creation of instruments used to measure humidity, temperature, and barometric pressure allowing both discrete measurements and inferred measurements by combining types of data. And as electronic communications increased, so did the ability to compile distant observations and measurements, and to make forecasts with the ability to check one’s work.

Continue reading …

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Building STEM Knowledge in a Breakerspace

Janet Sweat’s middle school students in Lake City, Florida, disassembled broken toys
to create cars, some that would run with remote controls and others without them. Photo courtesy Janet Sweat.

A breakerspace—a makerspace workstation where students can disassemble toys, electronics, and appliances—engages students “in the ‘how does this work,’ ‘what makes things work,’ ‘I wonder,’ and tinkering phases of investigating the world around them. In the age of touch screens, cell phones, headphones, etc., it is important to stress engaging with others and the world around them and to foster [students’] curiosity,” says Cynthia Crockett, science education specialist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This is not a new phenomenon—the ‘take-apart table’ [dates back to] the 90’s—but…[it] has seen a resurgence [recently] with the advent of makerspaces.”

Crockett emphasizes that “no smashing or wanton destruction [is] permitted; that defeats the very purpose.” Instead, teachers should encourage students to “explore and move toward understanding the workings,” which happens when students study objects “to figure out how to ‘get inside,’ see how it is put together…‘ undo’ it, then…[re-examine it].” Students can further their learning by reassembling the item, she adds. Continue reading …

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Ed News: Lecture Instruction – Alive and Not So Well

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This week in education news, new analysis of college-level STEM classes found that lecture instruction still remains as the dominant form of teaching; report that launched the modern education reform movement turns 35; schools and districts across the country invest in STEM labs to help motivate students and stimulate innovation; and NASA astronaut says you don’t have to be a genius to have a career in science; and Hawaiian robotics teacher inspires a generation of STEM students.

Teacher Pay: How Salaries, Pensions, And Benefits Work In Schools

Teacher pay has been in headlines across the country recently: Educators in Oklahoma and West Virginia successfully forced the legislature to pass pay raises in early 2018, and teachers in Arizona were demanding lawmakers there do the same. Teaching has long been viewed as a low-paid job, but much more goes into teachers’ compensation than just the take-home paychecks. Read the article featured in Education Week.

Lecture Instruction: Alive And Not So Well

You’ve heard about the revolution in STEM teaching? About how professors are retooling their courses to focus on active learning? About how the flipped classroom has made the traditional lecture obsolete? It turns out that the revolution hasn’t quite taken place, at least broadly, in higher education. Read the article featured in Inside Higher Ed.

Continue reading …

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Coming to a City near You—March for Science 2018

About this time last year NSTA and many of our teachers joined millions in the streets of Washington, DC and in cities nationwide for the March for Science 2017.

This year, March for Science (MfS) 2018 is scheduled for April 14 (find out more here). We encourage you to join one of the more than 200 scheduled satellite events nationwide and use your voice for change.

Why march again?

The goal of the March for Science is to champion robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. 

This last year we have seen more threats to science at all levels of our government. The Administration has not named a science adviser and challenges to the science behind global warming continue to mount. The EPA has dismissed science advisors and replaced them with industry representatives. National Park Service Advisory Panel members have resigned because the Secretary refused to meet with them. Scientific content on federal websites has been altered.  Perhaps most significantly, as reported in the NY Times, “Since World War II, no American president has shown greater disdain for science – or more lack of awareness of its likely costs.”

In his FY2019 budget President Trump –for the second year in a row—proposes to eliminate key education and research programs across the federal agencies.

Fortunately, Congress largely ignored the Administration’s proposed cuts in these areas when it passed the FY2018 budget a few weeks ago. Continue reading …

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Robert E. Yager Exemplary Teaching Award—2018 winners

The Robert E. Yager Exemplary Teaching Award recognizes six full-time K–-12 teachers of science who successfully use innovation and excellence in their classroom.

District II

None awarded

District IV

James Brown
Science Teacher
Sand Creek Middle School
Albany, NY

James Brown believes when students are taught in an interdisciplinary manner through a lens of how and why, science suddenly comes to life. Instilling in students that science is key to understanding the world around us provides the student with a framework for their learning. Kelly Grindstaff, Project Manager, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says, “In my over two decades in education as a teacher, teacher educator, and professional development professional, I can think of no one more deserving than Jim for an award recognizing Exemplary Teaching. … [H]is leadership in growing STEM education has been unparalleled in my experience.” Brown makes learning real for students by integrating curriculum through daily activities and by showing students that science is all around. Rather than giving answers, he gets them excited about finding their own. Brown’s lessons often incorporate specific skills, which give students tools to be successful, and contests, which motivate kids beyond a grade and provide an authentic audience. Joseph A. Farron, Jr., Environmental Engineer, states, “Mr. Brown is a tremendous educator who uniquely fosters an understanding of science to help his students become involved in the world they live in. Our organization has been impressed by programs he has helped establish, and our only real question about Mr. Brown and his educational initiatives is, what will he do next?”

View James Brown’s PowerPoint presentation Continue reading …

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See photos and get resources from NSTA 2018 Atlanta

I feel recharged and activated after attending a conference and taking a few weeks to reflect and prepare to put the new understandings into practice. Whether or not you attended the 2018 NSTA national conference you can access files uploaded by presenters. Two sources provide information about the 2018 NSTA national conference sessions and presenters: the online NSTA website conference events schedule where you may have added sessions to your personal scheduler, and the NSTA app.  Note: the NSTA personal scheduler and app do not sync, so changes made in one tool do not automatically transfer to the other.

The events schedule is the place to find posted resources from the sessions and evaluate the sessions you attended. The app is the place to find contact information about presenters, upload your photographs, and rate the session. Please do the evaluating and rating to help the conference team know which sessions were most helpful.

There were many sessions and special event I wish I had time to attend—did you get to everything on your wish list? Here is my recap of some of the sessions I attended. Click on the photos to see a larger view. 

Geology RocksGo beyond rock collecting and add geological investigations to your class! Activities aimed at preschool to grade 2, but can be adapted for all elementary classes. Resources provided.

Presenter(s): Anne Lowry (Aleph Academy: Reno, NV).

It is a knowledgeable presenter who uses her 60 minutes of session time to engage participants without using slides. Anne Lowry who teaches preschool is knowledgeable and she shared what she knows about geology and young children with us. Lowry confirmed that earth science is the heart of everything we humans do, influencing what we eat and manufacture, and a factor in our travel and constructions. Tables for three rows of seating had “provocations” to engage us in learning about landforms, become familiar with rocks and soil. This collection of materials could be used for a family science event.  Continue reading …

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