Engineering Next Generation Science Leaders in Omaha, Nebraska

“Here we go” was a tweet from a delegate attending the 2015 National Congress on Science Education (NCSE), held last week in Omaha, Nebraska, by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA); excitement was evident from start to finish! Congress was the venue for delegates to tweet “NCSE gave me tools to conquer challenges facing science education in my state.” If you haven’t already figured it out, NCSE became the highlight of social media.

Congress started with a special celebration of the 2015 Robert Yager Excellence in Science Education Award recipients. Several tweets appeared while the six recipients made their presentations…“Inspiring to hear examples of truly engaging students as best practice from the Yager Award Winners!” and “Joe Ruhl (Yager Award recipient) sharing with #NSTAcongress about teaching techniques.” His strategies focused on the five “Cs” – Choice, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. Beverly Kutsunaj, the Robert Yager scholar, shared her success in her first grade class. She “stops talking and brings out a camera.” Creativity was apparent not just in teaching styles but also in how students were encouraged to be “creative in their thinking” as they learn science as a process.

Day two of Congress began with two energizing speakers yielding tweets such as:

  • “NSTA membership voice heard – organized advocacy gets STEM into ESEA bill”
  • “It’s time to get our teeth”
  • “Your teacher voice matters here!”
  • “Teacher advocacy is so vital for us to be heard.”

Jodi Peterson from NSTA and Stephen Pruitt from Achieve provided excitement as Jodi shared the work on the ESEA bill and Stephen inspired Congress attendees to be “leaders.” His talk had people saying: “Teachers have been saying for too long I am just a teacher – play an active role.” And he defined a LEADER with works: learn, endurance, aspiration, determination, excellence, and respect. The morning session carried over into the issue forums: Leadership and Advocacy, Elementary Education, and Professional Learning. The issue forums yielded six resolutions. Two resolutions focusing on the NSTA Elementary School position paper and collaboration with CAGs were presented to the NSTA leadership and were passed. Three other resolutions were directed to the NCSE focusing on collaboration and pre-service teacher programs.

Continue reading …

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Bundling the NGSS and CCSS: Featured Strand at NSTA’s 2015 Area Conference on Science Education in Reno, Nevada, October 22-24

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This October, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) will feature a special strand “Bundling the NGSS and CCSS” at our 2015 Area Conference on Science Education, in Reno, October 22-24. Teachers ask frequently how to connect the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and Reno will be the place to get answers! Science learning includes the content areas of mathematics, English language arts, and English language development. Bundling instruction allows teachers to incorporate multiple standards at the same time for purposeful learning and real-world applications. This strand increases participants’ understanding and ability to simultaneously teach science, the CCSS, and beyond.

Ohkee LeeThe featured presentation for this strand will be “Connections of NGSS to CCSS for All Students, Including English Language Learners,” on Friday, October 23 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM, in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, C1. Presenter Okhee Lee (New York University: New York, NY) will address connections of the NGSS to the Common Core State Standards, in English language arts and mathematics for all students…and English language learners in particular. Okhee Lee will highlight relationships and convergences between the NGSS and CCSS from both a content perspective and a language perspective. In addition, the presentation will engage participants to explore how teachers can promote disciplinary practices in the NGSS and CCSS while promoting language development.

Below is a small sampling of other sessions on this topic:

  • Keep Calm and Teach Science…and Math…and ELA: An Integrated Approach
  • Science Has Many Stories to Tell: NASA Literacy Resources for Your Students
  • Inquiring Minds Want to Know…How to Create a PBL Unit
  • Identifying the Hidden Opportunities: Embedding CCSS ELA in Your Current Science Lessons
  • Talking Points: The Role of Talk in the Science Classroom

Want more? Check out more sessions and other events with the Reno Session Browser/Personal Scheduler. Follow all our conference tweets using #NSTA15, and if you tweet, please feel free to tag us @NSTA so we see it!

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

Future NSTA Conferences

2015 Area Conferences

2016 National Conference

2016 STEM Forum & Expo

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Differences between “Inquiry” and “Practices”

Nature Journaling“Inquiry” and “practices” are recognized actions in science teaching that are used in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  “Inquiry” was a term which was central to many science education reform efforts–certainly those indicated in the “old” 1996 National Science Education Standards (NSES).  In 1991 the NSTA President asked the National Research Council (NRC) to form a committee to do a background analysis concerning the word “inquiry” for use in identifying how science should be taught in schools.  This resulted in little controversy!  A definition of “Inquiry” has been described as simply asking questions, proposing possible answers, and establishing the validity of proposed answers.  This sequence constitutes the “doing” of science. 

Science is not something we “practice” to achieve known results as in engineering.  Scientists do things differently, and we should specify these differences when referring to science in the NGSS!  The word “practices” should not be used to identify the meaning of “inquiry” when defining science.  Science is not something that is done over and over until the desired outcome has been accomplished as it is with engineering.  Science focuses on identifying the unknown!  It seeks explanations of objects and events encountered by humans and includes evidence to support the explanations proposed.   

The term inquiry” is often associated with actions by police, lawyers, FBI and CIA, political leaders, business executives, and others who formulate questions and try to find answers to them.  “Inquiry” provides a focus for student actions as well as actions of teachers.  All variations of the word “inquiry” used by teachers suggest ways teachers can achieve and encourage “inquiry” for students.   “Inquiry” is not accomplished by teachers setting parameters to determine what and how something is taught.  Teachers often provide guidance (while not being too directive).    

The word “practices” is also associated with numerous professions, for example, medical doctors who “practice” medicine, lawyers who “practice law, actors “practicing” words for a play, dancers “practicing” routine dance steps, artists who “practice” to perfect their painting/drawing skills, as well as engineers working to provide designs for stronger bridges, safer building structures, and even designs of major highways.  “Inquiry” is not a primary focus for engineering. Engineers start with an idea that indicates what they are trying to achieve; they know in advance what they want.  Conversely, scientists are always searching for the unknown as they explore the world around them. 

Robert E. Yager
Professor of science Education
University of Iowa

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Finding out what students know and can do

I teach sixth grade science, and my students come from five district elementary schools and several private schools. Some schools emphasize science more than others, so it’s hard to know what knowledge and experience each student has. My principal suggested giving a pretest at the beginning of the year or for each unit, but that sounds time consuming, and I question how effective it would be. Do you have any suggestions to help me figure out what students know? —A., California

I worked on a project that required students to complete a multiple-choice pre– and posttest to assess the effectiveness of an instructional program. The students were upset during the pretest because they didn’t know many of the answers. Even though we explained that they weren’t expected to know everything and the pretest wouldn’t count as a grade, it was still a frustrating experience.

A pretest in your case at the beginning of the year would attempt to assess what students already know. Students would be asked to recall what they learned a year or more ago without a context or prompt or time to think. This isolated, once-and-done assessment could be stressful for students as well as time-consuming for you.

On the other hand, what students already know about a topic is just as important as the activities you plan or the materials you use. You could look at your school district’s curriculum guide for the elementary grades, but as you noted, some topics may have been emphasized more than others depending on the teacher and available resources.

Preliminary activities can help you and the students determine the knowledge, skills, and experiences they bring to the learning unit. I’d suggest using activities that stimulate student thinking about the concepts, provide a context for their thinking, and relate to the learning goals. For example,

  • KWL charts are three-column graphic organizers on which students note what they already (K)now about a topic, what they (W)ant to know, and finally what they (L)earn about a topic. The K and W columns can provide information prior to instruction on students’ knowledge and interests. The L column is a self-assessment during and at the end of the unit. This strategy has been around for a while and there are many variations. (see “KLEWS to Explanation Building” in the February 2015 Science and Children ). ).
  • Using a visual as a prompt, ask students to list in their notebooks what they know about a topic or to generate a list of related words. As with a KWL chart, students can include what they’ve learned about a topic from a variety of sources, including what they may have learned outside of school.
  • On a list of key vocabulary or concepts ask students to put a plus sign next to those they’re comfortable with, a check mark next to those they’ve heard of but are not sure about, and a question mark next to those with which they are completely unfamiliar. At the end of the unit, students can revisit the list.
  • Using letters in a term from the unit, ask students to think of a related word or idea that starts with each letter. Students enjoy working together or sharing their lists. It’s interesting to do this again at the end of the unit to see if students respond differently or in greater detail.

Assessing students’ prior knowledge can also identify misconceptions or incomplete understandings. Page Keeley has written a series of books on Uncovering Student Ideas in Science.  The “probes” in these books are brief activities that help teachers of all grade levels identify students’ preconceptions or misconceptions about a topic. If you would like to preview what these probes look like, NSTA’s Science & Children publishes one in each issue.

To assess more than content knowledge, at the beginning of the year have students complete an activity or investigation with minimal directions from you. As you observe them, you’ll have a chance to note their thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as their measuring, data-organizing, graphing, and writing abilities. In terms of interpersonal skills, you also can start to identify who are the leaders, bosses, followers, thinkers, creative minds, disrupters, class clowns, and bystanders.

Students may claim to be unfamiliar with a topic until they think about it. I found that some students had had teachers who used different terminology, which often confused those students. And I also learned that students knew more than they (and I) thought.

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K-5 and the Next Generation Science Standards – Webinars

NSTA webinar logoThe free webinars by National Science Teachers Association experts, Carla Zembal-Saul, Mary Starr, and Kathy Renfrew, will guide us to a deeper understanding of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Read more about them and register to attend here

July 22
Teaching NGSS in K-5: Constructing Explanations from Evidence

July 29
Teaching NGSS in K-5: Teaching NGSS in K-5: Making Meaning through Discourse

August 5
Teaching NGSS in K-5: Planning a Coherent Storyline

Taking a close look at these standards promises to be a benefit even if your state has not yet adopted the NGSS.

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Summer weather events and patterns

A cloudy sky.If you haven’t been tracking weather events with the children in your summer and year-round programs, they are missing an opportunity to make observations and learn about collecting data. Some regions have more of the same every day, some experience severe weather. Variations in temperature, cloud cover, wind and precipitation can be observed between morning arrival and afternoon outdoor play or dismissal.

What kind of media do your children use to document their observations? Fingerpainting with shaving cream to sculpt clouds? Circling the symbol that represents the current weather? Taking photos to view and discuss Children's small drawings of water in their world.later? Measuring and charting temperature or rainfall? How can children document hail? After the lightning and thunder are completely over, run outside and gather a few of any hailstones that haven’t melted and quickly measure them? 

Large view of a drop of waterAnd where does all that water go? What do we use water for? Four-year-olds in one preschool talked about how water was present in their lives and drew small pictures and wrote a few words about this.

Some kindergarten classes keep track of air temperature within ten degree (*F) blocks over a year. Especially in summer, the change in air temperature can be measured over the hours in the school day, or Child's drawing of ice in the sun, melting, and ice in the shade, not melting.simply noted as “cool,” “warm,” or “hot.” This prepares children to consider how sunlight warms the Earth’s surface, a Disciplinary Core Idea in the Next Generation Science Standards and part of Kindergarten Performance Expectation, K-PS3-1, Make observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth’s surface. One class compared the speed of ice cube melting, in the shade or in the sun.

When addressing severe weather events or patterns, we try to inform children without scaring them. Even older children can be scared by difficulties such as drought. California nanny and parent, Stef Tousignant, wrote about “How to Talk to Your Kids About the California Drought.

Jaqueline Stansbury wrote about her memories of the two-year drought in 1976-1977. She says, “What I remember from my childhood in the 70s is that we were all in it together”, and offers tips for using less water.

The Reading Chair column in the March 2009 issue of Young Children reviewed Lila and the Secret of Rain by David Conway, illustrated by Jude Daly (Frances Lincoln 2007), the story of a girl in Kenya. I wonder if children who are experiencing an extended drought might become anxious when hearing Lila’s mother’s statement: “Without rain there can be no life.” Will they think it is their responsibility to end the drought as Lila did? Will they feel empowered by the actions they can take, such as turning off the tap while brushing their teeth or helping to plant drought tolerant plants in a garden?

My area has experienced rain almost every day for a month so I don’t have answers to these questions. Please share your practices in teaching about drought and in water-conserving methods.

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Senate Debates NCLB; House Passes NCLB Rewrite Legislation, Student Success Act

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This past week the full Senate began work to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with the Every Child Achieves Act, legislation that would replace No Child Left Behind, first signed into law 14 years ago and scheduled for reauthorization 7 years ago.

Also last week, the House of Representatives narrowly voted (218 to 213) to approve the Student Success Act, their version of legislation to replace No Child Left Behind. This conservative bill would significantly reduce the federal government’s role in K-12 education. Twenty seven Republicans joined all House Democrats in voting against the bill.

ESEA in the House: Student Success Act (H.R. 5)

The Student Success Act dramatically reduces the federal role in education by returning authority for measuring student performance and turning around low-performing schools to states and local officials.

It requires states to establish academic standards in reading, math, and science and maintains current law requirements that states develop and implement a set of assessments for all students in reading and math in each of grades three through eight and once in high school, and in science once in each of the grade spans for grades three through five, six through nine, and 10 through 12.

It eliminates federal “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) and allows states to develop their own accountability systems and allows states to develop turnaround strategies for low performing schools.

The Student Success Act also allows states to develop and implement teacher evaluation systems without conditions from the federal government.

It contains a Title I Portability provision, giving states the option of allowing Title I money to follow low-income students to a public or charter school of the parent’s choice.

The bill also severely limits the authority of the Secretary of Education over decisions in the classroom by prohibiting the Secretary from imposing conditions on states and school districts, including the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, in exchange for a waiver of federal elementary and secondary education law or federal grant funds. The bill prevents the Secretary from creating additional burdens on states and districts through the regulatory process, particularly in the areas of standards, assessments, and state accountability plans and prohibits the Secretary from demanding changes to state standards and influencing and coercing states to enter into partnerships with other states.

During floor debate an amendment to allow states to use federal funds without federal restrictions was rejected. However, an amendment that would allow parents to opt their children out of testing required under the bill was adopted with the support of a few Democrats.

This bill has been roundly opposed by House Democrats, teachers’ unions and civil rights groups, who say it doesn’t invest enough in high poverty districts and will not hold schools accountable for the student achievement of minority students and students with disabilities. The Administration has said it would veto this bill.

Read a summary of House bill Student Success Act here.

ESEA in the Senate: Every Child Achieves Act (S. 1177)

The full Senate is expected to continue debate on their NCLB rewrite the week of July 13. The debate surrounding this legislation is quite different than what occurred in the House, since this bill was crafted with bipartisan support in a process lead by the two education champions, Senators Alexander and Murray. The bill also received a unanimous vote in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee.

Key outstanding issues with the bill include accountability, equity/resources, and Title I portability (vouchers).

With an open amendment process, there have been a number of amendments offered to the bill. An amendment that would allow Title I dollars to follow students was defeated, but more voucher amendments by Republicans are expected.

Also expected this week is an amendment/debate on a five-year, federal-state partnership to expand and improve early-learning opportunities for children from birth to age 5.

The Senate Every Child Achieves Act maintains the current NCLB testing requirements, but allows the states to decide their accountability structure. It also maintains the requirement that states report disaggregated data to highlight achievements of subgroups of students. Many groups have been vocal about strengthening accountability requirements, and the Administration would like to see language included that would require states have a plan in place to address the lowest-performing 5-percent of schools in each state.

It also restricts the power of the Secretary of Education with language that says the federal government may not mandate or provide incentives for states to adopt any particular set of standards, including the Common Core State Standards.

Section 2005 of the Every Child Achieves Act, which was added in a bipartisan Franken-Kirk Amendment during HELP Committee consideration, establishes a program to provide each state with formula-based funding that would be used to support partnerships between local schools, businesses, universities, and non-profit organizations to improve student learning in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Each state would choose how to spend and prioritize these funds, which can support a wide range of STEM activities from in-depth teacher training, to engineering design competitions, to improving the diversity of the STEM workforce. NSTA and the STEM Education Coalition have been very vocal in their support of a strong STEM education component in this legislation.

Check back soon for an update on this legislation and the Senate action this week.

Read more about Day one of ESEA

Read more about Day two of ESEA debate in the Senate and Passage of House Student Success Act.

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

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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Fill your summer with science

Photo of Pluto and its moon Charon, taken July 8, 2015, by NASA's New Horizons probe

July 8, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon taken by NASA’s New Horizons probe.


Gaze at the Moon, follow the NASA New Horizons probe on its flyby of Pluto, or take a nature walk to benefit your brain. This is the time of year when science teachers get to choose their own adventures! Check out a few of our suggestions from this month’s issue of NSTA’s Book Beat, and enjoy a science-filled summer.


Gaze at the (Blue) Moon

NSTA Press book cover for "Next Time You See the Moon"Did you know that we’ll have a second July full Moon on July 31? According to, it will be 19 years until we see a “blue Moon” in July again. Refresh your knowledge of the Moon with the informative and engaging NSTA Kids book Next Time You See the Moon, by Emily Morgan. Selected from more than 600 titles by a nationwide panel of 12,500 children for a 2015 Children’s Choices award from the Children’s Book Council and the International Literacy Association, this photograph-rich book conveys essential information about the Moon in a style sure to interest adults and children alike. Browse the other Children’s Choices winners for ideas for your classroom or home library.

View Pluto up Close

Cover image of NSTA Press book "Uncovering Student Ideas in Astronomy"After nine years and three billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14. Tune in to the coverage online and follow along as New Horizons shares data and images of Pluto and its moons. If planets, stars, and objects in the night sky are part of your curriculum next year, check out the helpful formative assessment tool “Is It a Planet or a Star?” from Page Keeley and Cary Sneider’s Uncovering Student Ideas in Astronomy. This formative assessment probe is designed to elicit students’ ideas about visible objects in the night sky and reveal whether students know how to spot a planet and can distinguish it from a star.

Boost Your Brain With a Nature Walk

Recent studies provide evidence that connecting with nature through hiking or outdoor walks brings health benefits beyond what we previously knew, including positive mental health effects. Make nature walks part of your summer routine, and immerse yourself in observing plants, animals, weather patterns, or other natural phenomena that draw you in. Check out Scientific American’s clever summary of the ways exercise gets the brain in shape.

SUMMER Savings on NSTA Press Books

If catching up on your professional reading is on your to-do list this summer, NSTA Press is here to help with special savings on books and e-books. Between now and August 14, 2015, take 10% off your online order of NSTA Press books or e-books at the NSTA Science Store by entering the promo code SUMMER at checkout. Browse the NSTA resources that your fellow science teachers are reading, or peruse the current bestsellers in the Science Store for ideas on building your teaching resource library.

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Meters, liters, and grams

Do you have any suggestions for how I can help my middle school students understand and use the metric system? We struggle with this at the beginning of every year.  –E., Indiana

It’s hard for U.S. students to get a handle on meters, liters, and grams when in their everyday lives they are surrounded by references to miles, feet, inches, quarts, and pounds (one exception being a two-liter bottle of soda). We can’t change what’s on television or on the internet, but we can require that students use International System (SI) units and measurements in their science activities, investigations, and reports.

The first textbook I used had a chapter devoted to the metric system, so I would dutifully “cover” it at the beginning of the year, supposedly to prepare students for future investigations. The students memorized the prefixes, and there were exercises in measuring classroom objects. The chapter had a heavy emphasis on converting units from metric to English or vice versa. What a disaster! I felt like I was teaching more arithmetic than science. Even though we practiced measuring things with metric rulers, graduated cylinders, and balances, I found that later when it came time to actually apply those skills in investigations, my students had forgotten (or claimed to have forgotten) much of what they “learned.”

When I reflected on this, I realized that I had expected the students to master these concepts, skills, and vocabulary without a meaningful context for them. It seemed difficult for them to apply processes introduced at the beginning of the year to an activity weeks later. I was certainly teaching the material (with the lesson plans to prove it), and the students seemed to know the material at the time. But they weren’t learning it well enough to apply it to new activities without a lot of review and re-teaching.

So in the following years I changed my approach. I decided to introduce only those SI/metric measures that are commonly used: kilograms, grams, and milligrams; liters and milliliters; kilometers, meters, centimeters, and millimeters. That’s it. I mentioned that other units such as decigrams or centiliters exist but are seldom used. (I’ve traveled a lot in Europe, Canada, and Australia and I never saw anything measured in hectograms or kiloliters!)

I introduced or reinforced these units within the context of investigations, rather than as separate and isolated topics of instruction. When we came to an investigation requiring liquid measurements, we first practiced with graduated cylinders and discussed the relationship between milliliters and liters. Students had a section in their notebooks for notes and drawings on measurements that they could use as reminders in future activities. I also found that students knew more than I had assumed.

We didn’t spend time on problems converting miles to kilometers or grams to ounces. It’s not worth it, and now most smart phones, tablets, and computers have apps that do these conversions. Students should know which SI units correspond to the ones they are more familiar with in the United States. For example, in much of the world meat and butter are sold in kilograms instead of pounds, distances between places in kilometers, gasoline and milk in liters, and so on.

I always had a few students say “Why do we have to measure this way?” which is a good question. I would mention that science research around the world uses SI measurements. The United States, Myanmar, and Liberia are the only nations in the world that do not use SI as the official system of weights and measures. But I clinched the discussion by asking students, “Who likes to play with fractions?” Very few hands were raised. When the students compared adding 1/8 inch and 3/16 inch vs. adding 3 mm and 4 mm they were convinced.

See the websites:

Meaningful Metrics with Dramatic Demonstrations

Metric Units


Photo: NASA 

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Start Your App Search With a Question

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In this video, columnists Ben Smith and Jared Mader share information from their Science 2.0 column, “Start Your App Search With a Question,” that appeared in the Summer issue of The Science Teacher. Read the article here.

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