Building with blocks, building skills and memories

Child building with wooden unit blocksI still have the wooden unit blocks that were central to many of my childhood play scenarios. The wooden blocks did not stick or snap together so we had to consider balance and how to make a sturdy base to support our structures. They were the materials we used to make models—building beds and shelter for our dolls, walls to separate MY space from YOUR space, and paths around our wooden block village. Making and using models is one of the Next Generation Science Standards essential science and engineering practices, and the NGSS K-2 Engineering Design performance expectation K-2-ETS1-2, using a model to illustrate how form helps an object function. Models can be sketches, drawings, or physical models. 

When young children play with blocks, teachers have many opportunities to support the children’s language development and mathematical skills, and strengthen their spatial abilities. The book Creative Block Play: A Comprehensive Guide to Learning through Building by Rosanne Hansel (Redleaf 2016) provides guidance on how to understand what children learn through building with blocks and strategies to increase the learning opportunities in the “block area.” 

A selection of wooden unit block shapesWooden unit blocks have been a staple in early childhood programs since they were designed in 1913 by educator Caroline Pratt (Hewitt, 2001) with a single rectangular prism unit block having the proportions 1:2:4, and measuring 1-3/8 by 2-3/4 by 5-1/2 inches, and many other shapes based on this unit. They meet the needs of children to learn through play and the needs of educators for materials that address many areas of the curriculum and can survive years of use by children. A set of 300-400 quality wooden unit blocks will provide hours of learning for generations of children and costs about the same as 2-4 tablets. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every early childhood program had both these forms of technology? 

Here’s an example of how one teacher strengthened a child’s math and problem-solving skills while supporting his developing self regulation.

Jeremiah was still adding blocks to his “house” structure when it was time for breakfast. Knowing that children often need help making transitions, Ms Carrie posed a problem to those in the block area: “You may put away the blocks you are working with, or you may move your structure out of the way so there will be room for circle time later.” “How can I move it?” asked Jeremiah. Ms Carrie counted the blocks on one side, saying, “You have 1, 2, 3, 4 blocks on this side wall of your house and we can rebuild this wall right over here.” She helped him carefully move and rebuild that wall. “Which shapes did you use for the roof up on top of the walls? How many blocks did you use for the opposite wall?” she asked as they counted, noted the position and rebuilt the house in a new location.

Moving and rebuilding the house structure, together with a teacher, also supported Jeremiah in learning vocabulary (side, roof, rebuild, opposite) and developing spatial ability to “translate” (move a shape without rotating it) and his “part-whole integration” (knowing how parts fit together to form a whole). 

Do you have a favorite block-building memory? How can you support young children in making their own memories as they play with blocks?

Hewitt, K (2001). Blocks as a tool for learning: Historical and contemporary perspectives. Young Children 56(1): 6-13. Retrieved from

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Stem Sims: Trench Attack


As mentioned in our prior overview of STEM Sims [], this interactive software package provides over 100 simulations of laboratory experiments and engineering design products for the STEM classroom. The simulation titled “Trench Attack” immerses students in World War I trench warfare. This simulation has the student assume the role of a military commander using chemical agents against enemy forces to win a battle. During the simulation, students explore how chemical agents (e.g., mustard gas) can affect the environment. As is the case with all STEM Sims software, Trench Attack is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (MS-ETS1.A –Defining and Delimiting an Engineering Problem) and is compatible with state standards as well.


The simulation provides students with a brochure (see link below) that includes a pre-assessment quiz and introductory information about the use of chemical agents in warfare. Moreover, the simulation includes background information on science and historical content. The integration of historical information is a great opportunity for science and history teachers to work together on a WWI Unit across the curriculum.  Continue reading …

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Learning to Read the Earth and Sky

Learning to Read Earth and SkyLearning to Read the Earth and Sky: Explorations Supporting the NGSS by Russ Colson and Mary Colson is a new book from NSTA Press that helps teachers of grades 6-12 create lessons and activities aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The objective of the book is to be practical, easy-to-use, and applicable to the classroom. The book is based on four premises:

  1. Earth science should engage students with the world they know.
  2. Teacher and student are colleagues and fellow scholars.
  3. Doing earth science requires breaking big concepts into smaller chunks.
  4. The purpose of experimental and observational activities in the classroom is to practice doing science, and not to convey factual information in an active and “hands-on” way.

The authors have deep experience in using the fascinating world around us to teach and engage students. While the book delves into the requisite standards, it also breaks down the disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and significant ideas that make it all relevant to students.

“Our goal in writing this book is to provide concrete examples of classroom exploration that meet the ambitious goals of the NGSS to both teach science as a practice and reach toward an understanding of how all the small parts fit into the greater whole,” the authors state.

Learning to Read the Earth and Sky offers examples of how to teach students to read the stories that are written in layers of rock, in the stars, and everywhere around us.  The book offers anecdotes, activities, and strategies for getting students to take ownership of their learning. “Addressing aspects of our universe that students see and experience, and teaching students to read those stories on their own, gives them ownership in the process of discovery,” the authors state.

Read the sample chapter “Analyzing and Interpreting Data.” This book is also available as an e-book.

Save Now on Book Purchases!

Between now and May 31, 2017, save $15 off your order of $75 or more of NSTA Press books or e-books by entering promo code BOOK17 at checkout in the online Science Store. Offer valid only on orders placed of NSTA Press books or e-books on the web and may not be combined with any other offer.

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folder icon  Safety

Safer STEM Labs

Like science labs, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) labs require safety and security measures, with an emphasis on safety training, personal protective equipment (PPE), standard operating procedures, engineering controls, and supervision. While hand and power tools (e.g., hammers, screw drivers, table saws, drill presses) can be found in STEM labs, many students and teachers use these tools without receiving proper safety training.

Teachers and students who use hand and power tools can be exposed to falling, flying, abrasive, or splashing objects and harmful dusts, fumes, mists, vapors, or gases. Teachers should be aware of the following engineering control, PPE, and security recommendations:

• Hand tools in the STEM lab should not be accessible to students when the teacher is not present.

• An engineering control (e.g., wood dust collection system and electrostatic dust filtration device) should be in place to filter wood dust produced by table and hand saws.

• A master power kill switch should be installed that can immediately shut down the power in case of an emergency.

• An eye wash station should be present to in case a student’s eyes are exposed to hazardous liquids or solids.

Hand and power tool safety

Before using hand and power tools and addressing security issues in the STEM lab, teachers should peruse hand and power tool safety procedures. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website has a great resource on safety and security precautions and operation of hand and power tools (see Resources).

Here are some general safety precautions when using power tools, via OSHA. All hazards involved in the use of power tools can be prevented by following five basic safety rules:

1. Keep all tools in good condition with regular maintenance.

2. Use the right tool for the job. For example, don’t use a wrench to hammer in a nail.

3. Examine each tool for damage before use.

4. Operate according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

5. Provide and use the proper protective equipment.

In addition:

1. Never carry a tool by the cord or hose.

2. Never yank the cord or the hose to disconnect it from the power receptacle.

3. Keep cords and hoses away from heat, oil, and sharp edges.

4. Disconnect tools when not in use, before servicing, and when changing accessories such as blades, bits, and cutters.

5. Keep all observers at a safe distance from the work area, outside of the designated work zone.

6. Secure objects with clamps or a vise.

7. Keep your finger away from the power switch when carrying a plugged-in tool to avoid accidentally turning it on.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a school-specific website that provides additional information on tools and their associated hazards (see Resources). Technology and engineering education teachers can also provide excellent safety and security training on hand and power tools.

In the end

Schools are required to provide appropriate safety training for both teachers and students prior to any work in the STEM lab.

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


OSHA, hand and power tools—

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand and power tools—

NSTA resources and safety issue papers
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Learning more about NGSS

Next Generation Science Standards logoI’m a science teacher in a small district, and I’m curious about lessons that incorporate the three NGSS dimensions of and what they “look like.” Where can I find examples to share?  —B., New Hampshire

A good place to find examples of lessons aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is NSTA’s K-12 journals (Science and Children, Science Scope, and The Science Teacher). The featured articles in each issue describe classroom lessons, and each has a graphic at the end that connects the lesson to a performance expectation and the three dimensions (Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts). After I read an article, I try to determine the connections to NGSS as a way to check my understanding. The photographs and other documentation in the article also help identify the focus and outcomes of the lesson.

Here are some examples from recent issues:

In a recent discussion forum, Peggy Ashbrook (who writes the Early Years blog) noted, “I find it useful to look at photos of children at work in a science and/or engineering activity, such as building with blocks, and name which practices I see in use.”

To continue your study and find more examples, see the resources at NGSS@NSTA, including Curriculum Planning and Classroom Resources

There are also examples on NSTA’s You Tube channel. Check out Introduction to Three-Dimensional Learning and The Vision for Science Education and the New Role of Teachers

If you have specific questions or requests, NGSS and STEM are topics in the NSTA discussion forums and e-mail lists. Our colleagues are always willing to help, and we can all learn together!

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Preparing Science Teachers for High-Need Schools

Ella Bonah (left), a teacher at Tyner Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, completed an apprenticeship through Project Inspire, a  program that prepares teachers for positions in high-need schools. (photo by David Humber)

“Our challenge is recruiting and developing teachers for a mid-sized city and preparing teachers to serve in high-need schools. [Teaching low-income students requires] a specialized skill set beyond teaching content,” says Mark Neal, director of Project Inspire, a teacher apprenticeship program serving Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Hamilton County School District. “We have been solely focused on secondary math and science, but we’re now expanding to [the elementary level],” he reports.

Project Inspire provides college graduates aspiring to teach with a year-long apprenticeship in a Hamilton County classroom and a stipend during that time. Higher-education partner Lee University of Cleveland, Tennessee, offers apprentices a 14-month degree program in which they earn a Masters of Arts in Teaching. Graduates are required to teach in a high-need school in the county for four years and receive coaching support and professional development (PD) from Hamilton County Department of Education and Lee University faculty.

“Secondary science is a difficult position to fill, and we have a number of priority schools that are difficult to teach in. We offer a one-year residency versus a student teacher practicum,” explains Justin Robertson, Hamilton County Schools assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Apprentices get to “see how students react, and they have permission to make mistakes. It’s a good way to prepare teachers for any school system, and specifically for our school system.”

“We continue to see really committed candidates, people who didn’t get this training as undergraduates,” says Neal. “[Though] we tend to get more recent undergraduates as applicants, our network has a strong interest in attracting career changers,” he observes, adding, “We’re aiming to have a more diverse and talented teaching force.” Continue reading …

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Ed News: Idaho Legislature Approves New Science Standards that Omit Climate Change

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This week in education news, the Idaho Senate Education Committee approved new science standards that omit climate change; more states introduce bills that interfere with science education; 100Kin10 renews its call to support STEM teachers; and a new study suggests spending an hour learning computer basics may positively change students’ attitudes about computer science.

Idaho Legislature Signs Off on School Science Standards That Leave Out Climate Change

The Senate Education Committee voted to approve new science standards for Idaho public schools that do not address the human impact on climate change. The vote essentially kicks the question of including climate change down the road a year, because lawmakers must permanently approve the science standards in 2018. Click here to read the article featured in the Idaho Statesman.

More States Introduce Bills to Interfere with Science Education

The South Dakota bill has now died in the legislature, while the Indiana resolution has passed the senate. Resolutions are not subject to veto, so that vote is final. But in the intervening time, similar bills have appeared in three other states, and a fourth state is considering eliminating references to climate change in its teaching plan. Click here to read the article featured on the Ars Technica website.

Continue reading …

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ESSA—What’s in YOUR State Plan?


States stakeholders are working now to develop plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). These state plans will include new guidelines for accountability and much more. Plans are due to the U.S. Department of Education in either April or September this year. 

Do you know what is in your state’s plan for ESSA? Do you know if it mentions science or STEM education?

Now is the time to help frame and define ESSA in a way that incorporates STEM teaching and learning.

What Can You Do?

It is critical that educators review and provide input to ESSA state plans because they can and will affect teaching and learning for years to come. You have the power to impact your state’s plan by promoting STEM as a critical piece of a well-rounded education.

These states have indicated they are submitting their plans by April: AZ, CO, DE, IL, LA, MA,, MI, MO, MT, NV, NJ, NM, ND, OH, OR, TN, VT, DC.

To find out more about your state plan for ESSA, visit your state’s department of education website. Continue reading …

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10 NSTA Conference Sessions that Will Turn Your World Upside Down

women reading upside down

Ready for something completely different?
Ready to love science teaching even more?

NSTA is headed to Los Angeles this month for our 2017 National Conference on Science Education, March 30-April 2. And what happens in LA won’t stay in LA. You’ll go home with a brand new perspective on your teaching.

How does this happen? It starts and ends with your fellow teachers who share what really works, in real classrooms. Whether you’re in sessions, socializing, experiencing the exhibits, or visiting local museums, you’ll be surrounded by thousands of fellow teachers who will be there to help you solve your problems and celebrate your successes. And boring won’t be on the schedule.

Below are just a few of our favorite sessions, guaranteed to give you  fresh perspective.

  • How to be a DonorsChoose Rockstar: Using Crowdfunding to Get a Killer STEM Space!
  • Science Current Events Journals: Real Science and Media Literacy
  • Identify Patient Zero of a Zombie Apocalypse
  • Using Student-Created Virtual Field Trips to Enhance Learning
  • A University Course and Middle School Teacher Professional Learning Promoting Climate and Data Literacy, plus Effective Teaching and Learning Practices
  • “Making” Three-Dimensional Learning Happen: Using Maker Space Technologies to Engage the NGSS
  • Building Scientific Literacy by Using Science News Reported in the Popular Media
  • Equity within NGSS: Strategies for Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Science Classroom
  • Putting It All Together: The Crossroads of NGSS, CCSS, and ISTE in the Elementary Classroom
  • Virtual Reality’s Emerging Future in Science Education

Continue reading …

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“Iron Science” students

I used to assign projects for students to complete at home. But I’m now at a middle school where many students do not have access to materials and resources outside of class. I need alternatives for in-class projects!  –A., Colorado

In-class projects would level the playing field if students receive materials and class time with opportunities to work collaboratively and creatively.

You can find ideas for challenging, low-cost projects that are not time-consuming in the NSTA K-12 journals. The activities and investigations correlate with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), so they are focused and authentic. Articles in the middle-level Science Scope feature sidebars documenting big ideas, essential pre-knowledge, time, and cost.

Another option might be to adapt a version of the Exploratorium’s Iron Science Teacher, which was used by teacher-coaches in a professional development program I worked with. Each team received a box of common materials (e.g., rubber bands, a cork, craft sticks, plastic bottles, balloons, paper clips, marbles, wooden blocks, tape, and more) and a “theme ingredient.” General supplies were available (glue sticks, rulers, a stapler, and so on). The teams had one day to develop a model using the theme ingredient (the cork in this example) and any or all of the other materials, along with a written description. No two projects were alike, and all showed a high level of creativity.

For students, you could require inventions or models that demonstrate learning of topics recently addressed in class (Newton’s Laws, for example). You could add an option for students to request and justify additional materials. Provide a project rubric and time for students to demonstrate their work and write illustrated descriptions.

This will take several class periods, but it’s time well-spent, as you observe and assess what students have learned conceptually as well as their creativity, ability to work together, and use of problem-solving strategies.



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