Staying sharp

After a number of years working in the science industry I have now become a teacher. Do you have suggestions for maintaining my skills in both education and science?
– B., Arizona

I like your plan to stay current and active in your former work! Here are a few suggestions:

Watch for professional development (PD) opportunities offered by industry.
Many industries and related organizations encourage teachers to keep current and offer workshops, field trips and other PD. They will often provide high-quality resources. I was fortunate to have attended PD in forestry, hydro electricity, atomic energy, medical imaging, agriculture, GIS, mining, and more! The information to attend these sessions is usually sent to local schools and distributed to staff. These industry-led workshops tend to fill quickly so enroll early.

Attend conferences.
Industries hold workshops at local and state conferences as well as NSTA area and national conferences which can be real boosts to your teaching.

Many organizations look for teachers and summers can be an optimum time. I have served as an education specialist on various boards, learning a tremendous amount along the way. Consider volunteering at zoos, museums, university faculties, to help with their outreach programs, or other opportunities. You don’t have to be a tour guide—volunteer to do something totally unrelated to teaching. I once collected insects for a local nature center.

Become more active in teacher and science organizations.
Participating in local, state, and national professional organizations creates opportunities for you to expand your network and learn cutting-edge ideas. You can simultaneously hone your skills and help your professional communities by joining committees or taking on leadership roles.

Help organize science fairs.
You will work with many industry partners who will become resources and connections. Also, the bright, amazing minds of the fair attendees will astound you – further motivating you to keep current!

Hope this helps!

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Enhanced Ebook “magic act” engages students in fun science lessons about sound and light

When Rebecca Olien set out to write Sound All Around, The Amazing Light Show, an NSTA Enhanced EBook+, she knew a thing (or 20) about elementary schoolchildren, the book’s target audience.

Olien was a classroom teacher for 20 years and understood that science education, for younger children, works best when it’s taught through fun and engaging storytelling. Her book follows Liz and Sam, who put on a magic light show to investigate what happens when light encounters different objects and surfaces.

In the first “act” of her book, Olien invites readers to question, observe and investigate the phenomenon of how some materials allow light to pass through it while others block it completely. Elementary school-aged students must use mathematical reasoning (scale and production) to analyze and interpret how both the size as well as the shape of shadows changes depending on the direction and distance from a light source.

In act 2, students investigate another phenomenon, reflection, as they study the effects of light bouncing from smooth, shiny surfaces. They are required to build explanations and create solutions as they assist the characters in the story, including a cat, to solve reflection puzzles by using mirrors to redirect the light beam.

“I kept asking myself how I could ‘show’ what happens when light interacts with different surfaces and objects,” Olien said. “How can I help the kids explore through inquiry? That’s very tricky because regular print books do not allow for that. Most are straight non-fiction and are very information-driven.”

Olien is no stranger to the publishing world. She’s a prolific author of science education books. One of the first things that she wrote was an article for NSTA’s magazine, Science and Children, about an inquiry-based lesson that she taught. Olien remembers her classroom as being “filled with so much laughing and so much fun.”

“My goal as a teacher was always to help my students to see science all around them–to be constantly seeing new things, learning and exploring,” she said.

“Science education has been a driving force in my professional life,” she added. “I just see sparks ignite in children when they learn something new. And as adults who teach them, we get to learn/see/rediscover it all over again through our students’ perspectives.”

Olien’s decision to become an NSTA Enhanced Ebooks+ author was exciting because the format aligns with how she would teach. The opportunity to write, “in a totally different way” was very interesting to her. “I got to be so creative in my approach to the subject matter. That made it necessary for me to think way outside of the box. The challenge was fun!”

Students who use Enhanced Ebooks+ like Sound All Around, The Amazing Light Show, are given the concept that they need to know/come away understanding. but teachers “cannot give them the information,” Olien said. “The students have to explore to find it themselves. They know the concept that they are expected to learn; however, the students have to explore the digital book to find the answers themselves.”  

Olien raved about the book’s 3D aspects.

“There is so much interactivity and manipulation that the students themselves control. “Students can enter into the environment with the characters. They become part of the book and that’s very engaging.”

Olien emphasized the benefits of each Enhanced Ebook+ being accompanied by “a really great teacher guide!” that takes educators through all parts of the NGSS standard that is being utilized as well as fun classroom activities. Students can seamlessly transition from independent online learning to hands-on group projects that the teacher can lead the students through, thus bringing the Enhanced EBook+’s learnings to life.

Never one to let grass grow underneath her feet, Olien said that she is already at work finalizing another Enhanced Ebook+.

“And two more are on the way!”

Learn more about NSTA’s Enhanced Ebooks+.


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Balloon Racers

Anyone who teaches middle school students knows they have a lot of energy, and a lot of hot air. Why not put it to use? In this activity, students will be challenged to modify a simple plastic balloon racer to travel farther and faster. Students begin by asking questions and making observations to understand how the racers work. Racers can be found here.  Find and print my student form here.

During the activity, students make three separate modifications to improve distance and speed. Once they’ve completed the activity, students will debate the possibility of wind-powered cars and wind turbines as a local energy source.

Introducing students to the engineering design process early in the year is exciting and engaging. This activity is much more than a simple design challenge, which often doesn’t give students the opportunity to make revisions. In this learning experience, students are encouraged to explore many of the science and engineering practices to grow their understanding of force and motion and engineering content. Their learning is enhanced by providing opportunities for them to argue with evidence as they debate the pros and cons of using wind-powered cars and wind turbines as a local, renewable energy source.

Performance Expectations  

MS-ETS1-1 Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

Clarification Statement:  none

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is qualitative, as it is limited to observations.

After determining how the balloon racer works and explaining Newton’s Third Law in their own words, students determine how the racer could be modified to allow it to go farther and faster.

Students gather baseline data by running their racers before modifications. Students measure distance in centimeter and speed in seconds, then calculate speed.

MS-ETS1-2 Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: Assessment will be qualitative based on effort made, and quantitative based on data collected. No student will be penalized for the car’s decreases in distance and time.

Students brainstorm ways their individual racers could be modified to increase distance and decrease speed. Making one modification at a time, students retest, collecting data from distance, time, and speed.

MS-ETS1-3 Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

Students graph baseline data and data from all three modifications, as well as complete analysis questions focusing on independent and dependent variables.

MS-ETS1-4 Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Clarification Statement: none

Students choose their best modified model that will be entered into a class contest after school. Students are blind drawn and placed in a bracket playoff system. 

All students take their balloon racers home.

Science and Engineering Practices

This activity allows students to apply basic physics principles (Newton’s Laws) to a simple toy, a balloon racer, to modify and re-engineer it to make it travel faster and farther. Students must determine how the vehicle works before making modifications one at a time

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The Science and Engineering Process Skills takes students through the process of design, test, and redesign. Students also redesign based on group members’ feedback and observations. The questions in the form’s “redesign” section address the idea of modifying for improvement, as they specifically ask: “What worked? Why did this work? What didn’t work? Why didn’t this work? What could make your design better?”

Crosscutting Concepts

Montgomery County, Indiana, finds itself in a very unique situation. We have a solar park, but a company wanting to build wind turbines has met with opposition. With this activity, students will direct their attention from the wind-powered cars to the use of wind power as a local energy source or a potential source of power for vehicles. The Argument Driven Inquiry (ADI) format will be used for this phase of the activity.

This learning experience is very relevant, as the conversation about using wind power is actually occurring in their community.

This is just one way of engaging students in the practice of asking questions early in the year. After each modification, I challenge students to ask themselves at least two questions about their work: What went well? What is something else you could try? What suggestion would you like with the class? How does this process of modifying an original design apply to the real world? In what types of careers might this process be used regularly?



Shannon Hudson is a science teacher at Crawfordsville Middle School in Crawfordsville, IN. She currently teaches four levels of science classes, including sixth- and seventh-grade advanced science, sixth-grade inclusion co-teaching, and seventh-grade regular science. The school’s adopted curriculum allows for integrated, modified problem based learning (PBL) instruction.

Hudson has a Bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, with a concentration in elementary education, junior high science, and gifted and talented education, and a Master’s degree in Education from Indiana Wesleyan University. Hudson has taken many courses throughout the years at a variety of universities to further her studies in science education. 

This article was featured in the September issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

Visit NSTA’s NGSS@NSTA Hub for hundreds of vetted classroom resourcesprofessional learning opportunities, publicationsebooks and more; connect with your teacher colleagues on the NGSS listservs (members can sign up here); and join us for discussions around NGSS at an upcoming conference.

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

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First Graders Become Corn Experts: Using Questions to Drive Instruction

First graders love when fall comes to Kansas. It’s a magical time when lots of events are occurring in their environment, and I take full advantage of their natural curiosity. We begin the school year with a mini science unit featuring corn and agriculture. Every year in May, my class plants a few corn kernels near our flower garden. By the time school starts in the fall, the corn stalks stand out among the flowers.

As we water the garden, students start asking questions. How did the corn get here? Is it ready to pick? How high it will grow? Do we get to pick it? That is all I need to get the unit rolling!

I try to bring authentic items into our classroom whenever possible. These items become part of the phenomenon that I use to start lessons and to pique interest in a subject. With this particular unit, we first watered our plants, and the next day, I brought in 6 giant cornstalks donated by a local farmer. These cornstalks had the root balls attached and were in seed sacks. 

Continue reading …

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Scaffolding the Practice of Asking Questions and Defining Problems

With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), teachers are wondering how to teach their students to do the science and engineering practices (SEPs). Some SEPs, such as carrying out investigations and analyzing data, are a natural flow from the old science standards. Many, however, are new for both students and teachers. For example, the practice of asking questions and defining problems is something we have not required our students to do before: the questions or problems were already asked or defined for the students to answer. How can we move both our own practice, as well as our students’ thinking, from the canned version of questions and problems to asking their own thoughtful questions about a phenomenon, and defining problems based on a scenario?

Continue reading …

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Reflections of the sunlight

Connecting with other educators who share my interests and help me expand them is one of the benefits of writing for NSTA’s journal and blog. Guest blogger Tom Lough is a contributor to Science and Children and has taught science and science education classes at many levels. He is now a science education consultant in Round Rock, TX.  

Welcome Tom!

Like many, I have unbounded enthusiasm for the 2018 August issue of Science and Children! Well done, NSTA! Did you read the Early Years column, titled “Making Sense of Their World”? Young children soak up their experiences and observations of the world around them, and ask all sorts of questions as they try to put everything together.

The second part of the column reminded me of an activity we are doing with five classrooms at Caldwell Heights Elementary School in Round Rock, TX, observing the apparent motion of the sun.  These rooms all have south-facing windows, meaning that the sun shines into each room all year long.

A small craft mirror glued to a south-facing windowsill.

A small craft mirror glued to a south-facing windowsill.

A reflection of sunlight on the classroom ceiling.

A spot of reflected sunlight on the classroom ceiling.

Instead of observing the sun directly, we are using a small craft mirror glued to a south-facing windowsill to produce a reflection on the classroom ceiling. As soon as the mirror was installed and the spot appeared on the ceiling, the effect was immediate on the children. They were mesmerized by the bright dot. They couldn’t take their eyes away from this new classroom visitor. After a few minutes, someone said, “I think it’s moving!” They were hooked! 

If you decide to try this, from this point on you can expect many questions from the children. It is not necessary, or even preferable, to answer them. Rather, invite them to continue their observations and see if they can find their own answers. Encourage journaling, sketching, or photographing as ways to document their observations. Then they can search for patterns more systematically.  Continue reading …

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Ed News: Igniting Students’ STEM Interest Begins With Education Their Teachers

News Roundup banner

This week in education news, Missouri Senate passes STEM awareness legislation; NSF awards 5 diversity grants under its new INCLUDES initiative; U.S. Congress pledges $71.5 billion in education funding for fiscal 2019; new framework developed to help define high-quality project-based learning; Arizona program instructs teachers on how to bring more engaging STEM lessons into their classrooms; and NSTA president discusses her ideas on science literacy and education at the World Conference on Science Literacy in Beijing.

Alternative Sentencing Courts, STEM Awareness Program Pass Senate

Legislation that expands alternative treatment courts and STEM education was finally passed by the Senate and sent to the governor. Many jobs that require training in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are not being filled because schools are not training enough people, said Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff. Read the article featured in The Missourian.

What NSF’s New Diversity Grants Say About Attempts To Help Minority Students

Ted Hodapp has spent the past 5 years helping boost the number of minority students pursuing U.S. graduate degrees in physics. But Hodapp, who works on education and diversity issues at the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, knows the society’s Bridge Program will at best make only a small dent in the nationwide dearth of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans working in all science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. He wanted an opportunity to show that Bridge’s approach—which starts by encouraging graduate schools to de-emphasize scores on the standardized GRE entrance exam in the student selection process—could work in other STEM disciplines and, in doing so, promote the value of diversity in U.S. higher education. Read the article featured in Science magazine.

Continue reading …

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Small problems

I will be student teaching in a school with small classes – between 6 and 12 students. I find this to be challenging. Any suggestions or advice?
— M., Kansas



I have had a few small classes in my career and I found them to be great opportunities to delve deeply into topics, conduct some very interesting projects, and become a really cohesive group. I also discovered I could monitor and coach students much more effectively. The small class size helped me be more of a mentor than a teacher.

On a practical level, you can perform labs and experiments requiring elaborate or expensive supplies that would be impractical or even impossible with a bigger group. Larger projects are easier to manage and student presentations take less time overall. Coordinating field trips was not as cumbersome and I could take smaller classes to places that couldn’t accommodate larger numbers. Grading reports and other work was considerably less onerous. Because of the smaller scale, I was able to try some really innovative and new things with fewer headaches.

Surprisingly, we had better conversations and discussions. I thought my larger classes had good discussions, but as I reflect on it I believe it was the more extroverted students who would always participate and many students would simply listen. In the smaller classes, it was easier to coax quieter students to participate—there was no where to hide!

Attempt to view your smaller classes as opportunities to try some cool things.

Hope this helps!

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Legislative Update: Can Schools Use Federal Funds for Guns and Firearms Training?

A huge controversy over whether districts and states can use funds from the new federal education law to purchase guns and pay for firearms training is still ongoing, weeks after the issue first surfaced in an article published in the New York Times.

 Earlier this summer two states asked the Department of Education if it was allowable to use the Every Student Succeeds Act ESSA Title IVA (Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants) grant funds to train and arm school marshals.  The flexible block grant program under Title IVA  Part authorizes activities in three broad areas:

  • Providing students with a well-rounded education (e.g., college and career counseling, STEM, music and arts, civics, IB/AP, computer science)
  • Supporting safe and healthy students (e.g., comprehensive school mental health, drug and violence prevention, training on trauma-informed practices, health and physical education) and
  • Supporting the effective use of technology (e.g., professional development, blended and personalized learning, and devices). More on how Title iVA can be used for STEM education here.

A few weeks ago, Education Secretary DeVos indicated she would not take a position as to whether districts could use federal funding in ESSA for purchasing guns and providing firearms training saying that Congress—not the Administration—had to specify if Title IVA grant funds could be used for these purposes.

A letter from 44 Senate Democrats and a letter from 170 House Democrats have urged the Ed Secretary to expressly prohibit states or school districts from using federal funds to buy guns.  

NSTA joined a number of other education groups on a September 19 letter calling on Secretary DeVos to clarify that Title IV-A funds should be used for their original intent and cites examples that support gun-free campuses in current law that “clearly shows that the Administration’s proposal is counter to congressional intent. “

 A September 17 letter from a coalition of than 100 civil rights groups calls on Secretary DeVos to “immediately publicly clarify that ESSA funds cannot be used for weapons.”

Stay tuned.

FY 2019 Spending Bill Includes Gains for Education

On September 18 the Senate passed the final version of the FY2019 education appropriations bill that rejects the Administration’s request to eliminate key K-12 education programs and instead includes an increase in federal spending for education programs in FY2019.

The Labor, HHS, and Education FY2019 is  part of a “mini-bus” bill that was paired with the Department of Defense spending bill and attached to a short tem continuing resolution (CR) that will fund other federal programs  until December 7 (after the midterm elections).

The House will vote on the bill next week and then send the spending package to President Trump for his signature. 

The Education Department overall would receive an additional $581 million compared to the current fiscal year funding.

The Title IV-A (the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant) under ESSA, which can be used by districts and states to fund STEM programs, will receive $1.17 billion, a $70 million increase over last year. 

Title I funding was increased by $125 million and special education funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was increased by $87 million to $12.4 billion.

Funding for charter schools was increased by $40 million, bringing the overall level to $440 million.

The Perkins Career and Technical Education program, received a $70 million increase up to $1.3 billion, and afterschool programs in Title IVB 21st Century Community Learning Centers received a slight increase of approximately $10 million for FY2019.

Read the bill here and check out the AIP budget tracker for STEM education here.

And finally,

NSTA joined other scientific associations to support University of Oklahoma meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier’s nomination in the Senate to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The letter states “The President faces a wide range of domestic and international challenges, from protecting national and energy security, to ensuring U.S. economic competitiveness, curing diseases, bolstering agriculture and responding to natural disasters. These challenges share one thing in common: the need for scientific knowledge and technological expertise to address them successfully.” Read the letter here and more on the nominee here.

Stay tuned, and watch for more updates in future issues of NSTA Express.

Jodi Peterson is the Assistant Executive Director of Communication, Legislative & Public Affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and Chair of the STEM Education Coalition. Reach her via e-mail at or via Twitter at @stemedadvocate.

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

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Problem-Based Learning: An Essential Tool in Each K-12 Science Educator’s Toolkit

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a strategy that is tailor made for teaching science. Under the PBL framework, students actively drive the learning process, one that takes them through rich and authentic, but incompletely defined, scenarios. This educational approach requires students to collaborate with others to analyze the problem that’s presented, ask questions, propose hypotheses, identify the information needed to solve the problem, and seek related information via literature searches and scientific investigations.

Implementing PBL for the classroom, however, can be challenging for science educators as curriculum resources are hard to find. That’s one of the reasons why veteran science educators Tom McConnell, Joyce Parker, and Janet Eberhardt teamed up to write Problem-Based Learning in the Physical Science Classroom. This book first takes readers through the overall PBL structure and discusses how it can be applied to the K-12 classroom. Then the authors share a collection of PBL problems which were developed by content experts who participated in the PBL Project for Teachers, a National Science Foundation –created professional development opportunity that used the PBL framework to help science educators develop a deeper understanding of science concepts across eight different content strands.

The authors also ensured that the problems they included are useful to science educators by including information that aligns the objectives and learning outcomes for each problem with the NGSS—and can be taught to learners with differing levels of prior knowledge.

The book’s chapters are arranged as follows:

  • Chapter 1 discusses why PBL should be an essential tool in each teacher’s teaching toolbox. The authors provide background on how PBL was developed, how it works across a range of disciplines, and the basic framework for a PBL lesson.
  • Chapter 2 covers the alignment of the PBL problems and the analytical framework of the NGSS.
  • Chapter 3 takes science educators through strategies for facilitating the PBL lessons.
  • Chapter 4 shares tips on how teachers can group students, manage information, and assess student learning throughout the process.
  • Chapters 5-8 present designed and tested problems (describing motion, forces and motion, engineering energy transformations, or engineering, electricity and magnetism), show the NGSS alignment, and provide teacher and student resources about the science concept and the problem.

The authors readily acknowledge there are far more science problems that the 14 that they present in this book that would make excellent PBL topics. That’s why they included a final chapter, one that shares strategies for teachers to write their own PBL lessons and offer tips for creating problems that are “rich, engaging, and ideal for addressing the standards you need to teach.”

This book is the third volume in NSTA’s PBL series, the first of which presented life science problems and the second volume that offered problems specifically written for teaching Earth and space science.

“There is a lot to like about this text,” said Peggy Ertmer, professor emeritus of Learning Design and Technology at Purdue University, and founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning. “Implementing PBL is difficult for teachers, and few curriculum guides are available to support their efforts. This book fills that gap by providing the kinds of strategies and examples teachers need to facilitate open-ended inquiry in science classrooms.”

Read the free sample chapter, “Facilitating Problem-Based Learning,” to understand how to help students: function in a self-directed classroom; establish discussion guidelines and procedures, launch the problem, and generate hypotheses; develop a plan for gathering information; and share what they found. Teachers are given helpful information on how to assess their students’ learning and how to use the assessment results to respond to student needs.

This book is also available as an e-book. It’s also available as part of a set of three books: Problem-Based Learning in the Earth and Space, Life Science, and the Physical Science Classroom, K-12.

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