NGSS Transition

Science Fair Season


This year, I have had several people ask me if I had any ideas about Science Fairs.  I have always loved the idea of Science Fair and Family Evenings.  There are great ways to pull in the community, guest speakers and rich opportunities for students to show what they know.    Unfortunately, Science Fair can also turn into a strict set of rules that takes away from students thinking and creativity.   We also know that when Science Fair becomes a homework assignment it can turn into Mom & Dad’s Greatest Hits.

How then, can we use Science Fair to engage students, families and the community in Science and STEM experiences?

The starting point should be in clearly defining the purpose for Science Fair.  And, let’s be honest, if the purpose is to regurgitate “the scientific method”, we should cancel the Science Fair.  We need to blow the dust off the traditional “find a project online, follow someone else’s steps, build the same tri-fold as every other student”.   Rather, let’s consider the purpose as being a way to engage families and the community.  Or a challenge to student inventors.  Or participation in a school-wide theme, such as solving a problem in a fairy tale.  Once the purpose has been set, you’re ready to organize the Science Fair.

With NGSS in mind, let me suggest promoting two options for students – a science investigation or an engineering challenge.  Connecting to the Science & Engineering Practices  provides a context for students to ask authentic questions, develop their own process, analyze their data or efficiency and communicate their results.

Check out more of my ideas and some excellent resources I found here:






How far away is the Moon?


As you become more familiar with the NGSS, you’ll find patterns in performance expectations across grade bands. One of those patterns is they way in which students engage in understanding and describing the Sun-Moon-Earth system.  Connecting those big ideas to a phenomena students observe and describe is one way to both elicit student current understanding (or misconceptions)  and to provide a context in which they can observe, argue or develop a model of the phenomena.

The question, “How big is the moon?” can help us understand how students think about scale.   We can extend this assessment probe with older students by asking them how they might measure the moon.   Consider the assessment probe from Uncovering Student Ideas in Astronomy (Keeley 2012, p. 95)


Asking students, “How far away is the moon?” also taps into their understanding of scale.  It also gives us a context to talk about the limitations of models and diagrams such as the image used at the top of this post.  Derrek Mueller at Veritasium has a video that elicits and explains this phenomena.

Below are the performance expectations from each grade band that could are connected to this phenomenal question.

First Grade: Use observations of the sun, moon and stars to describe patterns that can be predicted(1-ESS1-1)

Fifth Grade: Support an argument that the differences in the apparent brightness of the sun compared to other stars is due to their relative distances from the Earth. (5-ESS1-1)

Middle School: Develop and use a model of the Earth-Moon-Sun system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons. (MS-ESS1-1)


What’s the BEST way to teach Science?

This is a question I have been asking myself for years.  Really, it’s the question that has motivated me for my entire career and it motivates me still.  Imagine how excited I was to find such a smart and articulate answer.  You have to watch this video!

Check this out…

Are you looking for ways to increase STEM- centered lessons, phenomenon-based explorations or engineering in your classroom?  Did you know that the Science Kit Center has materials available for check-out?  Here’s a few of the items you can borrow:

  • Density tank for density tank demonstrations (see the video above)
  • Tree Swing Engineering Kit file_003.jpeg
  • Ball & Pipe / Well Rescue Engineering Kit
  • Dissecting Kits
  • Zipline Engineering Kit
  • Film Canister Chemical Reactions Kit File_007
  • UV Sensitive Beads / Shade for Lizards Kit Shade for Lizards
  • Vernier Technology  – Wireless Temperature Probes, Go Link! & Light Sensors
  • We also have a variety of books including the books for Science Online, Understanding Student Ideas in Science, Formative Assessment in Science and the book study books for our curriculum teams – “Science for the Next Generation” and “Teaching for Conceptual Change in Science”

Please contact Jen Chase for more information about these materials, to check something out or for more ideas to support your science instruction!

What is Scientific Discourse?


You’ve probably been hearing a lot lately about scientific discourse and argumentation in science.  Are you wondering what that means?  Are you wondering what that looks like in a classroom?  Me too!

I started with the Science & Engineering Practices and found that practice #7 is Engaging in Argument from Evidence. “Argumentation is a process for reaching agreements about explanations and design solutions. In science, reasoning and argument based on evidence are essential in identifying the best explanation for a natural phenomenon.  In engineering, reasoning and argument are needed to identify the best solution to a design problem.”   It’s important to note that in science, argumentation isn’t meant to be divisive or quarrelsome.  Argumentation is meant to support bringing forward differing ideas and use evidence to determine the best answer or solution.  It’s meant to be collaborative and collegial.

STEM Teaching Tools has several resources to support teachers in shifting the discourse culture in their classrooms.    How can I get my students to learn science by productively talking with each other?   helps to explain why this shift is important and offers this Talk Moves resource as support.  Is it important to distinguish between the explanation and argumentation practices in the classroom?  helps to establish the difference between explanation and argumentation, with reasons to support both types of conversation.

On average students are engaged in academic talk only 2-4% of their day!   One thing you can try is to invite a teaching partner into your classroom to track time spent in teacher-centered talk, student-to-teacher talk and student-to-student talk.  This data can help you understand the reality in your classroom and plan for any needed shifts.   For me the bottom line is that all students must talk about their experiences.  This forces students to think about and articulate their observations and questions.  This thinking and talking leads to important learning.  It is crucial that focused and productive talking are opportunities for all students.  Beyond initial conversations, students need to learn to listen to one another’s ideas and to build on each other’s ideas while deepening their own understanding.  One strategy for this kind of structured talk is this partner protocol.  If you are interested in trying out this, or any other discourse protocol and want some help – don’t hesitate to contact me.

Phenomenon-Based Teaching


Phenomenon-based science lessons may be the new catch phrase in science education, but it is relevant to consider when you’re planning your instruction.  I’ve spoken to many teachers who are intimidated by the phrase “phenomenon based” and aren’t sure how to organize their science lessons around a phenomenon.  I’m here today to break down that barrier.

STEM Teaching Tools suggest that a good phenomenon, or anchor, builds upon everyday or family experiences and is just out of reach of what students can figure out without instruction.   For example, I might use the hand full of rocks in the picture above as the phenomenon to launch a series of lessons exploring the rock cycle.  Why are they all different when I picked them up in the same place?  Why does one have holes? What are the stripes?  TJ McKenna has started a website, Phenomena for NGSS, as a place to collect and share these organizing ideas.

Videos can be another source for phenomena, or when searching for images to support your ideas.  I was having a conversation with 4th grade teachers last week about the Space Systems unit.  We were talking about how shadows might fit into the launch of the unit.  A quick search yielded this video and many other time lapse videos showing shadows changing.  An open-ended question, “What’s happening?” can encourage conversations and engage students in the content.  There are also several YouTube channels, such as Veritasium,  which use phenomenon to engage learners.

I know you’ve heard the questions, “Why do we have to learn this?”  Using a phenomenon (or anchor, or discrepant event…whatever you call it) helps engage students in the learning and it helps lend a relevance.  A phenomenon should be within the grasp of students, should be familiar and yet just out of reach as far as their ability to explain, and a phenomena should push them to wonder, to ask questions, to be curious.

If you’re still wondering, here’s one more way to think of phenomenon-based science lessons…

What’s going on in your classroom?  Leave a comment or send an email!



3-Dimensional Teaching & Learning…

We know that the NGSS are composed of three dimensions – Science & Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas and Cross-Cutting Concepts – and I am sure you’ve heard the phrase 3-dimensional teaching  or 3-dimensional learning.   What does that really mean?

Lately, through workshops, collaboration and book studies I have been exploring this idea with teachers.  Simply put, 3-dimensional instruction is the integration of the practice, content and cross-cutting concept within a lesson.  While it sounds easy, I think there’s a complexity and a need for thoughtful planning.

Recently, I developed a lesson with the intention of modeling 3-dimensional instruction for middle school science teachers.  It was important to define “lesson”…this was not 50 minutes worth of student engagement, or the activities that happened in a single class period but rather, a series of activities, reading and thinking that are organized around a big idea.  In this way, a lesson will occur over several days.

I began with participants reading and responding to Page Keeley’s formative assessment probe, “Thermometer” (Uncovering Student Ideas in Science vol.3, p. 33).  This probe elicits students’ ideas about thermal expansion, and helps teachers understand whether students attribute expansion of the space between molecules to the rise of the liquid in a thermometer.    After some discussion, participants moved on to build an air thermometer:

Air Thermometer

They were asked to design an investigation to explore what happens to molecules when temperature changes.

  • What data will you collect?
  • How will you record your data?
  • What do you still need to know?

Finally, participants were directed to a chapter from Ck-12 Physical Science for Middle School 

These experiences were planned to support students in MS-PS1-4 “Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.”  As I mentioned earlier, 3-Dimensional Instruction may sound simple, but the lesson planning can be complex.  I developed a matrix to help think about the depth to which students are using or applying the 3 dimensions:


What are your thoughts?  To what extent was my lesson 3-Dimensional?  What would increase that attribute?  How have you practiced 3-Dimensional instruction? 


Phenomena based Engagement…

It is no secret that one goal of the NGSS is for instruction to be more student-centered, more inquiry-based.  One way to begin making that shift in your classroom is to think about engaging students through a phenomena.

Recently I modeled this idea with a group of elementary teachers.  Each teacher was given paper cup full of, what appeared to be, plain white beads.  They were asked to record as many questions as possible about the beads using one sticky note per question.

The beads were actually UV sensitive beads .  In addition to the paper cups, I provided pipe cleaners and foil squares.  As people started to recognize that the beads could change, I encouraged them to go outside with the beads.

As the beads changed color, I continued to encourage teachers to record as many questions as possible on sticky notes.

Once the initial enthusiasm slowed down, I asked teachers to sort their questions.  The first sort was into piles that were 1) Scientific Questions and 2) non-Scientific Questions.  This gave us an interesting opportunity to talk about the differences and to honor all the questions that were asked.

The second question sort was into piles that were 1) questions that could be tested and 2) questions that could be researched.  The ensuing discussion brought with it increased enthusiasm for the potential investigations that could be conducted.

Finally, I asked teachers to consult their Science & Engineering practices  and consider what might be next steps.  I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the January 2016 edition of Science and Children had a complete investigation and engineering challenge based on these beads called “Made in the Shade”.

Look for phenomena that relate to the units you’re teaching.  How can you use that phenomena to engage students in the big ideas of that topic?  Where will their questions take them?

Thinking about Scientific Explanations…

There are many teachers in my district considering scientific explanations and instructional implications this year.  One of my considerations as I support this work is how to prevent explanations from becoming formulaic in the same way the MSP conclusion has become formulaic.

I think that the MSP Conclusion (and other written responses) became formulaic as teachers tried to understand the components, and a standardized scoring system.  I know that in the early days of the MSP, I looked for patterns in the prompts and scoring guides to help my students be more effective at this type of writing.  What I was missing however, was teaching the critical thinking skills necessary to make sense of the science.  Students didn’t need to do the sense making if they learned strategies to break down a data table, and write four sentences.  With the NGSS, I want to learn from the past and use the standards to support student thinking and sense-making in different ways.

Taking Science to School  and  Ready, Set, Science advocate four major goals in K-8 science education that have implications for scientific explanations:

  1. know and use scientific ideas
  2. generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations
  3. understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge
  4. participate productively in scientific practices and discourse

Looking to the Science & Engineering Practices, practice 6 details “Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions”.  At each grade level, the bullets for the practice describe a broad, critical thinking skill.  For example at K-2:

  • use information from observations to construct an evidence-based account for phenomena
  • generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem

and at Middle School:

  • construct an explanation that includes relationships between variables
  • apply scientific ideas and evidence to construct or use an explanation
  • apply scientific reasoning to show why the data is adequate for the explanation

Moving into the Next Generation Science Standards, provides us with many opportunities to shift our instructional practices and re-evaluate our beliefs about science education.  Reading the few items above, opens the possibilities around scientific explanations.  They are about critical thinking and sense making more than writing a paragraph.  I encourage teachers to look beyond a single way for students to show what they know and explore the possibilities.   Students should be able to write a cohesive explanation that is grade level appropriate and connects evidence with scientific reasoning.  They should also be able to discuss these ideas with their peers, they should be able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence, they should be able to critique their explanation…the list goes on.  Explore the myriad ways for students to practice this Science & Engineering practice and lets work together to keep it from becoming a formula.


  • Taking Science to School. Duschl, Schweingruber, and Shouse, 2007
  • Ready, Set, Science. Michaels, Shouse and Schweingruber, 2008
  • Supporting Grade 5-8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science. McNeill and Kracjik, 2012
  • Science & Engineering Practices, Next Generation Science Standards, 2013

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